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The recent tragic incident at JNU where a young woman was violently attacked by a young man who felt rejected in love, and who killed himself immediately after inflicting fatal injuries on her, was just one in several recent cases of violent attacks on women. However, it shocked the nation precisely because the violence occurred on a central university campus known for being a radically progressive space. The issue generated frantic debates, one instance being an episode of the NDTV talk show The Social Network1, where the panelists included research scholars Shivani Nag, Mohan Dharavath and Sumathy Panicker, and therapist Reena Nath. Apart from the JNU tragedy, the show also discussed the lack of debate around suicides of students from marginalized social backgrounds, the case of Kashmiri student Mudassir Kamran’s suicide in EFLU Hyderabad and the attendant questions of administrative culpability, sexuality, and counseling. However, in this article, I will only focus on certain ideas within this debate that help us think through a few pertinent issues: (1) the notion of the “culpability” of popular culture in instigating everyday violence on women, (2) the contrasting notions of obsession and romance, and (3) the campus as a special kind of space where gendered social selves and gender relations are fashioned and played out in conjunction with other criteria of self-fashioning such as caste, class, region, etc.
Desire and Violence in Popular Culture
Popular culture seems to be the first casualty in the debate on gender violence. Immediately after the Delhi gang rape case in December 2012, there was an attempt among the outraged middle-class to ban the performances of the Punjabi rapper, Yo Yo Honey Singh, and to prosecute him for allegedly singing/composing pornographic and misogynous lyrics. After the recent tragedy at JNU, many fingers pointed to the Hindi feature film Raanjhanaa, which had released recently. This also happened in the episode of The Social Network mentioned above. Raanjhanaa (Beloved, dir. Anand L. Rai, 2013) is the story of Kundan (Dhanush), a streetsmart Benarasi boy who is also a Tamil Brahmin and the son of the temple priest, and his obsessive pursuit of Zoya (Sonam Kapoor), a middle-class Muslim girl, which ultimately ends in tragedy. Even before the JNU incident, many online reviewers had slammed Raanjhanaa for encouraging stalking and romanticizing obsessive, unrequited love. The reviews assume that popular culture in general, and film in particular, has the power to influence people’s actions and interactions in society. My attempt is not to exonerate popular culture of all accusations of misogyny and patriarchy. However, it is worrying that in the case of every real-life tragedy, our first response is to point fingers at a particular popular cultural text – usually a film text – and demand either a ban or a more positive representation. Many of us would be uncomfortable supporting a ban or censorship, but we tend to consider the demand for positive representation a just one. The impulse to create better representations is itself of interest, not for its effects on society, but rather as indicative of certain lacunae in the social sphere, something lacking or warped in the existing social structure, which the cultural realm is desperately seeking to fill by imposing cultural values from without.
Raanjhanaa draws upon a framework associated with Tamil films starring Dhanush, a framework that has a clear stand on the social relations between the hero and the heroine, and which locates desire and violence in the matrices of these social relations. The dark-skinned, lean, small-built Dhanush’s screen persona is built up mostly by portrayals of street-smart, underprivileged young men with a violent streak and intense, complex relationships with heroines who are a few rungs above him in the social hierarchy. From Kaadhal Konden (I Fell in Love, dir. Selvaraghavan, 2003), an early film which catapulted Dhanush into stardom in the role of a psychotic orphan obsessed with his upper-class classmate, to the lyrics of the single “Why this Kolaveri di” from the film 3 (dir. Aishwarya Dhanush, 2012) which went viral on YouTube and earned the actor nation-wide fame and the lead role in Raanjhana, we can see a clear pattern which posits Dhanush’s character in a relationship of intense obsession and violence with a fair-skinned, privileged caste/class heroine who is (at least initially or in part) unresponsive to his attentions. Raanjhanaa is unable to translate this complex framework of social relations on to the terrain of Hindi cinema. Here, it seems that violence and passion, desire and frustration, are all individuated and that the social position of the characters has nothing to do with the tragedy being enacted. This lack of complexity in Raanjhana leaves it vulnerable to accusations of encouraging misogyny and gender violence. But beneath its superficiality, the stories of the different, sometimes conflicting, desires and passions of young men and women encountering each other clamour to be told.
Obsessive versus Rational Romance
Sumathy Panicker, another participant in The Social Network, went on to talk about how men should move on from stalking women, or assuming interest on the latter’s part, to creating spaces of interaction and getting to know each other. In theory, this sounds like an excellent proposition, but how easy or difficult is it to actually work this out? The term “stalking” is often used as a shortcut to talk about a vast spectrum of activities, from the awkward embarrassment of a boy furtively eyeing his first-time crush to the borderline psychopathic or the blatantly criminal, and this complicates our discussions on “stalking”. In an informal conversation, a friend of mine once complained about a boy who had followed her into the library on a central university campus and asked her to be his friend, a euphemism for expressing romantic interest. “How could he not understand how creepy and scary I found it?” She said later, “If he really wanted to be my friend, why didn’t he approach me in a more public place? Why did he have to corner me in that dark, isolated place?” Looking back on this incident now, years later, I feel that (a) many boys tend to genuinely not understand when and why their expressions of interest become discomfiting to girls and are even perceived as threatening, and (b) many girls find it difficult to conceive of the pressures on boys from their peer group in terms of how their manner of “proposing” to a girl and her manner of responding determines the boys’ worth in the eyes of their peers. In co-ed colleges, a familiar ritual in mild ragging was to ask a junior student (usually a boy) to “propose” to a person of the opposite sex under the gaze of a large, heckling audience. In such a context, does “rational” love, or a relationship which starts off based on mutual understanding and liking, become a luxury that only the most confident and privileged of young men and women can initiate? Added to this is the fact that centuries of sedimented meanings have accumulated in the figure of the woman, putting this figure at the centre of narratives of success, masculinity, social mobility, etc. into which young men are interpellated. “Possession” is too simplistic a term to cover the range of possibilities such a figure compels. A young man’s worth is judged by his peers, not merely by his possession of a young woman, but in his ability to draw her gaze, to make her laugh, to catch and hold her attention amidst a hundred other things vying for it. This, along with academic and career-related pressures, puts an enormous burden on young men who are first-generation entrants to this new space. (The pressure on homosexual men is even greater, and needs an entirely different discourse to pay justice to the issue.)
The Campus as a Gendered Space
Gendered violence provokes a variety of responses. An opinion which seems to circulate strongly is that cases of gender violence or fraught gender relations occur everywhere, and that there is nothing specific that the campus community – especially teachers and administrators – can do about it. Other debates position themselves around criticizing/defending a “campus culture” considered too free, progressive or promiscuous. There are also narratives of nostalgia for “the good old days” when such incidents simply did not happen2. In The Social Network discussion, Shivani Nag voices the opinion that “nobody is suddenly going to become progressive as soon as they enter the gates of JNU”. This utterance evinces exasperation with such narratives of nostalgia, but holds the implication that the university campus is a progressive, democratic space into which individuals bring in the excesses of patriarchy and misogyny. Staging the conflict in terms of “progressive” versus “regressive” ideologies puts us at a disadvantage in our attempt to understand the complexities of everyday violence that layer the visible and tangible outbursts of violence. Commentators agree that the campus is located firmly in the social, but attempts to understand the dimensions of the social somehow fail to go beyond intersecting notions like patriarchy, male entitlement, possession and the romanticization of obsessive desire, which are too vague and over-used for productive discussion3.
