Recent events in a school in Carlow shone a fresh spotlight on the culture of sexism in the Irish education system. We need to root it out, says Adrienne Wallace.
Students and parents of Presentation College Carlow were left shocked and angry following an assembly that was called recently, specifically for the girls in the school. Reports say the girls were told they cannot wear “tight tracksuits” to PE as it shows off the “female anatomy” and to “have some respect for yourselves”. Girls with a bigger bust were also reportedly informed they had to wear their jumpers over their uniform polo-shirts during PE classes.
This was met by outrage from parents and students alike and a petition slamming the actions of the school has been signed by thousands of people. The young students responded with a maturity that should be commended. A notice was put up in the bathroom that read “Teach men how to respect women. Don’t teach women what to wear”.
The results from a survey conducted by students was also published, it said that over 50 students felt “unsafe” and “degraded” by what they heard in the assemblies. They asked for an explanation. The boys also wore leggings and skirts into school in protest to the treatment their female peers received.
Let’s call this out for what it is. It is body shaming, it is victim blaming and it is indicative of everything Ireland is trying to move away from. It sends the message to young girls that respect is conditional and if you step outside these narrow constraints you are to blame for the inappropriate behaviour of others.
Going forward we need to have two distinct discussions that encapsulate how we fight against systemic sexism.
Firstly, we need legislative change. We need to roll out comprehensive, objective, and inclusive sex education in all schools. Solidarity- People Before Profit had tabled a bill in the last Dáil that called for this and it was also a recommendation from the committee on the Eighth Amendment.
This demand has been around for a long time in the North too, where the provision of sex education is left up to indiviual schools. Often groups like Precious Life who promote abstinence, ignore the sexual lives of LGBTQ+ students, and condemn abortion are invited to provide classes.
The type of sex education we need to see should include conversations around consent, respect, what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and what you do if you encounter harassment or abuse. It will ensure that there is a robust, thought-out approach to these issues instead of leaving these very important matters to the ethos of any one school.
Secondly, we need to have a broader discussion on sexuality in society, about the commodification of women’s bodies and why so many state institutions uphold the objectification that women and girls endure.
Through a myriad of ways, we receive the message that sex is a commodity; the vast bulk of advertisements today have women draped over goods in sultry poses. These images deliberately blur the line between product and person. We also have a justice system that does not serve justice but upholds a system of oppression. The rape trials in Cork and Belfast are a testament to this.
The response from the principle of the school was perhaps the biggest tell-tale that culturally not much has changed when women or girls speak up. He rejected claims that female students were told not to wear tight clothing and added that nothing “inappropriate, wrong or uncomfortable” was said to female students. However, he acknowledged that some students were upset afterwards.
If nothing inappropriate or wrong was said why were girls immediately upset afterwards? Are they all lying? Being dramatic? Do they just want the attention? The statement seems to lend itself to some of the biggest sexist tropes out there and it sends a dangerous message; when you speak out, we won’t believe you.
It also saw a backlash directed at the girls as sections of society rushed to believe one male authority figure over the 50 female students and their mothers. They were quickly called “liars” and “entitled” even though these girls continue to challenge the culture in the school and haven’t accepted the principals’ statement.
A wider conversation is needed about the victim-blaming the girls endured following the principal’s denial. The consequences of this trial by media has somehow seemed to land on the shoulders of the young girls. The young girls who so maturely placed notices in the school bathrooms asking for an explanation, the same young girls who so poignantly stated they felt “uncomfortable” by what they heard in their assemblies are now unfairly being held responsible for other people’s rash judgements.
The social media comments were, as the principal says, “scandalous” and “damaging to staff”. But are women and girls to be blamed when others form opinions because we speak out? Why is the onus on the girls to protect the reputation of the school? Or is this an attempt to ensure women and girls continue to suffer in silence.
The fact that the majority of our publicly funded schools are still run by the Catholic Church is something that needs to be addressed. The fact that the government has never restored the cuts it heaped onto services like Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Aid needs to be addressed. The fact that sexism still exists in every facet of this system means that the fight for equality continues; but if the response from the students in Presentation College is anything to go by, the future is bright.
We must take our lead from young people, especially when a culture of sexism is still emitting from our antiquated institutions.