In 1991, two decades into its establishment, Budhanilkantha School, the supposedly “inclusive” institution, accepted the first batch of women. However, this integration did not come out of some benevolence or deep reflection on the school’s exclusive culture, but because of conditionality from a far-off donor nation, Britain. The benefactor would only continue to provide aid to the school if it admitted female students. The first eight girls, who enrolled in the school, navigated their way around the school without any roadmaps and necessary infrastructures and struggled to own the space. In years to come, this struggle would be the stories of successive batches of female students, who would experience deep-seated sexism and misogyny both from their peers and faculties that would flounder their dreams and provide some with decade-long traumas.
I came to Budhanilkantha School in 2013 for my plus 2 education. I had experienced sexism before, but here, it was very pervasively pronounced and normalized to a whole new level. My first striking introduction to institutional sexism was on the first day when I saw how girls faced severe, inhumane restrictions. For example, our house gates had chains and locks, compared to (rightly) none in the upper senior boy houses. I am yet to figure what those locks and chains stood for, but deep down it did not feel right. We felt like prisoners. We also felt like society was out there to harm us, and that we were powerless to defend ourselves. BNKS conveyed these sexist ideas loudly and incessantly through symbols, verbals, and deliberate structural set-ups.
Through a google form, we have gathered over a quarter-century of episodes of sexism, misogyny, harassment, and threats. These episodes stretch up to three decades back and include C, D, and E batches. Some have been highlighted across the article, but the full list is appended at the end.
It is indisputable that boys received greater freedom than girls. They had the luxury to miss breakfasts or arrive late with no severe consequences, whereas we, like clockwork, had to enter the dining hall within a certain time or be scrutinized by the Head Of Houses (HOHs) later. We had to labor hard to receive exeat cheats and yet faced frequent denials. On the other hand, boys received cheats with much ease. Boys could do what they pleased at the school. But we had to act like reserved, non-protesting residents.
“One night after supper I had come a little bit late and the HOD told me something like — “Keti ko character bhanya seto kapada jastai ho, euta daag lagesi saab le kapada kati seto cha dekhdaina, tara tyo daag dekhcha.” These were the type of values I understood and grew up with in BNKS.”
Annual dance competitions, cultural programs, and sport events crystallized the display of sexism. Be it vulgar sexist songs during cultural programs or uncomfortable gaze of boys during track and field, road race, or cross-country, girls had to be conscious of their bodies and the brutal objectification that followed these events. It was ironic to note the least how the school would go out of its way to make its chief guests feel comfortable at these events, when being well-aware of the uneasiness of more than one-third of their population at these events.
The uncomfortable gazes or actions from boys would not spare us on other days either. We can’t forget how boys stared at us when we wore PE shorts, or the way they huddled around the stairs to see our thighs. A friend found out that boys categorized girls in two categories: “big boobs” and “big ass” and that she fell in one of them. Another friend told me how boys peeked into the girl’s bathroom through holes, making us feel tormented and attacked. In classrooms, disgusting, demeaning, and dehumanizing graffiti were slapped on each desk. Needless to say, these graffiti would make us deeply uncomfortable. As young girls, we would walk into classes with uneasiness and anxiety. On the other hand, boys walked into classrooms, raging on their hormones and overflowing with unchecked privileges.
“A guy from my class messaged me saying “keta haru lai excite garna shorts lagako?”
I saw first-hand what the school thought of women leadership during the selection process of school captains in 2014. As a Deputy-elect of the student body, I remember a senior administrator telling me, “there have been times when ‘even’ girls have been the school captain, but there cannot be one this time.” My peers and seniors told me to my face, “How would all the boys from our batch react if we had a girl as a school captain?”
In its three decades of co-education journey, Budhanilkantha only saw one girl become a school captain(she was a backup after a boy left the position), and that was more than a decade ago. This is probabilistically unexplainable and in retrospect intolerable. The school is clearly relaying a message to the entire student body that for more than a decade they haven’t found a single girl capable of taking on the responsibility of captainship. They haven’t just dismissed the possibility of a girl becoming a school captain, the school has deliberately come up with ludicrous rationales to dissuade girls from even applying to the position. You will hear echoes that a girl, as a school captain, won’t be able to attend to all issues at odd places and hours. No wonder she won’t be if you lock the girls’ house by 9pm every night, severely scrutinize her actions and hold her to unreasonably higher standards. It is distressing to see girls affirm to the stance that they aren’t qualified to be a school captain, and deter any other girls who pursue the position. If this institution allows women to believe that their leadership falls shorter to their male peers without any reason other than their sex, the institution — hands down — is grossly sexist and has failed everyone. Young girls don’t grow up seeing other girls in decision-making positions. They are told to settle, stay within the limits, and tone down their ambitions.