The commonsense about incidents like the recent JNU tragedy seems to be that these are triggered either by a patriarchal sense of entitlement and control that men hold towards women, or by a pathological quirk of the individual mind. Both these frameworks seem to imply that individual men can and should enlighten themselves and come out of the patriarchal mindset. These arguments do not help us get to the root of the most important question such incidents pose: What are the factors that make a young student believe that being rejected in love renders his own life worthless, and that his humiliation can only be countered by drawing the blood of the woman who rejected him? When young men and women from different social locations, many of them rural or suburban, migrate to the spaces of urban universities, they are leaving behind the habitats in which they grew up with all the structures that held their world together. These structures might include patriarchy, feudalism, etc. and the social relations typical of each of these. The new urban campus spaces seem to promise the fulfillment of new desires and aspirations. Love can also be understood as an expression of desire, through which the individual subject tries to redefine him/herself and to imagine a new world to position him/herself in. However, the new spaces provide only incomplete social and ideological structures which are unable to support or give proper expression to these new desires.
Over the last few decades, feminist movements in India have worked hard in order to bring about a sense that women have the right to speak out regarding harassment they face – whether on the campus, in the workplace, in the family, or anywhere else. As a result, most campuses have created committees to address incidents of sexual harassment and gender violence. These committees are often not functional. Sexual harassment laws are sometimes insufficient to ensure justice, and frequently result in the punishment of men from socially marginalized locations while acquitting socially and culturally powerful men from similar charges. The situation is further complicated by the fact that allegations of sexual harassment have also become a tool to be used by male leaders from patriarchal student organizations to threaten each other, effectively rendering the question of actual violence faced by women invisible. However, the solution is neither to dismiss sexual harassment laws completely, nor to put the onus squarely on those subjected to harassment by asking them to “understand”, or to consider the perpetrator’s background, future career record, etc. Yes, it is necessary that individual women (and men) make sense of the matrices of power within which their everyday interactions are shaped. However, the policy of silencing and settling issues that is largely followed by institutions and the society at large does not ensure justice to anyone. “Settlement” or punishing both parties “equally” thus becomes a mere short-cut for resolving the immediate problem.
In such a context, why are university administrations being asked to take up responsibility for instances of gendered violence? What can they possibly do?4 “Efficient governance” seems to be the keyword of university administrators these days, according to which policies are implemented mechanically – including reservations, fellowships, welfare schemes for disabled students, setting up cells against ragging or sexual harassment, counseling centres, etc. – without any attempt to understand the rapidly changing student constituency or to bring about structural changes in pedagogy and policymaking. Thus, the campus – instead of being a space where individuals from different castes, classes, genders, regions, sexual orientations, etc. could interact with, discover and come to understand one another – becomes a space where these individuals are “frozen” into manageable administrative categories for easy governance. Governance anxieties on many college and university campuses are typically expressed through rules that attempt to restrict the movement of women on campus in the name of safety and to restrict interactions between men and women outside class hours on the common spaces of the campus. This reluctance of administrators to treat students as mature or maturing individuals who need to learn from interacting with each other, and their reliance instead on imposing social norms from above through rules and regulations, is one of the important disabling factors stunting our university spaces.
Aparna is a student at English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad
1. Aired on 1 August 2013 and titled “Equal Victims, Unequal Spaces: Gender Violence on Campuses”.
2. As an instance of a response from JNU which tries to engage with nostalgia and discussions of “campus culture” to some extent, see Parnal Chirmuley, “Gendered Violence and the Hall of Mirrors”, 4 August 2013, Kafila: www.kafila.org/2013/08/03/gendered-violence-and-the-hall-of-mirrors-parnal-chirmuley/. (Accessed on 9th November 2013, reproduced in this broadsheet).
3. See Shivani Nag, “Unrequited love or simply ‘self-love’? – Reflections in the Wake of a Campus Tragedy at JNU”, 3 August 2013, Kafila: www.kafila.org/2013/08/03/unrequited-love-or-simply-self-love-reflections-in-the-wake-of-a-campus-tragedy-at-jnu-shivani-nag/ ( Accessed on 9th November 2013)
4. Pratiksha Baxi, in the last paragraph of her article, “The Affective Claims of Violence – Reflections on the JNU Campus Tragedy”, details some steps that can be taken to counter and prevent gendered violence on a university campus. http://kafila.org/2013/08/04/the-affective-claims-of-violence-reflections-on-the-jnu-campus-tragedy-guest-post-by-pratiksha-baxi/ (Accessed on 9th November 2013).
What makes a man or woman on campus? Reviewing the stakes of desirability, agency, and power in the movies Sye (2004) and Happy Days (2007)
The word ‘Campus’ today means ‘the grounds and buildings of a university or college. It has interesting etymological antecedents and associations with the words camp, champion and campaign. These associations are not neutral. They signal the inherent meaning connections of ‘campus’ to a battlefield. Campus, among other things, is a field where identities are actively made, remade and made-over. Presently there is sudden interest in the question, what a campus is? It is because the meaning of campus changed with time, and the way we perceive a man and a woman have also changed. Campus has become a place where the dynamic of power between the students and the administration and between students of different genders has become problematic. Today the attitudes and behaviours that germinate in a campus go beyond it.
Many popular Telugu films right from the 1950s to the present day have made campus a recurring backdrop for political intrigues, epic love sagas, heart-warming bonds of friendship, and search for social equality. This article will analyse the gender dynamic that many movie-campuses depict, and how far they are usable in real life. The specific focus would be the politics of gender that two popular Telugu films show Sye (2004) and Happy Days (2007).
Sye means ‘Yes’. Sye is the story is of a campus divided into two rival groups – ‘Wings’ and ‘Claws’. The tale turns on a crisis when Bikshu Yadav, a gangster, chooses to occupy the campus illegally. How the protagonist Pridhvi from ‘Wings’ and Shashank from ‘Claws’ put their rivalry aside to defeat Bikshu Yadav in a game of Rugby and defend their campus forms the main story line. The female lead is Indu, a transfer student who joins the same college as Pridhvi. Their courtship lends the film a lighter vein amidst the serious episodes of conflict between the students and the gangster.
The film opens with the narrators telling the viewers that campus is a battlefield for both the ‘Wings’ and ‘Claws’ and that “it is an open secret”. Having established that the campus is not just for academic activity but also to settle personal scores, the story opens to show the female-lead Indu. She tells her friend how her father is scared of co-education colleges because she might fall in love with someone. A girl studying in a co-education campus might have to face the policing of the parents too. Indu’s fear of her father forces her into making a choice between accepting unwanted advances from Pridhvi and confronting her father. She choose to withold information rather than communicate with her paranoic father.
The movie depicts how Indu unwittingly becomes a prime figure in the age old feud between ‘Wings’ and ‘Claws’. In a titilating scene which involves a bus-chase and a lot of swearing, the film shows Indu being dragged into an empty classroom even as she cries, begs the students of ‘Wings’ to leave her. Even as the ‘Claws’ group tries in vain to defend their claim over their potential female member, Indu is administered with what is populary known as the tramp stamp – a permanent tattoo on the lower back. Apart from being painful, a permanent tattoo is a degrading punishment when enforced. Ironically the tattoo is not referred to in the film again. Even as Indu is sobbing after getting a tattoo, Pridhvi taunts Shashank – “Don’t shout at us now. Your goods are adulterated. We are brave men. That is why we could put a mark on her”. The act of using a woman’s body to exibit traits like physical prowess or bravery is an appalling product of this and more scenes to come.
