Off the Record 001: Back to school

Issue 001 • 9 April 2021

It’s April 9, 2021, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal. 

I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive deep into one singular issue that defined the past week. 

You can read Off the Record for free by visiting this link or subscribe on our website to receive this newsletter in your inbox every Friday. 

Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from spring-time Kathmandu. Welcome to the first issue of Off the Record, the new newsletter from The Record. In case you haven’t noticed, we have a new website, although it looks much like the old, and we have a Content Management System (CMS). Now, you can register with The Record and begin commenting on our articles. You can then become a paying member, which comes with a bunch of great perks (more info here), and you can also use the CMS to submit ideas and articles that you might want published on The Record. We offer real-time editorial support and a pathway to publishing (more info here).

So go on and give our new system a try. As this is a work-in-progress, there might be some kinks that we’re working on ironing out. Please bear with us and do let us know if there are any major issues.

Now, on to the newsletter.

There’s still a haze in the air as wildfires across the country and in parts of India continue to send smoke our way. While parts of Kathmandu received rain on Thursday, the air quality indicator for the city, as of writing, was still at unhealthy levels. Even as a second COVID-19 wave looms ominously on the horizon, pollution threatens to further complicate the respiratory health of Nepalis. Meanwhile, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli continues to insist that hot water and homemade remedies will cure COVID-19.

But let’s put all that aside and take a look at this week’s biggest story.

The deep dive: Nepali schools and their problems

On Sunday, we published a report about goings-on at St Mary’s School, one of Nepal’s oldest and most prestigious private all-girls schools. St Mary’s, or SMS as its students like to call it, is a Roman Catholic school and the sister school to St Xavier’s School, another very old and very prestigious school. St Xavier’s, however, is operated by Jesuits, a Roman Catholic order that is dedicated to teaching. Both these schools have long been known for their quality of education and their comparatively cheap fees.

What set off our report was an email that we received unsolicited. It came from an anonymous account that directed us to posts on Facebook and Reddit, especially the subreddit /r/nepal. On the posts, current students described girls with short hair being pulled in front of the morning assembly and asked to grow out their hair. This wasn’t too bad in and of itself but the girls reported being told to be “proud of their gender”, effectively equating their femininity with their hair.

This hair situation was the casus belli for the storm to come. Upset with the way in which they’d be told to grow out their hair, numerous students from grades 5 to 12 began to take to social media to point out all the things that they thought were problematic about the school. On Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter, students began to point out instances where teachers told them that homosexuality was a “mental illness” and that certain clothes could lead to sexual harassment and even rape. They described being body shamed, slut-shamed for interacting with boys, and overall, just being policed for their gender.

Read the full story here.

What I found most interesting about this story was not that it happened at St Mary’s School. Most of what the students described is prevalent across Nepal’s schools, both private and public. I too went to St Xavier’s and can attest to similar incidents there. No, what was really interesting, was the manner in which these young girls, some barely teenagers, were able to identify what was problematic, why it was problematic, and then put their student life on the line in order to speak out about it. Although the girls all spoke anonymously, they will most certainly be expelled if found out. And yet, that did not seem to faze them.

Just to put everything in context, thousands of parents vie every year to get their children admitted to St Mary’s School, not just for the vaunted “convent education” but also because it is great value for money. I am not sure how much St Mary’s charges but it is a fraction of what private schools like Rato Bangala, Shuvatara, Malpi, Little Angels, etc charge. And the quality of the education is arguably pretty much the same.

So there is a pedigree attached to being a St Mary’s graduate. The administration spares no opportunity to tell students: you were selected out of thousands and you are privileged to be here. This is perhaps why there was so much backlash from alumni, who have accused the current students (and me) of defaming the school and trying to destroy its reputation. I’ve received emails and private messages telling me that I am “biased” against the school and wrote a “one-sided” piece, which is quite hilarious because the piece is question provides the school — and its principal — with perhaps more space than necessary to defend itself.

This was similar to the criticism I received when I detailed sexual abuse at another school, Lalitpur Madhyamik Vidyalaya, a few years ago. Then too, many had accused me of having a hidden agenda of trying to destroy the school.

You can read that story here.

I, of course, don’t want to destroy schools. But I do understand why some might say this. Why do we write about one school when these kinds of incidents are commonplace at almost every school in the country? The short answer is: because students choose to speak out. The longer answer is that schools like St Mary’s, precisely because of their pedigree and reputation, warrant more scrutiny. Institutions that are held in high regard by society at large are understandably going to receive more attention. For it is through their example that we can talk about other institutions and hopefully, expand the conversation.

When I wrote the Lalitpur Madhyamik Vidyalaya piece, I had hoped then that more students would speak out. Sexual abuse and harassment are pervasive across Nepali schools. Ask anyone who went to school in Nepal and they will most likely have a story about that one creepy teacher who would touch the girls inappropriately. But alas, very little was forthcoming.

This time around too, we hope for more stories about more schools. Already, two young women have written an opinion piece, complete with the experiences of students from numerous other schools, about the kind of gender policing that goes on in educational institutions. You can read that article here.

The problem is not so much with St Mary’s School, which is just one instance of a grossly pervasive problem. Schools are rigid in their ways, not just in terms of the curriculum but also behavior. But the schools alone are not at fault. Parents, too, expect schools to instill “discipline” into their children, which in turn results in arbitrary restrictions on hair length, skirt length, and shoe color. The problem really has to do with what Nepali society at large expects from its students and its schools. Do we encourage creativity, experimentation, and openness in school or do we want all our children to speak the same, act the same, and eventually, become the same?

Schools reflect society’s values and unless society at large begins to value difference, schools will continue to demand uniformity and homogeneity.

For more, read:

Prasiddhi Shrestha & Priyanka Chand on how the Nepali education system further gender inequality

Arya Gautam & Ameesha Rayamajhi on how Nepali schools are failing their students by upholding outdated gender norms

Happenings this week:

Saturday - Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli inaugurated 165 “strategic road projects”, one in each Kathmandu electoral constituency. Neither an environmental impact assessment nor a detailed project report has been conducted for most of the roads.

Sunday - A massive fire in Nepalgunj’s Narainapur destroyed 120 homes and another in Jumla’s Dhipugaun destroyed 35 homes. Wildfires continue to wreak havoc across the country.

Monday - Kathmandu once again ended up as the world’s most polluted city as smoke and particulates from wildfires caused the capital city’s air quality to plummet. Air quality index readings soared to above 300, which is considered “hazardous”.

Tuesday - A tiger that had attacked an elephant-mounted rhino census team at the Bardiya National Park was collared and brought to the Central Zoo in Kathmandu. The tiger is currently in a tiny pen with barely enough space to pace around.

Wednesday - Daily COVID-19 cases have been steadily rising and amid fears of a second wave, the Health Ministry announced that the UK variant of the coronavirus was behind the recent spike.

Thursday - Prime Minister Oli once again said publically that drinking hot water, boiled with guava leaves, can get rid of the coronavirus. More worryingly, he also cast doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccine. Oli has consistently maintained that COVID-19 can be dealt with by using home remedies. While such remedies can boost immune systems, there is no scientific evidence that they are effective in dealing with COVID-19.  

Friday - The Health Ministry has recommended a restriction on gatherings of over 25 people, in light of increasing daily cases of COVID-19. There are fears that another lockdown could be on the horizon if cases continue to rise in the same manner.

Read of the week

Life under a coup: Bikash Gupta speaks to two Burmese youth about what life is currently like in Myanmar

That’s all for this week. I shall see you next Friday on the next edition of Off the Record

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