In classrooms, teachers gravitated towards boys than girls for leading an in-class activity. We were always treated as shy girls, who were there to sit and listen and aid the learning process — but not to be active participants. However, when we dared to speak up and provide our opinions, males would conveniently ignore us or worst shut us up with the degrading phrase “why so excited?” I just feel most boys had this aura of superiority complex and were miserably insecure that girls could be as or more talented as them. To hide their insecurities, they would often dismiss or disparage us with words such as “hawa,” “bad-mouthed,” or worse shame us publicly through sexist jokes. For seniors, BNKS was a toxic place, where their success seemed a zero-sum game, and no one was greater victims of it than women who were cornered and disempowered.
While talking about sexism, we cannot miss the school’s obsession with women’s bodies. During my time, a romantic incident rocked the school. A FOBS member saw a couple kissing and reported the episode to the school administration, sending panic waves throughout the school. After all, the school’s “reputation” was at stake. You may ask how the school dealt with the situation. It punished women by policing their bodies. It curtailed their freedom by laying strict guidelines on clothing. We were instructed not to wear short clothes that could lure boys. Just for reference, the dress code for girls includes kurta surwal and shawl.
“During Holi, the senior dais would wait in line to find a girl, hold them against their will and grope them with the excuse of putting colors on them. How different were BNKS boys from the criminals who were put in jail for sexual assault if every Holi, girls had to have a teacher accompany them to the dining hall in order to not be harrassed like that?”
When our bodies became a topic of public discussions, the school informally sided with boys. The senior administration and staff have borrowed the “shaming” theory from the outside. It considers girls’ clothes — rather than boys’ intentions — as the reason for girls being unsafe. In doing so, BNKS places blame and guilt on girls, chipping away their power and agency.
With expertise in victim-blaming, the school forces girls to be conscious of their bodies and tell them that their existence is the source of their sexual harassment. The school completely ignores a girl’s right to befriend, interact with whoever she chooses, and instead spins its policies as somehow “pro-women” and “pro-safety,” buying into the decayed narrative that distancing sexes is facilitating the preservation of women’s “honor.” At BNKS, these discussions on sexism are far from mainstream. Young girls grew up in a sexism-soaked environment, accepting the status-quo as normal and not knowing how to deal with the numerous injustices of sexism that are thrown at them.
This act of dehumanization, fostered by a sexist environment, builds men’s audacity to commit nefarious crimes that translate into mental and emotional distress, affecting females for years, if not decades, and disempowering them. BNKS curates boys to be sexist such that even years after their graduation they continue to treat women as inferior to them. We all know the incident of harassment a Didi raised two years ago. We all know of someone who was harassed and affected at BNKS. From crude, heart-wrenching episodes to simpler yet impressionable incidents of sexism, we all have been there. Today as our connections only remain by social media, we see sexism manifest through discriminatory tones in comment sections. Women often receive dismissive comments than men who receive generally respectful comments. Some male alums rationalize it by saying they were caught up in the heat of the moment. But if your first instinct is to attack a female alum whereas respect a male alum commenting on the same subject, one really needs to ask themselves: where does one manage to develop such instinct from? What makes you be respectful to a male alum while being blatantly sexist to a female alum?
“I carry the trauma of never feeling safe, never being able to walk alone till today.”
Every time this act of dehumanization happens, and nobody speaks against it, we take the first steps toward the normalization of rape culture. Bestowing all the power on men, BNKS has promoted sexism as a culture, and now, we don’t have just one culprit or an accomplice. We have decades of graduates, some of whom have received validation for their sexist behaviors while the rest have stayed complicit. We are all culprits that allowed the situation to worsen to this extent and we all must make amends.
In all this, the major culprit has been none other than Budhanilkantha School because of its tacit complicity in upholding patriarchy, which just takes a vicious form within its walls. Here, girls don’t have safe spaces to learn, grow, and lead. Instead, they learn to adapt to and socialize with the system from a young age. The sexism is so normalized and internalized that students begin to accept trauma as the new normal. Through such violent normalization, the school legitimizes patriarchy even fiercely.
It is time for reckoning at BNKS and doing away with sexist values. Instead of asking girls to adjust in a world that the boys see made for them, we need to teach these young boys that they alone don’t own this world. It must offer an education that teaches us about the ills of our society, not to duplicate these ills. This “national” school should not be an extension of Nepalese society; it should be a break from society to empower its students, including women and historically marginalized populations.
“It is a shame that my entire upbringing was biased. I either felt like a person who needed protecting or the one who had to listen, not the one who knew how to protect herself or whose voice was worth listening to.”
We have to address this feeling of helplessness that female students have experienced for so long. The reflections on the google form clearly state how girls have to deal with tremendous mental distress caused by slut-shaming, eve-teasing, judgments, among other misogynistic behaviors. When so much of girls’ brain space is occupied by these traumas, how fair is it to judge their academic and personal development compared to those of boys who never have to go through any of these experiences?
Rarely, we see apologies on public platforms. What we observe are cover-ups for misdeeds that have inflicted trauma on women that have lasted past their BNKS lives. If we care about a just and equal society, we need to talk on this issue actively. We need to reform the system starting at the school. It is morally compromisable to wait and let sexism and misogyny affect current and future students.