In the movie Pridhvi, repeatedly comes off as a naughty, ingenious man, Indu is depicted as a slow-witted, sex-less, childlike figure. The stereotype of a female-lead who is sexually evocative but sexless, desirable but innocent, womanly but childlike is reinforced in this film. The forceful romantic blend presents the viewers with troublesome suggestions regarding the ideal girlfriendhood. Any woman or girl who is as desirable as Indu must be willing enough to look past a degrading, violent form of abuse or two to attain romantic involvement. Campus becomes a place of manufacturing passivity towards abuse in any form. Men should perform the act of acquiring a woman to show what it is to be a powerful man on campus; and the women must be strong to brace an insult or two if they choose to have romantic attachment.
The courtship enters troubled waters when Indu falls in love with Pridhvi. The leader of Indu’s group, Shashank orders Indu to like someone within the home group and says that he cannot approve of her dating a boy from rival ‘Wings’. This well-trodden trope of women as boundary markers in films is not new. But when this trope is brought into the social space of a campus, it interferes and dictates the notion of what is desirable, powerful and enviable on campus – possessing a woman. To have or to be able to have a girl is portrayed as an enviable, resourceful quality.Not only does this turn of gender dynamic make the female identity a mere mediator in the making of the ideal malehood, but also it dictates what it is to be a man, a hero.
Happy Days (2007) directed by Shekar Kammula presents the viewers with a different campus. It is the story of a group of friends who study at an engineering college. The story depicts how campus life begins and unfolds over the period of four years. Happy Days shows the familiar themes of ragging by seniors and the academic parlance of an engineering campus. The story takes the audience through freshers’ parties, examination pressures, sacrifices, anger and betrayals between the group of friends. The formation of an individual on an engineering college campus over four years is the theme of Happy Days.
Happy Days show us a campus that brings together subtle forms of gender stereotypes. There are three girls in the main roles with Madhu as the female lead, Appu (boyish with short cropped hair, who dresses up in trousers and shirts) and Shravs (an attractive senior depicted as sexy and hot for dressing up fashionably) as her friends. Madhu and Chandu, the hero, come together at the end. Appu and Rajesh discover their love at the end of the movie. Shravs is courted by her junior Tyson, but she already has a boyfriend from the senior student group. She dissuades Tyson throughout the whole movie. The story revolves around how they find love and friendship, how they learn to handle the more complex aspects of a relationship.
The first day Appu comes to the college she is ragged by the seniors for dressing up like a boy. She is made to write an imposition – “I wont wear pant and shirt”. Even if ragging can be written off as harmless fun, the film alerts us to the extant rules of female dressing. What should a female wear? Appu’s seniors suggest a saree. What happens when a woman wears pant and shirt? She ends up looking like a boy. Madhu, the female-protagonist is also ragged on her first day like the rest of her friends. She is asked to wear a half-saree. The requests/orders which tell women what/how to wear have an inherent connection to what she should look like to an unknown audience. Here the unknown audience is not just men. It is the sum total of women, men and a mass of societal stereotypes. At a later point in the film, Appu becomes jealous that Rajesh is dating another girl. In order to look more desirable, she tries to take her spectacles off and apply lipstick. Halfway, she breaks down crying. The underlying message that a society sends permeates even the strongest minds. How can a teenage student withstand these overpowering suggestions of desirable femininity? The movie shows the viewers how Appu persists in her attire.
The flipside of the coin is Shravs who wears western clothes most of the time. Her fashion sense invites comments on her character. A male-student remarks that because Shravs dresses ‘like that’ she is open to ‘more things’ (referring of course to sexual intimacy). This brings us to a difficult question. What are the options of dress for a girl student? If a girl does not want to be called boyish or of loose character, it is advisable to stick with conventional wear.
Like Sye, the campus in Happy Days is also a site of claim, where a few male students want to police the female interaction. Who should the girl be friends with? Should a girl date? What would she become if she dates a member of the opposition group? When a male-senior tries to badger Madhu about who she chooses to make her friends, Madhu retorts saying that it is her express right to choose anybody to be friends with. This leads the viewers again to the age old trope of boundary markers. Madhu becomes the symbol of prestige to be won by the senior group.The campus-film culture of deciding a girl’s love life on her behalf brings us to a great sociological impasse. What would the girl’s agency be in choosing a lover, or a friend on a campus? What happens when she seeks a lover by herself? Is that normal? Will such an autonomous action be condoned by the Telugu-campus film culture? These are a few questions that are worth reviewing in every campus related discussion.
The above films are the tip of a larger iceberg. The tendencies and gender stereotypes mentioned above are only a sample of more dangerous and provocative atittudes towards male-female interaction in Telugu campus films. Movies like Siva (1989), Master (1997), Chithram (2000), Dil (2003), Kotthabangaru Lokam (2008), 100% Love (2011) provide knotty stereotypes involving females on campus and the extent of female agency on campus. The campus-space is a dynamic social corner where individuals are actively formed. Rather than copying the exisiting gender (im)balance a campus must be a field open for voices that have been previously unheard.
Vennela is a student at the University of Hyderabad
|… [The assumption that sexuality and disability are mutually exclusive also deniesthat people with deviant bodies experience sexual desires and need sexual fulfilment. I personally found my growing years as marked by this belief As I have shared elsewhere, “There were times when guys on the street would whistle and make some remarks, which in those days was thought of as harassment (no one could have anticipated the real meaning of the term). Where my feminist friends would protest, I could never share with them that I wanted to soak in every lustful look. In fact, along with my only other disabled friend, I would literally savour every obscene word”.
Excerpt from Anita Ghai (Dis)Embodied Form: Issues of Disabled Women, (New Delhi: Shakti, 2003).
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) is a romantic Bollywood drama, written and directed by Karan Johar, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, and Rani Mukherjee. The movie narrates the triangular love story between three youngsters – Rahul, Anjali, and Tina – and follows their lives through the years of college and beyond.
Karan Johar was the first of many directors to make a foray on a hitherto unexplored path of cinema-making in the 90’s, which later came to be termed as the “new-age” cinema of Bollywood. Typical of all Johar movies, this too is characterized by exotic foreign locales, an urban cosmopolitan culture, and an upper middle-class “young generation” who, largely sporting western wear, are still “desi” at heart, when it counts. To begin with, a girl and a boy are “best friends”, apparently overthrowing conventional gender roles, and that too despite the Indian definition of friendship immortalized by filmmaker Barjatya where a girl and a guy can never remain “just friends”. Anjali, being a tomboy who prefers jeans rather than skirts, and basketball over the knitting basket, is not seen as a romantic possibility by our urban protagonist Rahul, until she goes in for a make-over and graduates from jeans and t-shirts to chiffon saris and long hair. This provides us an interesting take on the gender norms in our society; more so because it is coming from a director who unabashedly wears the medal for being the pioneer of this genre of the so-called “progressive, modern, and liberal cinema” in the Hindi film industry today. The friendship between the college-mates Rahul and Anjali is completely devoid of any sexual tension, owing to the explicit lack of any heteronormative feminine sexuality displayed by Anjali. But years and makeovers later, their friendship as fully grown adults is fraught with sexual tension; the mutual desire and attraction is overtly emphasized by external factors like rain (and subsequent rain dancing), slipping saris, and chilly breezes that function as catalysts to underscore the “romance in the air”, as if the long looks and awkward silences between conversations weren’t enough to drive the point home. Moreover, whether in college as youngsters or years later as mature adults, despite having their own individual agency, it is interesting to note that the man is unfailingly always the one to make the first move in the act of courtship.
