BHU row shows gimmicks like anti-Romeo squads can’t make women safer
When Uttar Pradesh went to the polls earlier this year, the buzzword was women’s safety. The state was still recovering from the shock of a gruesome highway rape just months before, and billboards jostled with each other in every big city with promises of women’s empowerment. The grandest pledges were that of the BJP.
Soon after sweeping to power in March, the government unveiled its flagship idea to improve women’s safety: The controversial anti-Romeo squads. Unfortunately, the initiative targeted hapless couples in parks, men and women talking and interacting in public spaces, and even married people – appearing to be a moral policing exercise to promote archaic ideas of gender relations rather than a modern scheme to enable women’s free movement.
The allegations of molestation at Banaras Hindu University have now blown the lid off this sham. Women students at one of India’s leading educational institutions have come out on the streets demanding a safer campus where men don’t grope and molest after sundown – and have been thrashed for daring to demand that. The students have alleged that officials refused to take action after complaint and even told the women to stay indoors, blaming them for staying outside after 5pm. When the women protested, they were caned, pulled by their hair, dragged on the ground and FIRs lodged against them.
Such behaviour is not new. Demands for a more gender-just campus have always met with hostility across the political and geographical spectrum. More importantly, the response to a crisis, within the campus or otherwise, has always been a one-stop solution such an anti-Romeo squad, stricter hostel curfews or marshals on buses.
Women hostellers in BHU have a tough time struggling against outdated patriarchal norms that ensure their curfew times are way earlier than boys, more strictly enforced and their movement both inside and outside campus are policed. They face discrimination in accessing libraries, the internet and even food. ““It seems that the university doesn’t want us to think for ourselves. There’s no space for us to demand our rights, or express our opinion,” an arts student at the women’s college inside BHU told Hindustan Times earlier this year.
The root of this thinking isn’t difficult to fathom. The university posits honour and glory in its women students, as evidenced in the statements of its vice-chancellor, and therefore strives to protect it by restricting access. The woman is little more than a vessel to carry social honour and so it doesn’t matter if that vessel isn’t allowed to go out, have fun, exercise rights, or think. Men can then take over as the protector and decide what is correct and respectable behavior, and what is blasphemous. The logical next step is to punish transgression from this moral code: Enter anti-Romeo squads.
Such a course of action is great for patriarchy as it upholds current social hierarchies. But it is bad news for women and gender justice. Women’s presence in public spaces has always sparked anxiety – the answer is to enable their greater presence, not curtail it in the name of curfew. More street lights and a vigilant police would go a longer way in ensuring safety of women than anti-Romeo squads.