Published: 02nd October 2017
OPINION: The 'like-my-daughter' reasoning is stale. Here's why safety and freedom go hand in hand for women in the BHU campus
AIPWA secretary Kavita Krishnan believes that the BHU example shows, the more protectionist the campus, the more willing it is to protect sexual harassers and silence complainants. Do you agree?
The BHU Vice Chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi told media that the incident that triggered massive protests by women students was not “molestation but merely eve-teasing.” Speaking to some of the protesting women students he said “I am like your father and you are like my daughters,” promptly adding that by protesting against molestation of a woman student, they had “sold her honour in the market.”
Enough is enough: BHU students are demanding safety as well as equality and freedom
In another interview, the VC said that there are 10,000 “girls” on the campus but only a handful have such complaints. He added that the only way to keep women safe was to make sure they stayed inside the hostels, “We can ensure their safety in the hostel, that is why there are curfew timings. But there are no such timings on the road outside, incidents happen. ...This is such a big campus, anything can happen anywhere. We cannot assign a guard to every student.” In the same interview he added, “Security for boys and girls can never be at par. If we are going to listen to every demand of every girl we won’t be able to run the university. All these rules are for their safety, all in favour of the girl students.”
Meanwhile the BHU VC appointed O P Upadhayay – a man convicted for sexual harassment – as Medical Superintendent in the Sir Sunderlal Hospital.
Upadhyay’s defence is exactly the same as that of the men accused of sexual harassment in the movie Pink – “it was a case of extortion and because I resisted it, I was falsely accused.” A Court in Fiji found him guilty of sexual harassment; but the BHU Administration apparently decided that harassing “foreign” women and being found guilty by “foreign” courts didn’t count.
The BHU VC did not pause for a single minute to wonder whether appointing a man guilty of sexual harassment as head of an institution, is not likely to endanger the safety of women in that institution. In the BHU VC’s book, after all, it is women’s presence in public spaces that is to blame for sexual harassment – he found it easy to believe that even if Upadhyay was convicted by a Court for sexual harassment, it is actually the woman who was guilty of “extortion.”
These pronouncements and decisions of the BU VC sum up the entire problem of discrimination and violence against women on India’s campuses.
Women – Not Sexual Harassers – Are The Problem?
Women students on campuses are treated like they – not molesters or sexual harassers – are the problem. So the theory is that women’s safety can be achieved by restrictions on their freedom of movement, on their access to campus spaces, public streets, and libraries. As a result, whenever a woman faces sexual harassment, she is blamed for having “exposed herself to risk” in the first place. And if she protests, she is blamed for having exposed her “honour” in the “market” – i.e having compromised her chastity and character. Women are discouraged from making sexual harassment complaints – those that do complain are dismissed as “a handful” that do not represent the majority. At the same time, men found guilty of sexual harassment are allowed to hold administrative posts – because men who are sexual harassers are not seen as the problem.
Good girl, bad girl: Women are discouraged from making sexual harassment complaints – those that do complain are dismissed as “a handful” that do not represent the majority
Administrators say they are “like parents” and women students “like daughters” – and so restrictions on women’s equality are justified by evoking the ideology of the patriarchal family. The hostel is the “home”, women must obey the patriarchal head of family and remain confined to the four walls of the home; and women will be blamed for loss of family “honour” if they speak about violence or discrimination.
What we need to realise is that this situation makes women students extremely unsafe. Why? Because women who have to be afraid that they will be blamed for sexual harassment are less likely to complain of sexual harassment, less likely to demand justice. A climate where women students have to fear that they will be put in the dock and grilled with questions about “Why were you outside the hostel”, is a hostile climate for women to seek justice.
A campus that defines “safety” as “discriminatory restrictions on women” is an unsafe campus because it holds women responsible for their own safety and to blame for any violence they face, rather than holding men accountable for their conduct towards women.