As a young woman revisiting this movie years later, I cannot help but see that the moral one is asked to take home is that social conditioning and years of dominant mainstream notions of “romance” and “love” will inevitably lead to women becoming “friend-zoned” (the current popular term for not being romantically attractive), if you venture out of your confining boxes of normative gender stereotypes and don’t try to fit in with the rest of society. In other words, nice women who are not normal in their culture of sexualization and gendering are likely not to find love or get married. In the movie, things only end happily)when the subverted notions of gender and relationships are brought back into order and above all, the “Indian tradition” is kept alive and thriving, this despite the movie being the story of urban, liberalized young adults living in post-colonial “modern” India. The movie may have been “modern and westernized” for its times, but in some ways, it is also regressive in the sense that it reinforces certain traditional and orthodox ideologies about gender and relationships in our country.
Anjali is a student at English and Foreign Languages University
– Reem Shamsuddin
A place where different cultures hold their hands together; a democratic place that manures new ideas, and ideologies; a place where budding relations happen; all these dreams come true in a student friendly healthy campus. Being a participant of a campus, I feel it is important to maintain the friendly atmosphere on a campus. If things go otherwise, naturally there is a kind of tension. The frictional atmosphere that causes one such kind of a tension occurs when instances of insecurity happen on campus; especially in the form of mental and physical harassment.
Being a visually impaired person, particularly when I talk from a woman’s perspective, I feel that this community is more cautious about their security on the campus, in the work place, while traveling and so on. Personal experience on campus unfolds the sense of being vigilant about the approach of strangers; especially when the campus is unrestrictedly open to outsiders. To cite a personal instance, a friend and I were about to be cornered by strangers, who do not belong to the campus community, in their car. It creates a sort of perplexity in a visually impaired person, if someone comes and talks to the person without introducing himself/herself. This attitude from the part of the non-disabled community is very common in public places including on a campus where you expect to meet a sensible and sensitive community. Anonymous calls and messages on mobile phones, interruptions in private affairs without any kind of self introduction on the social websites like Facebook raise a fear of being followed. This kind of threat is very natural even otherwise; so it can be double in the case of a visually impaired woman.
I have had several surprising experiences of the denial of our rights from the various authorities’ side when I am supposed to avail them. At certain places I was even asked to produce the clause as the proof which says that I can avail a particular right, when the authorities in position are really supposed to know them. No disabled person questions them about their attitude—rather they obediently produce the available proofs. A visually disabled woman has to take a lot of strenuous effort to be a part of the mainstream; socially, culturally, academically… For her it is very hard to be acknowledged, and be included as part of the progressively upward moving society.
Visually impaired girls, especially, are often challenged by the derogatory remarks suggesting they are incapable, and imperfect in performing daily affairs such as domestic work, cleaning, child rearing etc. Moreover this community is often labeled as weak, ignorant, and naive, as if the group does not have any kind of exposure to the surrounding world. Unfortunately, these sorts of comments are generally made in the public implicitly, or explicitly. No exaggeration: the humiliating comments in these lines are even made by the male group who belong to the same community! Here it is evident that certain allegations can be arrowed only at woman as certain kinds of duties are expected to be exercised by her. Like any other woman, a visually challenged woman is also generally targeted by the fake promises of relationships, and marriage. Speaking unbiasedly, it is very pathetic when this community falls into such traps alike.
Reem Shamsuddin is a student at University of Hyderabad
We look different, we dress different, and there is also a slight hesitation in the way we build relationships with people especially outside the community. One wouldn’t be wrong in labelling some of us insular. And yet, in my opinion there are underlying reasons to the way in which we live within the university and in the city which we consider to be outside of our ‘home.’ There is always the sense of being an outsider and this has more to do with the way we look, coupled with our experiences from our native hometowns. This experience of being the outsider is embedded in the gazes, the pinches, the gibes of forever being addressed as “chinky” and jeering phrases referring to the way we look. Recently, a friend of mine from Nagaland mentioned how she feels that men don’t stare at her as much when she wears salwar-kurta, be it in the university or in the city. And I couldn’t help but agree with her.
Having lived in Hyderabad for about a decade now makes me an elder of the Naga community in the city. However, when I first arrived in Hyderabad, there were not more than 100 Nagas (including the members of the families settled here) and most of us were university students. It is a fact that the population of the North Easterners has been steadily increasing in the South Indian cities. Just as well, the number of Naga students coming to Hyderabad for higher education has seen a rise in recent years1.
In CIEFL, our initial introduction to campus politics was rather awkward (in retrospect), the reason perhaps was a difficulty in identifying with certain causes represented through the existing minority group – Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minorities Students’ Association (DABMSA). As Scheduled Tribe (ST) students, by default we were members of DABMSA and were expected to subscribe to its politics. However, I believe that as Nagas by origin, our specific politics is shaped by our history with India. We failed to respond to some of the causes presented by the representative body and most often the difficulty lay in accepting the DABMSA mode of politics in the university. Nonetheless, another reason lay in our failure to politically mobilize the North Eastern students. Our exposure to students’ politics back home, at least for the Naga students, has only been at the level of community building (student events, seminars, etc.) and policy making (adhering/allegiance and abiding to apex students’ body constitutions) or negotiations and talks to resolve students’ issues. I would say that it was only after coming to Hyderabad that we were able to define what it meant to be a scheduled tribe student, and the different issues one faces in institutions of higher education. However, we were not fully equipped to confront the new problems we were faced with. And although, there were student bodies in the university that represented our issues, the modes of confrontation with the administration were very new territories for us. We still had to learn the political ways of working as ST students from the North East in the university outside of our ‘home.’ And therefore, we morally supported the SC, ST and minorities group in the campus, yet over time our participation also waned as most of our problems inside the campus as well as in the city were addressed through the Naga elders’ council and through the Naga Christian Fellowship (NCF).
There are many instances when the elders’ council stepped in to settle students’ issues, be it academic, personal, or legal. A recent incident was the rape of a Naga student from Osmania University. As soon as the elders’ council was informed of the incident, the girl was moved to a safer location in order to protect her identity. It was also through the timely help from some Anveshi members that she was able to receive further medical aid. At that time, there were many organizations and groups that wanted a statement from the Naga community, however, the elders’ body acted on the fervent request of the family members for anonymity and to prevent the issue from the confrontations of public gaze and “morality.” The case was initially registered at the local police station by the girl along with some of her friends. During an interaction with the girl, she seemed very strong in her statement and wanted to take the matter to court. However, without her family’s support, the case was eventually ‘abandoned’ in spite of the North East Forum agreeing to undertake the issue. At that point, the elders of the Naga community took a step back from further involvement in the matter, given the pressure from the girl’s family who wanted to withdraw the case. It seemed futile that although the girl had mustered enough courage to register a complaint, her plea for undertaking the legal path for justice was silenced by her family. No doubt that the family acted in the way they believed to be in her best interests and no reasoning would change their minds, but it seemed very clear to me why they acted in this manner, and that there is a resounding familiarity of such narratives from several other women.
