In the name of protection, safety measures curb freedom of women

  • Namita Bhandare, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 26, 2015 01:26 IST
CCTV surveillance of Sector 18 market to start from Friday, in Noida, India, on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. Sixty two high-end cameras have been installed at 24 locations. (Sunil Ghosh / HT Photo)

At a meeting earlier this month to discuss a draft bill of rights for women that Delhi’s AAP government wants to introduce, some women express their anxiety over the proliferation of CCTVs that the government has announced as a safety measure.

Are there sufficient checks and balances to ensure that footage will not be misused as an excuse for moral policing, they want to know.

Their anxiety is well-founded. At its heart is the question: How do you balance security with freedom, autonomy and privacy — particularly of young women?

Under the guise of ‘protecting our girls’, we’ve seen the ramping up of measures since December 2012. In April this year, the University Grants Commission issued guidelines that call for escalation in wall heights of colleges, barbed wire fencing and CCTV cameras. Teachers will report on students to parents and hostel wardens.

In Tamil Nadu, rules for women students by the Sri Sairam Engineering College go viral: No ‘very high heels and fancy slippers’, no ‘transparent and short dupattas’, no accounts on Facebook and Whatsapp. No talking to boys.

Not true, clarifies the college. Yet, women students must, according to its website, dress in ‘only churidhars with dupatta both sides pinned up. Wearing half-sarees, middies, short sleeve tops, tight pants are jeans are strictly prohibited inside the campus’.

Writing for The Daily O, Vivek Surendran describes life in his engineering college in Tamil Nadu. Without naming the college, he says girls were not allowed outside their hostels after 6.30 pm, mobile phones had to be hidden and the mere act of talking to a boy could lead to disciplinary action. Didn’t the parents protest? Far from it. “The parents of girl students were extremely happy with such rules,” he writes.

As girls step forward to bridge the gender gap in education, parents and their proxies, college authorities, step up the vigilance under the guise of protection. Last month women students at Jamia Millia Islamia, responded to revised hostel rules that are blatantly discriminatory — women must report for a roll call of attendance by the warden every evening and get permission in advance ‘on a request duly recommended by their parents/local guardians’ to stay out after 10 pm (‘late nights,’ restricted to twice a month).

The desire to control his daughter’s autonomy is what leads a retired army officer to contact the National Investigation Agency (NIA) about her activities on the Internet. She is contemplating joining terror outfit Islamic State, he complains. After going through her social media profiles, the NIA concludes there is nothing to worry about. It is her relationship with a Muslim man that has been concerning the father.

This past week, the Delhi High Court ordered the police to provide protection to an 18-year-old Indian student from California who by identifying as a trans man has incurred his parents’ wrath. On a visit to India, his passport, phone and computer were taken away and he was told to marry a man of his mother’s choosing. “This is nothing but bigotry,” Justice Siddharth Mridul observed on a plea filed by the student, who wants his documents back so that he can return to the US.

In their essay Why Loiter, authors Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan argue that expanding women’s access to public spaces has the ability to re-envision citizenship in more inclusive terms. Loitering, they argue, is a quest for pleasure that ‘strengthens our struggle against violence, framing it in the language of rights rather than protection’.

The mainstreaming of a khap panchayat mindset — lock away your daughters, curb their freedoms — is now evident in our cities and universities, ignoring the fact that it is the State’s job to provide safe public transport, street lighting and sensitive law enforcement for every citizen, regardless of gender.

Surveillance guidelines have less to do with safety and more with control. Adult students are adults with rights to privacy and choice. It’s time parents and universities, crucibles of learning and exploration, recognised this.

The views expressed by the author are personalShe tweets as @namitabhandare

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