High time: Students are demanding an autonomous Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) that will not only ensure justice in complaints
This is precisely why BHU women students are demanding safety as well as equality and freedom. They are not only demanding street lights and other basic safety measures, they are demanding an end to discriminatory hostel rules. They are demanding safety – not only from molestation and sexual harassment, but from victim blaming, moral policing, and discrimination. They are demanding an autonomous Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) that will not only ensure justice in complaints of sexual harassment but will sensitise administrators, faculty and students about gender justice.
The voice raised by the BHU women students resonates on all of India’s campuses, because the problems they face are by no means unique to BHU. A UGC Task Force, comprising many senior and experienced women academics, submitted a report in 2013 called the SAKSHAM report on ‘Measures for Ensuring The Safety of Women and Programmes for Gender Sensitization on Campuses.’ The observations and recommendations of this Task Force – based on conversations with women students on campuses across India – are revealing.
We are there: Activists shave their heads to show solidarity with the cause at BHU
The SAKSHAM report said that women students across India “stressed that locking the women up was not the answer; the custodial responsibility was to make university spaces safe enough for them to live with a sense of freedom and equality. There were protests about early hostel hours where women students had to be “in” by 6 pm; hostel terraces were locked at 6.30 or not open at all; transport between the main campus and undergraduate hostels stopped at 7pm, and in some universities did not exist at all.” The SAKSHAM report concluded, firmly, that “Concern for the safety of all women, but particularly young women students should not lead to discriminatory rules for women in the hostels.”
“Parents wish it so” is the stock answer of all administrators to justify discriminatory hostel curfews, dress codes, and other restrictions on women students. How can this answer be acceptable? In our patriarchal society, parents may have many regressive attitudes. Some parents may wish to prevent their daughter from choosing an inter-caste or inter-faith partner or even kill a daughter for such a marriage. Daughters and daughters-in-law in Indian homes are subjected to all sorts of surveillance and restrictions. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2005-06 found that a large proportion of women in India are restricted from moving out of the home: “Only one-third of women age 15-49 are allowed to go alone to the market, to the health centre, and outside the community.” These restrictions masquerade as “safety” but they are themselves are a form of discrimination and violence against women.
Till when: Many collges replicate the structures of patriarchal families, forcing young Indian women to live in hostels deprived of the right to have mobile phones or speak to male workers
The point is: should colleges and Universities replicate restrictions that the patriarchal family imposes on Indian women? Instead, shouldn’t colleges and Universities be spaces where young women can experience freedom from the suffocating restrictions of patriarchal families, and learn to be independent and take their own decisions? If colleges and Universities care about women’s safety they ought to ensure an autonomous GSCASH on each campus – instead, as the BHU example shows, the more “protectionist” the campus, the more willing it is to protect sexual harassers and silence complainants.
In fact, not only colleges and Universities, but many factories that produce for global brands too, replicate the structures of patriarchal families, forcing young Indian women workers to live in hostels deprived of the right to have mobile phones or speak to male workers. The pretext, as always, is that the women workers’ parents want such rules for daughters’ “safety” – but the fact is that such rules help factories prevent their workers from unionising and challenging exploitative work conditions.
Zero tolerance: Lately, clashes between cops and students are a common sight at BHU
Melissa Wright in her book Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism, (2006 Routledge New York and London) documents how Chinese managers of transnational factories defend gendered restrictions on young Chinese women workers by claiming that they are like “strict” fathers of “good Chinese daughters” who have to obey restrictions “to protect them from dangerous things in the city.” The problem with such “protection” is that it actually prevents women workers from being able to raise their voice and seek help against exploitative work conditions including harassment based on caste and gender.
The instances from Indian colleges and Universities, as well as Indian and Chinese factories serve to show that domestic, “family” discipline and “safety” concerns are invoked by institutions to justify restrictions on young women. But in fact, the restrictions, far from making women safe, make it more unsafe for them to seek justice against exploitation, discrimination, or violence.