According to a recent finding released by the National Crime Records Bureau’s “Crime in India Report 20122,” Nagaland is the safest state in India for women. A total number of 23 cases of rape were reported in 2011, but reduced to 21 cases in 2012. Nonetheless, we ought to keep in mind most rapes and acts of sexual violence, humiliation, etc. go unreported. Furthermore, in Nagaland, the stigma of rape is augmented given the social ‘benchmarks’ for women, notions that are largely influenced by Christian morals. In a society where sex before marriage is considered a depravity, rape is definitely a taboo – no one even talks about it, such that the discourse of rape is practically absent. There are many cases in Nagaland that I have heard of where victims of rape were sent away to live with relatives in other cities to ‘hide’ them for some time, while cases go unreported as the family chooses to conceal the incident. And even if the incidents are reported, most of the time the matter is resolved between the two parties outside of court. In addition, several criminal cases, including murder, are undertaken in the local village councils through customary laws where perpetrators often get away with a lenient fine, or written/verbal apologies3 and the most extreme punishment amounts to being exiled from the village or tribe for some years. Therefore, to account for the low rate of crime against women in Nagaland as a triumph seems to be a shrewd mode of subterfuge to suppress the discourse of rape in the state itself. Keeping state apparatuses aside for the moment, we have begun to realise that it is more difficult to talk about the issue of rape within the ambit of civil groups, most especially in a religious group like the NCF (an entity that is an active participant of civil society in Nagaland politics) in a city like Hyderabad. This brings to the surface the difficulties of the NCF working as a representative body for the Nagas. In the light of such complications presented by the changing modes of functioning in Hyderabad, a resolution was passed last October to bring about an association of Nagas in the city. This association’s main objective is to undertake such cases for and on behalf of the Nagas in Hyderabad – be it welfare, crisis management, issues relating to students, legalities, etc. Clearly, the politics of home is not very different from the politics of the city we have decided to call our ‘new home.’
Perhaps in Hyderabad, the Nagas have had an informal way of resolving certain situations, unlike in Delhi where an organized network of North East support centres and helplines exists. There is also the matter of keeping things under control where specific issues are not publicized, while some have said that the Naga students in Hyderabad ought to politicize our issues more firmly or perhaps even articulate our views in the public domain4. However, circumstances call for different approaches towards resolution. And that has been the strategy so far for the Nagas in Hyderabad, but it definitely will change in time when one considers the arrival of more Naga students in the city and with the new association in place. Undoubtedly, with more people, our issues are bound to alter. Therefore, I believe the next step for the Naga students’ community in Hyderabad would be in strengthening relationships and working together with minority students’ organizations who would understand the issues we face and the fears we have because of our position as Naga students outside of Nagaland. This is not just for the Naga community alone; there have to be spaces in the universities wherein the varied issues of the North East are discussed widely, and an interest in our politics is created beyond the fetishization of our music, food, urban style or fashion.
Elika Assumi is a student at English and Foreign Languages University
1. This increase was significant with the introduction of Bachelors and the Integrated Masters programs in the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) and the University of Hyderabad (UoH) respectively, and admissions in to the colleges of Osmania University. Apart from these universities, a recent welfare scheme initiated by the All Assam Students Association (AASA) and the Eastern Naga Students Federation (ENSF) under the Free Higher Professional Education Scheme for National Backward Minority Students has ensured that annually 300 seats would be reserved for students from Nagaland in engineering colleges and nursing schools around Hyderabad. Most of the students of these universities live on campus (in hostels) or in rented apartments around the city.
2. See http://ibnlive.in.com/news/shame-map-of-india-states-with-highest-rate-of-crimes-against-women/416615-53.html (accessed on 9th November 2013)
3. See http://thohepou.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/settlement-of-case-as-per-naga-customary-law/ (accessed on 9th November 2013). Also, http://www.thesundayindian.com/en/story/rarest-of-the-rare/34/5391/ (accessed 9th November 2013) for account of a settlement by the Naga customary law.
4. After the recent rape incident of a Naga girl from Osmania University, the elders’ body chose to screen the issue from media exposure. No formal press release of the incident was given. Some have remarked upon this action/decision rather critically.
Harassment can happen in many different ways. One subtle yet dangerous and disturbing way is through SMSs. Though women in general do not report such incidents in the hope that they would stop one day or another, some persist. Thus ignoring obscene SMSs does not put an end to the offence in itself. It is to be remembered that sending vulgar, obscene and defaming messages on mobile phones amounts to sexual harassment. In India, it is a non-bailable offence and is punishable with imprisonment for a period of two years.
Harassment through SMSs is an offence which seems very easy to commit, with the offenders’ identity being hidden behind a mere 10 digit number. Thus the cell phone is increasingly used commit variations of sexual harassment offences such as accosting, stalking, defamation etc. The most interesting aspect of this practice is that most offenders are fully aware that it is an offence, and that they continue to commit it in a fond hope that their victim wouldn’t report them. The motive of sending such SMSs could be even something as inconsequential as a teacher admonishing her students for coming late to the class as I did on one occasion. The next day, I received a couple of vulgar and defaming hate messages from an unknown number in the name of a woman student who I also taught. Not only were the messages filthy and insulting but they had an intimidating tone asking me to either stop scolding students for coming late or face dire consequences . I was disgusted with the SMSs and shocked by the sender’s nerve in shirking anonymity. I did not delay reporting the incident to the university authorities. The girl, under whose name these messages were sent, was gently given notice. She was dismayed and shocked that her name was used to send these SMSs and she, in turn, complained to the University authorities to initiate action against defamation and misuse of her name. Therefore, our culprit was guilty of two offences: sending obscene SMSs and defaming another person by adopting her identity to commit the offence. The messages continued for a few days afterwards while the University contacted the Cyber Crime Cell. A week later, the culprit was identified and the mobile phone and SIM card used to send the messages were confiscated. To my disbelief and shock it happened to be indeed a student of mine and the girl’s classmate: A 17/18 year old boy! He confessed to the offence in the presence of the Cyber Crime Police as well as the University authorities. The University then decided to expel the student on grounds of misconduct.
Assuming that my admonition was what provoked the SMSs , I would , in the least have expected the student in question to have come late to the class. The student concerned was usually on time for his classes including the day on which I showed annoyance that a few of his classmates turned up very late. In fact, the student had never been unpleasant or difficult. I am puzzled by the motive behind the obscene messages this student sent me. I cannot expect anyone to go to such lengths to show displeasure/ disrespect to a teacher who was just doing her job. The tragic moment for me was coming to terms with the fact that young men are very early imbued with stereotypes about women: be it that working women in general are promiscuous or that women would rather suffer in silence than make public the insult and seek redressal. I am inferring these stereotypes from the content of the SMSs, which I would not like to disclose in this public discussion.
In a society known for harassment and victim blaming, even educated colleagues are indifferent to the pain of receiving vulgar messages. Honestly, this was the hard hitting reality for me when I received many direct and indirect, unpleasant comments relating to age and appearance. One teacher went to the extent of saying that the cause of the SMSs was that the boy was terribly infatuated with me and that it was wrong of me to take it so personally. Another teacher in effect justified sexual harassment by suggested that it was an occupational hazard I needed to take cognizance of (aspiring women teachers beware!). Yet others suggested that I take leave, go home and get the whole episode out of my system. There were also a few who felt that reporting of such an incident and its getting publicized might not be in my best interest! Such comments just bowled me over and made me realize how the community of educationists actually throws a protective blanket over the culprit and justifies the offence. The seriousness and the extent of sexual harassment are written off with these pat answers and responses thus endorsing a sexist society which harasses women.
