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The BHU Protests And Reviving Indian Feminism

Posted by Nandini Mazumder in Campus Watch
October 16, 2017

The future’s in the air
I can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of change

~ Winds of Change, Scorpions

Feminism cannot be contained in books or in films. It cannot be confined to the braveness of fictitious characters in novels and movies. Feminism is our lived realities. It comes alive when we stand up to the misogyny and call out sexism. Feminism is when students protest in universities and their parents begin to realise the worth of their daughters’ fights to dismantle patriarchy. Feminism is when the powers are caught unaware at the vibrant protests, rising in the very heartland of India ushering in a period when they cannot get away with idiotic statements like “boys will be boys” that supports and strengthens the rape culture, anymore.

In 2012, there was a wave of protests against rape but the dialogue fell short as it failed to address the rampant patriarchy that supports rape culture. But the recent protests in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) feel different. The protests were led by young, capable women, mostly from the orthodox heartland where the patriarchy is often stifling and in your face. These protests have breathed fresh life to feminism in India and we feel hopeful about the future.

By now it is common knowledge for those of us following the news that what unfolded in BHU was a classic example of systemic failure in dealing with sexual harassment. In an ideal scenario, those who were guilty would be booked but instead, in this case, the university authorities decided to witch hunt and victim blame and shame those who were allegedly harassed. There were several gross misconducts that occurred and should be discussed in the backdrop of rampant misogyny and related gender-based violence in our educational institutions.

Firstly, the university’s reluctance to call the crime by its name and making it somewhat lighter by calling it ‘eve-teasing’ implied that some felt that harassment is socially acceptable. While, undoubtedly teasing itself can lead to fatal consequences for the person at the receiving end, it is also a reminder that a culture that worships a deity who regularly stole the clothes of women to harass/tease/molest them, will predictably support such acts and beliefs. This is also a reminder that language determines our beliefs and vice versa, and together they determine our approach to everything, including gender issues and related violence. So far, the Indian approach has a lot left to be desired with examples like BJP MP saying that Chhattisgarh girls are becoming ‘tan-a-tan’ and other politicians who make sexist remarks.

Secondly, the universities’ ‘protectionist’ policies that have glaring disparities in the access to public spaces and utilities among men and women, including the ability to use the library at night or stay connected through mobile phones, does a great disservice to women scholars. On a deeper probe into such gendered protectionist policies, we understand that it only protects patriarchy and serves the interest of misogyny by enabling men to falsely believe that they are somehow ‘superior’ to women.

Thirdly, the use of disproportional, brute state force on students who were only demanding for a safer university campus and a sane educational environment raises several questions. In what situation and scenario is it okay or allowed to target students protesting a crime, while, at the same breath we also insist on calling ourselves a democracy?

It also brings back horrifying memories of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2009 when a similar incident occurred on the campus. Four men with connections or perhaps sons of men in power (whose identities remain a mystery and different news reports gave different names of the four men), entered the campus, attempted to molest a female student and even threatened a security guard with a gun. Students united to protests against the act of entitlement and misogyny but the state used forces to protect the identity of the accused and unleashed unspeakable violence on them, including, lathi-charges and tear gas shells.

My personal experiences too corroborate the systemic failure to provide gender justice in India. In 2008, I had an experience of harassment in the Delhi-Kolkata Rajdhani and when I tried to report it, the authorities warned me saying that “good girls don’t report such cases.” I insisted on reporting it ignorant of the fact that nothing will really come out of it. Next year, when another such incident happened, the police out-rightly asked me why was I out that late in the night to watch a movie, implying that women should avoid watching night shows or going out at night if they want safety.

Of course, I ignored their implications and the case itself as by then it was clearer than the day that no action will be taken even though I had given them a car number to trace. However, unfortunately, such incidents are neither rare nor uncommon and every woman I know or I have met has a number of such scary experiences. In fact, at times, we joke among our friends that it is quite a wonder that we are even alive! And when our jokes are this dismal, one can only imagine the extent of the daily dismal negotiations we have to make as women.

However, such pathological conditions cannot continue and what we witness now is the rage against it. From JNU to BHU, we are getting really tired and we will no longer sit quietly and let it pass. We will not do it for the sake of our family and their honour, for our husbands or boyfriends and their brittle egos, for our universities or institutions and their prestige because we have had enough, we are angry and this anger shall not be contained anymore. We shall break out in many more protests and struggles to reclaim the spaces and the hours and refuse to be confined.

We will stop fearing or caring for the labels that society gives us, in fact, we will gladly be known as ‘bad’ if that means to fight for our freedom, dignity and to be treated as equals. Our struggles are also bound to spread and grow from bigger cities to smaller towns, from towns to villages, from universities to farms. Our struggles will unite unlikely allies, from English speakers to non-English speakers, beyond caste, class, gender and sexuality, sex workers, labourers, the homeless, and women in conflict zones –  because a feminist world is truly inclusive and seeks dignity for all.