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Women deserve better than prison treatment in universities like BHU

This restrictive atmosphere in universities won’t help build an enlightened and forward thinking next generation. It will only lead to a society of unthinking rule-followers who will not question authority and challenge the status quo

opinion Updated: Oct 03, 2017 12:03 IST
Vidya Subramanian
Vidya Subramanian
Hindustan Times
BHU,JNU,Jamia Millia Islamia
Students of the Banaras Hindu University protest against the molestation of a student inside the campus(PTI)

The plight of women – they’re women, not girls, not children (‘bacche’), they’re adult women – in universities across the country, like in Banaras Hindu University, is becoming increasingly worrying. Purportedly for their own safety, they must stay indoors after 6 pm, not be seen talking on the phone, not eat non-vegetarian food, not go to the library at night, and never ever meet boys who are not related to them.

(...Unless, of course, a male related to the woman decides that she must marry and know intimately some random stranger, in which case she will immediately have been assumed to have consented to ceding ownership of her body – and her life! – to this random stranger.)

In Jamia Millia Islamia, if a woman wants to stay out of her hostel at night, her father, because mothers are easily manipulated (I’m not being sarcastic. This is the actual reason given!) must send a text message to the hostel warden giving his consent for his daughter’s “night out”. Unsurprisingly, this rule does not apply to men. This is, of course, for the safety of the ‘girls’.

By this logic, prisoners in jails are the best “taken care of” people in the country. Because they’re constantly under surveillance, are not allowed to roam around freely in public spaces, must wear the stipulated uniform, meet people only by express permission of the warden (is it a coincidence that prisons and hostels are both ‘cared for’ by people known as ‘wardens’?) and do exactly as they are told or face punishments.

The vice-chancellor of BHU, while paternalistically talking down to female students who thought it was terrible that they were being sexually harassed on campus, said indignantly that by talking “openly” about sexual harassment, they “have put their modesty in the market”. This understanding of what the “modesty” of a woman should be is deeply problematic, and a classic example of victim shaming.

By focussing on the “modesty” of the woman, she has been forced into a position of defence, where she must now explain how she isn’t “putting her modesty in the market” (whatever that might mean). The point has now successfully been diverted from what the man did to what the woman should have done. The harasser, the criminal is no longer the subject of the conversation. Soon, he will vanish from our consciousness and all that will remain will be the noise this immodest woman made.

That this is an accepted discourse in the public sphere should not come as a surprise. It is only a continuation of that which is happening inside homes. The way female students are treated in universities is what women are treated like inside their homes as well. They have curfews, are not allowed the same freedoms as their male counterparts, must dress with “modesty”, sit properly, eat like a lady, not be loud, not chat with boys,......

This is why parents are not protesting against the locking up of their daughters in hostels. In fact, they appreciate it. Because of the “safety angle”. This is the angle that encourages a paternalistic university system where the administration is more a patriarchal father figure rather than a facilitator of learning and experimentation. We aren’t sending our youth to college to learn; we are sending them there simply because it is what is expected of us or we hope it could help them earn money.

This restrictive atmosphere in universities won’t help build an enlightened and forward thinking next generation. It will only lead to a society of unthinking rule-followers who will not question authority and challenge the status quo.

A university must necessarily be a space of freedom in thought and action – a space in which students, irrespective of gender, are free to meet, interact, and figure out things for themselves. Administrators should be encouraging students to be politically conscious and to take an interest in the way things are run in their immediate environments, and not the opposite. What sort of democratic society can we expect to live in if we discourage our students from taking part in democratic institutions?

Freedom, democracy, and equality must be the cornerstones of education. Imprisoning a set of students in hostels with oppressive rules and clamping down violently on their right to protest cannot be allowed to become normalised. “Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high/ Where knowledge is free...” wrote Rabindranath Tagore, “...Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

That is all that the women of our universities seek.


First Published: Oct 02, 2017 13:24 IST