Janani teaches at English and Foreign Languages University
-Maranatha Wahlang and Tejaswini
As people who face sexual harassment, we have been taught that keeping out of certain spaces at certain times is the only way to deal with this issue. The silence about sexual harassment has been society’s way of propagating this problem. The ethical and moral question has always been on the woman’s freedom and not on the man’s behavior. Hence, we have followed these rules for our safety and because we have been taught to do so. The education, the opportunity, the achievements and the self-confidence dissolves at the moment of such vulnerability. We felt this one night while we walked back towards our office in Barkatpura. It was around 11 pm. An SUV with 3-4 men inside approached us and stopped next to us and lowered their windows. They started the usual hurl of abuses that men employ. Our initial emotions were anger and fear and although we tried to react, we ran away on the deserted road. The feeling of fear and helplessness, which most women feel in this situation was overpowering. However, that night, we decided to fight back the humiliation and silence. We realized that one of the reasons that women are harassed in some spaces and at some times, is that most women don’t naturally occupy these spaces and times. We hoped that a large gathering of women, a normalizing of women being out at night, would perhaps start a change.
The discussion that night crystallized to “find 10-15 people, to gather a few friends and just walk”. Once we discussed the idea with individuals and groups, the idea gathered momentum of its own – a kind of ‘spontaneous planning’. The shock and anger after the Delhi gang-rape incident was the immediate catalyst for the midnight march. Groups, organizations and individuals working in very different fields, volunteered to think through, plan and mobilize for the event and contributed their time and energy over several weeks. Our concept note ‘Night Monologue’ was translated and published in a newspaper by a known feminist journalist Vasanta Lakshmi, along with the pamphlet. A Facebook page for the march which had been created a couple of weeks before the march reached 800+ membership on the day of the march. Even though organizations played a key role in organizing it, we thought it was necessary that the space to be owned by everyone and decided to request organizations not to front their banners. Secondly, we also felt that the march could not be confined to ‘women’ alone as there are several people who are vulnerable due to their gendered identities whose participation is crucial for the march. LGBT community and groups that worked with male sex workers, child rights joined in. Muslim women’s groups in the city and a few Dalit organizations too joined later. The placard writing workshop was held at Anveshi just before the march where over 200 placards were made, in Urdu, Telugu, English and Hindi, discussing gender equality, gendered differences, vulnerabilities created through combined workings of gender with other inequalities such as caste, minority etc. gave us clarity on the various issues related to the false notions associated with sexual harassment.
On Jan 5th, people started to assemble around 10:00 PM at KomaramBheem statue on Tank Bund. We were expecting a crowd of 500 people and had 15 volunteers to help where required. Several TV channels were present even before the march had started. The crowd was thin at the beginning – around 200 people. The volunteers were requesting women, transgender and children to lead the march and men to walk behind. The slogans charts were distributed and people started with ‘Azadi’ slogans. The March only started at 11:00 PM. This was the first time for several women to walk on the streets of Hyderabad at such an hour and they were visibly moved or elated. The numbers kept soaring as the march progressed. There were over a dozen TV channels who interviewed hundreds of people in the march. When the clock struck midnight, women started to chant “Ardarathri swatantram- Maahakku, Maahakku”(Freedom at midnight is our right). There were singers like Vimalakka, who wrote songs exclusively for this event, singing as the procession kept moving. Around 12:45 a.m there were at least two thousand marchers who crossed the Ambedkar statue and walked to Lumbini Park, where the march concluded at 1:00 a.m. The marchers were very diverse, though middle class Hyderabad seemed to be the majority. There was an interesting tussle over the slogans. We had anticipated and planned to scuttle slogans focusing on punishment, justice, mother-sister-daughter’s honour etc and decided to use the Delhi/JN university women’s students slogans around azaadi in Hindi, Telugu and English. So, whenever the unacceptable slogans came up, a volunteer (one of many dispersed throughout the March) would walk in to raise the slogan around azaadi. The slogans caught on and were then chanted throughout the march.
The march ended with a lot of inspiring speeches by several well-known women’s activists and feminists who recalled different historic moments in women’s movement including protests against the rape of Rameeza Bee. For the scores of young people gathered there it gave an opportunity to connect the Midnight March with the earlier and existing women’s movements in the state/country.
Media and the March
The march got huge media coverage in both print and electronic media, which, we think, enabled a lot of ‘first timers’ to turn up for the March. Many marchers were interviewed by Telugu news channels and the march was given live coverage during ‘prime time’. Some newspapers such as the Hindu and Namaste Telangana gave special coverage to the marchers. While the level of coverage was good, the quality was uneven. Several reporters covering the march had difficulty understanding the concept of the ‘women claiming public spaces’ and continued to harp on laws, punishment and violence. Visual media focus on the individual, or rather the visual media’s proneness for individual symbolizing a larger movement also created the problem of ‘representing’ this March as a collective activity.
But, more insidious was the problem of co-option. One TV channel brought along a banner with text suggesting that that march was organized under their auspices. They had already called beforehand requesting permission to bring the banner along, which was denied. Organizing committee members dissuaded them each time the employees held the banner up, but this was repeated throughout the march. Later other organizations too brought along their banners.
Few months after the march, some of the younger people who took part in the march got together and formed a Facebook-cum-meet up group called Hyderabad for Feminism. This group aims at promoting ideas of feminism and gender equality through discussions and creative action on issues concerning women, queer and other minority communities such as occupying public spaces, local media coverage on, harassment and discrimination in daily life.
After the Delhi gang-rape, everybody is in prescriptive mode. They are primarily engaged with the question of women’s safety. Police & judiciary reforms, enhanced punishment as a deterrent, loss of ancient Indian values, education, depiction of women in popular entertainment etc are the lines on which discussions in media and society are running. Public spaces for women haven’t been adequately addressed, and we hope this march put that to the forefront.
It is important to note that the Midnight March was not just awareness raising alone but an action in itself, to take back spaces from male domination.
Maranatha studies at University of Hyderabad and Tejaswini works at Yuganthar, Hyderabad
-Leila Gautam and Gita Ramaswamy
My university education was in the early nineteen seventies on the Osmania University (OU) campus, at a time of some change. The large numbers of Muslim girls who had earlier come here for higher education had dwindled rapidly, and the upper caste Telangana Hindu gentry that was now sending its sons here was not sending its girls. In my Department of Mathematics, we were three girls to maybe fifty boys.
It was not easy to be a girl on the campus. Parents at home and the ruling masculine ethos at college meant that the girl was responsible for any issues. She had to always move in a group of her own gender, she had to walk without meeting anyone’s gaze, she should not have male friends, she should never stay beyond college hours and she had better study hard. If she faced sexual harassment or what was called, hatefully, “eve-teasing”—the very term demeaning and patronizing—it was no doubt her fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing wrong clothes, with the wrong people and most of all, behaving inappropriately.
My first response to my mother’s idea of what constituted sexual violence was a feeling of disconnectedness. I have never been molested or harassed in Delhi—beyond catcalling on the roads, I have never been pawed or groped on the buses or the metros—and I have travelled on these on a regular basis.