JNU VC Dismantled GSCASH
The ironic fact is that while women students of BHU and other campuses all over the country are demanding autonomous anti-sexual-harassment committees modelled on GSCASH, the JNU VC has in fact dismantled the GSCASH and replaced it with a puppet Internal Complaints Committee. He has done this on the pretext of a 2015 UGC Notification seeking implementation of guidelines recommended by SAKSHAM. The members of the UGC SKASHAM Task Force have written an open letter protesting the dissolution of the GSCASH, saying that the guidelines recommended by their Report “were in no way intended to restrict HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) from evolving models that improve on these standards and are tailored to address the specificities of various campuses.
In fact the GSCASH Rules and Procedures in JNU laid down important benchmarks in the view of the SAKSHAM Committee.... Our Report made it clear that our proposals for the composition of Anti-SH committees were intended for campuses where ICCs were not in existence or were not Vishakha-compliant – they were never intended to replace or supersede committees like those of JNU’s GSCASH which we had found to be fully Vishakha-compliant.” The SAKSHAM members further pointed out that their Report recommended that all sections of the HEI community should be able to decide on the mode of constitution of the ICC in a democratic and transparent manner:
“While it could be the case that the mode of direct election is not feasible across all HEIs, it is nevertheless important that the composition of ICCs does not replicate the power inherent in workplace hierarchies. ICCs must contain representation from all sections, particularly junior levels, of the workplace. Furthermore, such representation must not be directly nominated by the employer; rather, transparency and a principled basis for membership on the ICC should be arrived at after involving all sections of the HEI community.”
Given this explicit recommendation, why was the GSCASH that had 23 democratically elected members from every section of the JNU community, replaced by an ICC that had only 7 members, 4 of whom are arbitrarily nominated by the VC? Why has a GSCASH headed by an senior woman faculty experienced in the field of gender, replaced by an ICC headed by someone who, till the very day the ICC was formed, served as the Chief Proctor of the University and was therefore part and parcel of the top level of the “workplace hierarchy”, and has no experience whatsoever in the field of gender?
That's it: The clashes turned violent, a sign of just how frustrated the students were
In campuses across the country, women students hoped that the SAKSHAM report would open the doors for an autonomous ICC, whose composition and rules and procedures could be formulated through wide consultations to best fit their specific campus. Instead, if the JNU VC’s model is to be followed, the ICC formed will be a nominated body that is under the VC’s thumb, and thus incapable of providing free and fair justice.
Why Not Trust Women Students’ Independent Minds?
The BHU VC claims the molestation incident to be a “political conspiracy” and accuses various “outsiders” and “political groups” of engineering the protests of women students in order to embarrass the PM Modi on his Varanasi visit. Typically, the BHU VC is unable to credit women students with their own power to make decisions. Likewise, Minister for State for Home Kiren Rijiju had asked who had “polluted the mind” of Gurmehar Kaur because she spoke against war, hate, and violence. When will our political leaders learn to trust the minds of independent young women?
The BHU VC insists that the women students are “victims” of a political conspiracy by others – and so he unleashed police lathis on them. His mode of thinking is rather like that of the Sanghi outfits that insist that a Hindu woman in love with a Muslim man is a “victim of love jehad” and must be slapped or beaten to make her change her mind. This is why a BJP leader and Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini slapped and roughed up a Hindu woman and her Muslim boyfriend ; this is why the Bajrang Dal violently disrupted an inter-faith marriage inside a courtroom. These “protectors” of women are all too ready to be violent to women who disobey their patriarchal diktats and show some independence – exactly like those who kill daughters in the name of “honour”.
Come on: It’s time we stood by young women – in campuses, in factories, in homes – demanding their right to be safe, free and equal!
The BHU VC accuses all others of doing politics in BHU – but last year he himself justified allowing RSS shakhas on campus with the highly political and controversial remark, “The Government belongs to the RSS.” Note that Tripathi believes the Government belongs to an unelected body like the RSS, and allows RSS shakhas in BHU – but demands that BHU women students sign an undertaking stating that they will not participate in any protest, as a precondition for taking admission!
The BHU women’s movement is a wake-up call for the whole country. It’s time we stood by young women – in campuses, in factories, in homes – demanding their right to be safe, free, and equal!
(Kavita Krishnan is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, AIPWA)