“And thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”
This was the famous last sentence in J M Barrie’s timeless classic, Peter Pan. I doubt whether Barrie was thinking of school bullying when he wrote this conclusion, but it does seem rather appropriate when broaching the topic.
We quite often hold a rather romanticised view of the innocence of childhood, but what we choose to ignore is the ugly side, which includes the relatively common experience of one child being bullied by another. Although many people consider this to be just a part of growing up, the truth is that children can often be cruel, and bullying can cause serious emotional trauma.
Children as punching bags for social norms?
Children can bully one another for any number of reasons, such as their appearance, weight, sexual orientation, religion, social status, English-speaking capability, etc. Quite often, the language of the bully reflects the norms of the society the children inhabit, even if they are quite unaware of doing so.
“When I was in school, my bullies used to taunt me for being fat. I was very introverted and couldn’t stand up for myself, and they would take advantage of that,” recollects Sohani Shahid.
“My son gets taunted in school for not being Muslim enough. He made the mistake of telling someone that he likes to eat sushi, which apparently is haram, and he is constantly being bullied for it. It’s shocking that children as young as 10 can even think of such things,” says Sharmin Aziz.
Religion seems to playing an increasingly important role in exclusions in school, according to Atif Rahman, who teaches at a renowned international school in Dhaka.
“A girl in my class wanted to write about Christmas instead of Eid for her assignment, and the rest of the class just totally excluded her,” he relates. “It isn’t just religion though, girls who want to play sports are teased, and boys that join dance or drama clubs are bullied as well.”
This influence of gender norms and gendered language in bullying is all too common a phenomenon. Saad Khan, staff researcher at IED, BRAC University, recounts the bullying that he went through in his childhood.
“I used to be bullied ruthlessly when I was in high school. The reason was quite simple - according to people I was effeminate or not 'manly.' Boys in my class shot words like 'homo,' 'fag,' 'hijra,' 'half-lady' to differentiate themselves from me, since I was a disgrace to manhood.”
While boys get bullied for not being manly enough, girls can be bullied for not conforming to social norms of what a girly-girl should be like. On top of that, girls face slut-shaming as well, for behaving in ways that do not conform to social standards of what "decent" girls should do.
Are teachers part of the problem?
According to Ipshita Rahman, a teacher at a private school in Dhaka, incidences where girls are slut-shamed by their teachers are less unusual than you would think.
“In our school, especially with the older teachers, any bullying that happens with girls is usually their faults. I have heard so many teachers say ‘that girl’s kameez is too tight, she has too many guy friends, she wants to attract attention like a slut’ – it’s horrifying. Even if a girl has bad results, they’ll assume it’s probably because she has a new boyfriend.”
Lamisa Zaman, an ex-student, echoes Rahman’s views regarding the teacher’s unsympathetic gender bias.
“As soon as I joined the school, I felt that the teachers judged me for dressing differently. They were constantly attacking me in front of other students, such as accusing me of having too many male friends.”
Although Sohani was not faced with this conservative attitude from teachers at her school, she feels like their lack of support made things worse for her.
“No one really pays attention to these things. They think that it’s just children pulling each other’s leg and there’s no harm done, but it’s not that at all.”
On the other hand, Tausif Asad, a staff member at a local private school, says that there is an unfair burden on teachers to deal with bullying, whereas the real problem lies in the upbringing of the students.
“Schools can't speak for students when they are outside school, and when parents don't look after children at home, they learn an attitude that teachers aren't trained to deal with. Teaching behaviour and respect is a third party cost, one that schools do not want to bear.”
What should we do?
However, it is precisely this sort of attitude towards bullying that makes it so difficult to deal with. According to Saad Khan, who has done extensive research on this issue, even if schools have a zero tolerance policy towards bullying, their approach to dealing with it can often be counterproductive.
“In the current system, schools take disciplinary measures to tackle the criminal behaviour of the bully, while counselling and taking assertive techniques to ‘toughen’ the bullied. This only leads to typecasting these students into certain roles, where the bully is defined as strong, but a loser, while the bullied is weak, and needs saving.”
By "othering" the bullies in this way, the teachers do not consider the power relations within the classroom, of which they are also a part. Khan emphasises the importance of acknowledging that teachers can also bully by using sarcasm and derision as a form of discipline or by dismissing students’ complaints, and teachers can be bullied in turn as well, and it is not a sign of weakness to admit this.
There can be a lack of trust between students and teachers, and the children can be reluctant to share confidential information with teachers due to fear of their grades suffering. Khan’s research showed that in a classroom with a lack of dialogue and only one-sided lectures, students can feel unengaged and resort to bullying to break up the monotony of their daily lives.
Instead of constantly trying to cement their authority and maintain discipline, the focus should be on discussing the roles of teachers and creating a platform where students can have the opportunity to engage and provide feedback on teaching methods.
“The role of the teacher being authoritative and in control needs to be revised to cut down power relations in the class, and make the knowledge production process more dialogue oriented, where students will also contribute in figuring out what the classroom should be,” asserts Khan.
However, Ipshita Rahman adds that bullying in schools cannot be addressed without the involvement of parents, and without changing some of the conservative views held by older teachers.
“Parents need to understand the emotional needs of children and meet them at home as well, instead of simply focusing on their children’s good grades. A lot of the teachers also have archaic ideas about imposing their ingrained values on the students they teach. Until these circumstances change, it will be very difficult for us to stop bullying in classrooms.”