Watch Out, Father Figures. You Can’t Shackle Us Anymore

In which age-old shackles rattle again. But be careful, because we’re going to make sure they shatter upon tightening.

Sab teacher hi kyon banna chahte hain? (Why do they all want to be teachers?)”

The mild irritation in Nazni’s voice is palpable. It hits home in the Bundeli field, and in the Delhi newsroom.

Nazni reports from Chitrakoot in Bundelkhand, and is more than well-versed in how patriarchy plays out in all its insidious, aggressive avatars. She is doing a ‘youth story’ on the ambitions and desires of young girls who’ve wrapped up their exams and are at the cusp of so many thresholds in their life-journeys. And she is demanding answers of these 19-year-olds on why is it that they all continue to make safe career choices (literally safe, that is – meaning you will not be exposed to untoward elements on a daily basis in your professional life, apparently, and thus have reduced your chances of being a victim of sexual violence). But Nazni is merely indulging in rhetoric here, she knows this like all of us.

For young girls in India, these thresholds are more like the hideous mouths of dark abysses. Anything you can do to make the freefall into evil easier, better, safer, you will do.

Akanksha Gupta, a second year Visual Arts student at Banaras Hindu University, knows of this abyss. Having faced molestation for over a month on campus, she finally complained to the college authorities. We all know how this goes, right? How many days, months, years, of our lives as school and college students have been ill-spent looking down firmly at the ground as we walk to bus stops, autos, pretending at deafness, because it’s the easier, better, safer option? Even as our minds would process the filth and venom spewing at us, in the form of the words and actions of a handful of loitering boys? And maybe one day, we decide to escalate the matter to the guardians of our education?

Support was not on the agenda for Akanksha though – the utter lack of action on the part of the authorities pushed her into halla bol mode. She shaved off her head as a mark of protest. Last week, when another girl complained of harassment on campus, she was asked that all-time favourite question that patriarchy-bearers love: “Were you waiting to be raped?” Followed closely with the second-best “Why were you out after 6 pm?” In an interview with Youth Ki Aawaaz, the Vice Chancellor of BHU urged the interviewee to “think like a father” when he was asked why girls are always asked that question.

Think like a father. Ah yes, hello patriarchy – throttle me again please, won’t you?

We don’t run out of episodes. Arpita, a BEd. Student at BHU, told us about the time a much-looked-forward-to out-station trip was cancelled last minute, “because suddenly there was this hullabaloo about who will take responsibility of all the girls?” Her peer, Mamta is irked no end by the “ceaseless rounds of permissions” she and her friends need to take from the authorities, “The boys just whizz in and out and we’re made to feel like we need to justify even breathing!

Meanwhile, we batted a few eyelids even as students at BHU were lathi-charged at by cops, and told (read forced) to take an early Dussehra break. Our very own in-house BHU alumnus narrated harrowing tales of imposed evacuations and hostel girls being packed off to their homes where their fathers et al awaited them.

The fact that the BHU protests have taken the country by storm has a lot to do with the fact that BHU is in Banaras, in Uttar Pradesh. The so-called keepers of morality must be going livid just thinking about the dangers of their sacred institutions turning into oh-no-not-another-JNU! Dissent is not a terribly valued occupation or even state of mind these days, we know, but both the Chief Minister’s politicizing of the episode and the Prime Minister’s avoidance of it – his route during his recent Banaras outing was changed at the last minute – makes it clear that jumla rajniti (politics of corruption) favours hollow aggression as much as a perpetual maun vrat (vow of silence).

A steadily growing throb everywhere. The kind that leads to a large increase in girls enrolling for higher studies in many parts of the country, many of whom come from deep inside the hinterland, singing their own versions of that Cyndi Lauper anthem. The 19-year-olds Nazni interviewed for her story are also trading those safe dreams for bigger, dangerous, better ambitions and desires.

The BHU alumnus in the Khabar Lahariya Delhi newsroom comes from a weavers’ family in Banaras. She’s orchestrating the next Facebook Live, possibly on impositions and women, for the platform.

There is Saumya, a TV news presenter in Banda, who scoffs at the custom of ‘keeping their girls indoors at all times’.

There is also Shivani in Jhansi who applied her Class XII Science to devise an anti-rape belt.

And gold medallist Ekta Maurya in Faizabad who had her own favourite question to pose: Why is it that girls can excel at academics and yet be expected to don aprons?

And local Banda cricketer Shobha who cites Mithali Raj as her favourite player.

And there is…