College [for an undergraduate student in Delhi University (DU) is illiberal. I do not know if it is the case all over India, but it was certainly the case with me. We are treated like children, our views not respected or considered. The students asked for an “open campus”—a demand that encapsulated a great deal. Girls were not to be interrogated endlessly when they wished to take “night-outs”—a permission letter from their parents ought to be enough (a contradiction, really, because, needless to say, this was never a requirement for a boy who wanted to spend a night elsewhere). Nor were the girls to be locked into their blocks after ten pm. In hindsight, I wonder how such a demand could have been implemented in the first place—it was so full of contradictions.
The girls’ blocks are something akin to a “zenana.” A brick screen shuts us off from all sides—hiding our verandas and open spaces from public view. We have two entrances—both guarded all day, unguarded only when they are locked from ten in the night to six in the morning. These external, “visible” differences are complemented by internal ones. The girls’ blocks have a warden, whom we apply to for night-outs, for leaves. She is the intermediary between us and the college which “cares” for us.
We learnt to survive in that atmosphere [OU] because education was precious to us, and also learnt to fight, because personhood, even if one was a woman, was no less important, and these were the heady days of the feminist movement. Heady, because it was really only in the head, one had to be so careful outside there. My heroines when I was in college were Satyamma Srinath because she drove a scooter from her house in Tarnaka to Reddy College where she taught and Vanaja Iyengar who taught maths in our Department, and smoked with ease in the staff room. A little later, they were joined (as heroines) by Veena Shatrugna and Rama Melkote because they wore sleeveless blouses. Writing this, I sense how funny it may seem today when women drive scooters and cars and wear a whole range of clothes, but in those days, these were women who were different and proclaimed their difference in public, not inside the four walls of their homes.
It is true that being a girl requires you to maintain/display your body in a particular way—you need to “work” on it. College doesn’t leave much space or time to “work” endlessly on being hairless and slender and all the other different things society’s images of the beautiful woman demand. I am engrossed in my studies, and ambitions, and am (usually) blithely unconscious of the beautiful actress on the billboards and on televisions and magazine covers, simply because I encounter her so little.
Our argument for an “open campus” was liberal in that it rested on the basic premise that students, having attained adult age, deserve certain autonomy and certain freedoms—and that these apply equally to both boys and girls. It withered. Partly, perhaps, due to the contradictions of the society we were living in – the girls in Stephen’s certainly do not all belong to one class, and more importantly, have parents who entertain no illusions of the importance of “liberal values” over those of getting a good job and making money. Anything that hinders such a goal is not to be stood for.
Women in the university are controlled to a terrifying extent. They have no flexibility of movement—wishing to stay away from your hostel at night requires endless letters of permission from your parents, your local guardian—to be approved by the warden, and the dean of residence. There is absolutely no question of men being allowed into these sacrosanct spaces; girls with boyfriends are reduced to shameful exigencies, from courting in public spaces to making out in the bushes, exposing themselves to even greater trauma. Girls have been asked where they are really going—why they are going where they are going; one friend of mine was even told to produce the brother she claimed to be leaving with. Like the violence in the streets, this is another way of controlling women. And it produces good results. Women, in my college at least, are largely politically inactive. In all my years in DU, I have never smelt even a whiff of a female candidate in all your powerful student unions.
When I heard about the Nirbhaya rape and assault, I was staggered and distraught by the violence against the girl. At the same time, as the mother of a 19-year-old girl, I was also horrified to hear that Nirbhaya had climbed onto a bus with tinted glasses late in the evening. The bus had five young males in it, and she had probably thought her boyfriend a safe enough escort. Did Nirbhaya have no self-preservation instinct?
Leila studies at St Stephen’s, where only the girls’ hostels are locked up at 10 pm. While I supported their struggle to break down this discriminatory rule, I also understood that many mothers of girls studying in Delhi would feel reassured if their daughters were not roaming Delhi’s brutal public spaces late at night.
In the matter of clothes (as with women smoking in public), it is in today to show cleavage, to reveal all of the leg openly or in tight leggings. In a class-caste riven India where the poor, on the one hand, are systematically deprived of their entitlements, but can easily and visibly see—on cinema, on television, on the roads of metros, in the top-end cars, malls and shopping centres—how the rich live and spend, what do clothes signify? Both middle and rich men and women are complicit in a system that keeps the poor down.
Clothes have the added dimension of a Western notion of femininity thrust upon us – the clean-shaven legs, arms, underarms and upper lip, signifying the infantile unnatural absence of hair, the hour glass figure and both cleavage and legs marking a come-hither stance.
A wide-spread claim is that violence against women is somehow a class phenomenon. That upper-class women dress “provocatively.” Of course, the justification offered this time is far more nuanced than what is usually offered. It is that working-class men are constantly exposed, through cinemas and hoardings and television, to images of women—and that these women’s bodies become the site where class-antagonism is manifested (this is separate from the critique that upper-class women are bound by Western notions of femininity and beauty). I see my fight against such popular culture the same as the fight against an illiberal college space.
I agree that popular culture in India goes a long way in re-enforcing patriarchy. But who produces these cinemas? Who produces all these images that objectify women? (I have watched Bollywood movies in theatres that have an audience composed exclusively of working-class men. Both the images and ideas that appear on screen, and the responses, shocked me. Women are never displayed as anything other than sexual objects. Or the butt of sexual jokes and innuendos). Who are these actors? Who are these filmmakers and producers? Who are these people sitting on the censor boards?
A professor of mine, one whose intellect and erudition I held in awe, told me how much the demand of an “open campus” would cost the college. Just imagine, he told me, boys from “rowdy colleges” would flood the campus if the girls are not locked up, the cost of maintaining guards and CCTV surveillance cameras would shoot up. Can you expect girls, he asked, to pay for this extra cost of the safety? Freedom, for girls, therefore, comes at a prohibitive cost—that was the most “liberal” argument of all, I encountered. It is all relative of course: we had our Principal say in an address at a student general body meeting that girls and boys are as different as eggs and stones, or apples and oranges, how on earth can they be treated the same?
War has always been fought on the bodies of women. Girls feeling comfortable, expressing themselves in shorts and low necks, forget the war zone outside. Are they forgetting self-preservation? Am I implying that one can step over patriarchy’s boundaries inside four walls, but not in public space? If clothes were a matter of froth and not substance, why did I, when I was 19, admire those women who wore sleeveless blouses?
I understand my mother’s view better now. Going out in public is dangerous if you are a woman, period. For a rich, privileged, upper-middle class woman, freedoms and opportunities are far greater than those of a working-class woman, and, in a place like India, far greater than those of working-class men as well. How could I compare the “violence” I face—if any—to that of the rickshaw-puller who takes me to and fro, who is forced to use his body to ferry me from place to place for a mere pittance, simply because he had the misfortune of being born into the wrong class.
Curiously, however, I have never felt disadvantaged or violated in the public sphere—like I mentioned earlier, I never encountered any harassment while out on Delhi’s roads. Even less so in other “public” spaces: like the classroom, for instance. Not once have I felt that my sex works against me.
In my most private space—my room—I experience this every moment. My room, and my hostel, while I am in Delhi, is effectively my home. It is the place I retire to, the place that is my refuge when I am upset, where I study and sleep and think. And in such a space, I am constrained almost unbelievably. I accept that there are rules that one needs to follow while living under an institution—like a college hostel—and I abide these rules, sometimes reluctantly, but I have grown to accept that rules enable smooth functioning. But what I am confronted daily with, instead, is the reality of my male counterparts who face NONE of these rules.