My friends and I have discussed some reform ideas and we are working on assembling a policy team to help SEBS and the school to tackle the deep-seated sexism and other forms of discrimination.
“I left BNKS a good person — sure, but not a strong woman.”
- Offer more freedom to girls: The school should offer the same amount of freedom to girls as it does to boys. Girls should not feel that their mobility is being restricted, or that they need teachers to accompany them to dining halls or to any events. Their personal lives should also not be of interests to any teachers. Concerning the movement off campus, the school should be impartial in allocating exeat cheats to all genders.
- Gender sensitivity training: There should be mandatory training for staff, administrators, and students organized by a team of experts before the start of each academic year. The training should include a list of socially-unacceptable vocabularies that no one should use at the school.
- Surveys: Semi-annually, each student should fill a holistic survey that asks them about their state vis-a-vis their mental, social, and personal health. Questions on bias or discrimination should be on surveys.
- Awareness of sexism: The institution should work actively to dismantle deep-seated misogyny and sexism. It can start with a massive awareness program, where it can mobilize student-led clubs to raise awareness on these issues (plus casteism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination). Through Powerpoint presentations, school-wide pamphlets (in staff rooms, dining hall boards, the main gate, LRC, classroom boards), one-act plays, and cultural performances, it can set the ball rolling. Progressively, it can bring expert speakers and hold larger events to shed light on this issue.
- Counseling: There should be a provision of a mental health counselor on campus. Students should be encouraged to visit the counselor.
- Accountability: The SEBS committee should visit the school frequently and talk to female students to learn about their situation and hold the school accountable for its non-discrimination policies.
- Social Justice Club/Prefects: There should be a social justice club/prefects who can highlight the social situation on campus and work continuously to make school accountable on its inclusive and non-discriminatory policies.
- Office of Student’s Conduct: The school should establish an independent office where students facing any form of discrimination can visit for consultation and help. Having a special designated body will lower transactional stress that is patent when reaching out to multiple people on campus for help and instead help focus on solving the problem at hand. The office should lay out a clear code of conduct for its students. Any student breaching the conduct should be charged with punishment.
- Stricter Repercussions/Staff Check: Often, staff and administrators are the ones who perpetuate sexism and misogyny and engage in physical, verbal, and sexual misconduct. The office of student’s conduct should also have provisions for accepting anonymous complaints from students. Depending on the level of a teacher’s misconduct, the teacher should face consequences from suspension to expulsion. The office should also keep an eye on blackmailing and threats coming from the teacher. For example, teachers often threaten girls of ruining their recommendation letters if girls converse with boys or maintain relationships at the school.
- Strengthening Co-education: The SEBS committee should work in building a more co-educational curriculum. The school should also have a provision of girl and boy as a school captain in alternate years to produce women leaders, who could serve as inspiration for young girls on campus.
More responses received through the google form:
“I was bullied for being a girl because I was the only one in the PCF set. It got so bad that I used to get panic attacks before exams. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and still am coping with it and taking medications.”
“I was sexually harassed by a teacher. He was super nice to me and often acted as a mentor. It’s not easy to put into words what exactly happened but I remember very well that I WAS SCARED.
“I have had a ruthless guy from my own batch grab my butt in broad daylight in a classroom full of boys, I have been repeatedly slut-shamed and humiliated by catcalls inside the school premises with names called to me such as bhalu and radi.”
“It started with them talking about our bodies, the color of our underwear and bras and slowly led to explicit stuff. These talks were mostly behind our backs but then some of them became brave and passed comments right in front of our faces.”
“I still remember in our last class of the day, a teacher used to tell “non-veg” jokes in the class telling us (girls) to leave the class if we were uncomfortable with the situation. We were scared to raise our voices because we were afraid he or they would do something to us as we had less number of girls than boys.”
“I hated track and field week every year because I would have to participate and the boys always made fun of how my breasts, my body moved while I was running track and that would continue for weeks with boys making innuendos about my breasts each time I entered the classroom.”
“I tried to report a case of extreme stalking by a male senior, in and outside of school. I tried talking to HOH and the vice principal, and never had any action taken. It stopped only after the stalker graduated from BNKS and moved abroad for college.”
“A senior dai harassed a junior girl and a teacher protected him because that dai was from his house.”
“ I felt there was a need from everyone to make the ‘modern dance’ performed by the girls ‘sexy’.”
A male classmate of mine once told me that I was the only girl in our batch that wasn’t talked about in a sexual manner in the boys’ houses. He meant it as a compliment. I didn’t know how to respond because (a) it made me uncomfortable to hear that boys used to talk about private body parts/make sexual jokes about my female friends, and (b) he thought that telling me I was different in that regard was a compliment. He probably said that because I had a reputation for being quiet and studious. So he was basically trying to tell me that boys only respect girls if they are quiet/shy/seem submissive.”
“Boys would ring the bell and yell ‘milk time’ whenever girls passed through their houses.”
All of the responses can be found in the google docs below:
Further Readings on Sexism at BNKS/other institutions in Nepal: