I teach a course at Ryerson University called “Women, Gender, and Society.” In our opening discussion, a 21-year-old student introduced herself. “I’m a feminist,” she said. “I read books, and I just know I want change in the world.” My gaze immediately fell to a fellow student who was standing just a few feet away. She is a well-educated, 21-year-old woman. She was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, shorts, sneakers, and a beanie. My hand went to my head as I realized that I shouldn’t, in fact, be teaching this class in the first place.
I used to be this student’s teacher, and I’m writing to add my voice to a growing chorus of complaints about a new Toronto school board policy intended to improve the education of girls. The policy requires girls to sit on the back of buses when they travel to and from school, as opposed to sitting in the front, where they would normally be seated. According to the policy, this provision is meant to decrease injuries, increasing safe transit for students and their families. In theory, this is a good idea — but it’s a dangerous one.
Most of my students are teenage girls and most of my students are Indigenous women. Girls of color are nearly twice as likely to be injured as boys and a boy or girl — and still therefore as at risk as we think. Many girls suffer from various types of post-traumatic stress. Untreated, that condition can lead to anxiety and depression. When women go through sexual or domestic violence, they’re never so much as grazed by a bus seat. If, like my own students, girls are threatened in this way, it means they’re more likely to be injured or even killed. When girls sit on the back of a bus, the train, or the plane, the only victim they are is themselves. We’re asking girls to take on the burden of protecting themselves — and they’re already carrying so much.
If girls cannot reach their full potential, we can’t expect them to increase the capacity of our society to stand up against the bad parts of themselves. Feminism means standing up for women’s rights in general, and to me, what is happening with these girls means feminism should have specific application. When we punish girls for safety they do not ask for, we are sending a message that violence, particularly against women, is acceptable.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that going forward students should be sitting in the front seat on buses. For that we need a mindset shift in our society, which only occurs when societal norms change. What I am saying is that it’s unethical and dangerous to ask a girl to be more cautious when it comes to travel and movement. It also makes a person self-conscious and potentially unsafe, something we all need to guard against.
Given these critiques, I’m not sure what the policy would achieve except a new sense of shame and vulnerability. In fact, most of these girls have done their research, and they know that sitting in the back of a bus actually means standing more closely to cars and buses, creating the potential for worse risks. The whole point of this policy is to start by protecting the body of the adolescent girl. It’s a policy that is designed to protect her life, but it’s so little protection that it never actually does. And given how little the policy actually offers, it’s time to leave it where it is. It’s time to trust our students to learn and use this experience to make their lives better. It’s time to value the fact that many of our students have grown up, not only due to the systemic and historical forces that have kept us here, but also in solidarity with students across the country who have made immense sacrifices and impacted lives to help the survivors. It’s time to trust our girls to use their experience to grow into better women, able to change the world.