The problem with gender segregation in childhood
Every day in the public, traditional Tunisian primary school I used to attend, my teacher separated the boys and girls: into the “girls’ row” and the “boys’ row” (as she used to call them). At first, the girls and boys felt uncomfortable with and confused by this gender separation. We were used to being mixed up with the opposite sex in our neighborhoods and own homes, so why did we get separated from the opposite sex in school?
Many educational institutions in Tunisia — especially those in rural areas, where people are generally more conservative and traditional — separate girls and boys from each other within the same class so that female students won’t mix with the male students. Boys and girls not only sit apart, but barely talk to or play with each other. Teachers and supervisors even devote separate areas of the school — such as play areas, revision areas, sports fields, and cultural centers — to different genders and sometimes divide classes by gender altogether.
Though this separation is strange to children at first, it ultimately becomes normalized, as does the reiteration of gender stereotypes it encourages and reinforces. For example, during breaks in the school day, girls sit quietly and talk to each other about dolls and cute clothes while boys run around and play football. The children who dare to cross these lines — the girls who try to play with the boys and the boys who would rather participate in calm discussions than play vigorous games — are considered “weird.” They are harassed not only by their classmates, but also by educators, who call them names, like “tomboy” and “girly boy.” These courageous children are then excluded from playgroups, just because they chose to follow their instincts and be themselves.
As these gender stereotypes become increasingly rooted in children's minds, so does a certain mysterious ignorance about the opposite sex. Their lack of firsthand experience not only leads to children and teens becoming fascinated with (or even frightened by) the opposite gender, but allows stereotypes about them to persist. Thanks to messages transmitted by their families’ norms, broader cultural norms, and media, girls expect boys to be strong, smart, and firm whereas boys expect girls to be fragile, soft, and obedient. Relationships between men and women are thus eventually based on their partner’s ability to fulfill these stereotypical expectations, which in turn creates an imbalanced power relationship. This may explain the high divorce rates in Tunisia, which reached 41 divorce cases per day, according to the latest relevant statistics from the Tunisian Ministry of Justice.
The Tunisian government seems to be beginning to recognize how problematic this separation is, however. On January 24, in a communiqué issued on the website of the Ministry of National Education, the Tunisian minister Hatem Ben Salem warned all educators against perpetuating these discriminatory practices. In fact, these traditional practices actually contradict the Tunisian constitution, which in Article 21 clearly prohibits sex discrimination. The minister stated that any educator who breaches this article will be punished according to the law.
Separating girls and boys from early ages clearly helps create a significant imbalance of power between men and women. What’s more, the gender stereotypes that are reinforced as part of this separation affect children's very identities and therefore restrict their personal freedom. Tunisians should instead encourage healthy relationships based on mutual respect and equal partnership between genders at an early age.
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