Is it good that women are locked into their rooms at night to prevent “incidents” from happening? Is it good that women aren’t allowed to bring men into their rooms? It isn’t good. These may be small freedoms—but these are greatly valued by their male counterparts who have no such rules. And the taking away of these apparently small freedoms is yet another way of controlling and subjecting a group that already has few choices to begin with. Your hostel room, the small space you inhabit: it is important to feel yourself to be in control of that.
There are six hostel blocks. Three of these are screened, locked, and closely supervised. The other three are open, free, and if any rules exist, these are only on paper (they are never enforced—how could they be?—when the boys’ blocks lack wardens altogether, and all the close supervision that goes with it). This state of affairs is taken as being “natural.” The Principal lauds it, the Professors I respect the most laud it, the Administration lauds it.
I think the most traumatic and scarring things happen from sources very close to home. Aren’t the rapists mostly known to the victim beforehand? Leave rape. Talk about any kind of sexual oppression. Don’t women face it from their husbands or their family or their friends? Where then did this spectre of the stranger jumping out of the darkness to rape you come from?
There is something else that is very curious—the balance of power. When I overshoot my ten o’clock curfew by even a minute, or bring a guest into my room—bringing a non-resident girl is forbidden, as is bringing a boy (why, I believe a girl who dared bring a boy into her room would face the equivalent of a lynch-mob)—all the usual power relations are overturned. Suddenly, a warden who is poorer, less educated, has the power to shame me and hurt me. A guard who earns a pittance everyday has the right to rebuke me and shout at me. It is not that they cannot shout at boys as well—it is just that when it comes to these matters that differentiate “good” girls from “bad,” they have the power to actually make you feel shamed and hurt.
This is the contradiction I face—as an upper-middle class person, who has all kinds of privileges and advantages. I thought my version of reality contradicted my mother’s, but it doesn’t, not really.
[This ‘Conversation’ was composed by juxtaposing two articles written by LG & GR separately—Editors]
Gita Ramaswamy runs Hyderabad Book Trust. Leila Gautam studies at St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi.
(Excerpt from note about its goals and objectives)[Samvad is a gender forum started in October 2011 in response to the complex issues related to gender, lgbt and queer politics in the EFL University campus. Kavya Krishna’s contributions in “Charting a History” in this volume provides some picture of the circumstances of formation] The task of introducing Samvad stands at the intersection of various histories, ready to be invoked, tentatively perched: the history of various struggles in this university, the history of failed attempts to run lgbt groups and gender forums on this campus, the history of the feminist political movement in this region, in this country, and the personal histories of individuals who have organized this forum.
[…] We have been asked if Samvad will deal only with the issues of women. We have been asked if we will oppose purdah. We have been asked why we need this forum on campus, when we already have so many other student organizations in an already over-crowded campus space. A feminist organization can mean various things. What is the kind of feminism that Samvad aspires to practice and work with?
These are obviously very complex questions and they all come to us from different locations. At this stage of Samvad, we can only make some tentative remarks that will probably gesture towards some answers. To begin with, Samvad is not a women’s group, but a gender forum. We make this distinction to emphasize that we are not working with a feminist framework that sees women as the only objects of their intervention. Instead, we want to work with the objective of destabilizing established notions of gender and sexuality. And in this sense, as bell hooks has put it, feminism is for everybody.
We see the Gender Forum as capable of playing a crucial role in naming and negotiating with the varied networks of power in our societies and in our campus. From the casual essentializing remarks that circulate within our hostels to the various kinds of sexual harassment faced by participants to the silence regarding alternative sexualities, the Gender Forum has a complex field to intervene in. This intervention can be in terms of sensitization, mobilization, debate and discussion, as well as initiating change through procedure and protest. In the face of various caste, class, regional and cultural struggles that are waged inside this university and outside of it, some of us have felt an acute need to have a feminist organization that would provide an enabling critical lens to analyse these complex and intermeshed formations of caste, gender, class, culture, identity. While Samvad will function in the space of the university, we see it as working in solidarity and even sometimes in continuity with various other struggles in the region and the country, for example, the struggle for Telangana, and especially the role of women in this struggle, Irom Sharmila’s struggle against AFSPA, land struggles against corporate, capitalist forces in various parts of the country, the currently ongoing Maruti Suzuki Employees’ struggle in Manesar, among many others.
Samvad intends to take up a range of issues, through various modes of intervention. We plan to have academic readings and discussions, film screenings, workshops, cultural activities like theatre, information-sharing and sensitization campaigns, each month. Along with all these activities, we will take up individual as well as general issues that are brought to our notice by the participants of this university. To begin with, we plan to focus on three issues:
1. GSCASH: In spite of UGC regulations, GSCASH is not active on this campus. In the event of sexual harassment, we have no phone numbers to contact the concerned authorities, we have no information about the sexual harassment policy. In fact, a lot of us don’t even know what constitutes sexual harassment… We hope that Samvad can play a role in the revival as well as the sustenance of GSCASH in this university.
2. The second issue is related to the women’s hostels. The Baichanda hostel that houses BA students, among many other students, closes its gate to visitors at ten. The ten o’clock rule has been enforced since August, and has been enforced only on this hostel. The other hostel for women, the Akka Mahadevi Hostel, continues with the old eleven o’clock rule… What we want to do is facilitate discussions among the residents of the Baichanda hostel about what they think is desirable for them. As a gender forum, we do not wish to occupy any moral high ground and attempt to enlighten people about their rights and violations. Instead, at all points and levels, we wish to pay attention to the choices that men and women make, in spite of being framed within powerful structures. And that is precisely why we have decided to call this Forum, Samvad. A word that is common to several Indian languages, Samvad means dialogue, discussion, exchange, debate.
3. Finally, we wish to emphasize the urgent need to have student elections on this campus. Not only do we need democratic processes and a legitimate platform for students, we also need to regulate the procedures and systems that sustain this university.
Among the various other issues that we have in mind, We would like to talk about one more extremely pertinent issue that Samvad intends to address in the near future. This is related to the absolute inadequacy of basic facilities for the non-teaching staff on this campus. Women workers do not even have a place to rest, especially in case of health problems. There aren’t adequate bathrooms, and the bathrooms that exist are often non-functional – sometimes, they are not repaired for months, and mostly, there is no running water. We do not see these as simply administrative failures. These are also ideological decisions, and we wish to crucially challenge them at that level. What kind of a workspace is this university for the non-teaching staff? We want to take this question seriously, and work with various sections of the university to make a difference to the state of affairs.
[…] I know that the picture is still fuzzy. But I also hope that this open-endedness can be made productive. More than anything else, I hope that this tentativeness can be utilized into creating dialogic spaces on this campus.
In my student days
a girl came laughing
Our hands met mixing
her rice and fish curry
On a bench we became
a Hindu-Christian family
I whiled away my time
Reading Neruda’s poetry;
and meanwhile I misplaced
my Identity Card.
returning my card:
‘the account of your stipend
is entered there in red’.
These days I never look at
a boy and a girl lost in themselves.
They will part after a while.
I won’t be surprised even if they unite.
Their Identity Cards
won’t have markings in red.
Translated from Malayalam by K. satchidanandan
Ed: Susie Tharu and K. Satyanarayana, No Alphabet in sight, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2011 (Page 454-455)