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‘Shakti Samvad’ For Bhopal’s Women: Are Ms Sitharaman And Sadhvi Pragya On The Same Page?

Dear Madam Sitharaman,

As the second woman Defence Minister of our country, you came to have a ‘Shakti Samvad’ with women students of Bhopal. We are very happy that you took time this election season to visit the city in which incidentally, someone accused of terrorism and currently under-trial, Sadhvi Pragya has been nominated as your party’s candidate. It definitely helps to balance the image and message from your party.

However, we are conflicted by the two poles of shakti or women empowerment that you and she represent, when indeed this promise of empowerment is based on masking the real discrimination on ground! Let us not celebrate yet, with a handful of women rising to leadership or celebrity status. We do not want this half-baked empowerment, we seek liberation for all instead! This ‘Shakti Samvad’ then seems to be shadowed by a shakti which thrives on a culture of impunity and a virulent display of power impaired by its own infallibility.

Photo provided by author.

As women students part of Pinjra Tod, Bhopal, we ask you: what does it take to indeed change the status quo of the powers that be? Every time women students in any institution raise these basic demands they are met with silencing, shaming and even disciplinary action and in the extreme case of BHU, a lathi-charge. Bhopal has seen many a student protest against curfew from RIE to NLIU. We RIE students have been protesting for the past one year and have only managed to get the hostel curfew to shift by two hours.

In September last year, we had a huge protest by women hostelers as we defied the current curfew of 6:45 p.m. and sat outside the hostel gate. The campus has two gates, the hostel gate and the main gate; women students were not allowed to be outside the hostel gate inside the campus post 6 p.m.! If we wished to sit in the library beyond the curfew time then we had to be seated there till 8 p.m., no less and no more. Before our protest, at 8 p.m. guards would come to ‘collect’ women students and escort us back to the hostel. We were told there are ‘black mambas’ in the playground, that come out post 6:00 p.m. only to bite women students and the curfew protects us from them.

One can only wonder why the black mambas of Bhopal emerge after 6:00 p.m. to bite only women students! We, residents of hostel of Regional Institute of Education are bound by layers of caging – the grill, the hostel gates and the university gate. We have fought these timings over and over again to move the needle of the clock from 5:45 p.m. to now, 8 p.m. (hostel curfew), and 9 p.m. (grill time, which means we cannot access the hostel premise after 9 p.m.).

Photo provided by author.

We have said this before and we say it yet again, the humiliating practice of imposing curfews on women students debars us from accessing basic university and social resources, violates our fundamental rights as citizens and infantilises us. As future educators and teachers, we know that restriction on our mobility is in direct conflict with our autonomy and is direct encouragement of those who commit public acts of sexual violence by making it appear as if women do not belong to the public space and must be punished when they venture into it. We wish to no longer participate in a culture that reproduces such regulation of bodies in order to preserve caste-class purity, marked by this kind of oppression.

The RIE administration has constantly been whipping up the security rhetoric to cage women, to curtail their mobility and access. However, they care so little about safety, especially when it doesn’t give them control over us, which is evident in the fact that they didn’t even bother to have an elected Internal Complaints Committee for redressing sexual harassment.

While tapping into the ‘commonsensical’ understanding of existence of ‘rules and restrictions’ as a ‘necessary discipline,’ the university reproduces patriarchal social relations by legitimising the measures that symbolise familial protectionism. The university is directly responsible for creating a culture of sexism and is complicit in encouraging everyday verbal harassment from professors, male students and administration who tell us, “Aap aukat se zyada maang rahe ho, aukat main rahoge khush rahoge.”

Further, we know how insincere the university administration’s efforts have been – from Delhi to Bhopal – they have always resorted to intimidation tactics – tarnishing women students’ image before their parents, threatening them with the possibility of rustication and disciplinary action. On April 10, after a series of protests, we had protested in NCERT office in Delhi, demanding action on the gross violations of women students rights and repression of the administration in RIE colleges – the NCERT which has many a members of the Defence Ministry has not even bothered to respond to our letter and has shut its doors on us.

Photo provided by author.

How different is that from our everyday ritual of acquiring permission to leave our hostel, which entails four steps of pleading and begging the administration to grant us leave? This consolidates so much power in the hands of the authorities against the students. A direct outcome of that was seen in a recent case, where the Chief Warden arbitrarily ordered a woman with depression to leave the hostel in March this year. When her father appealed to their humanity and requested them to abstain from making such demands on his daughter, the administration responded by saying that their humanity lies in the fact that they didn’t immediately throw the woman out of the hostel.

The high handedness of the administration was rationalised by seeing ostracization as act of ‘kindness’ as opposed to outright coercion – the use of force to throw her out of the hostel without any fault of hers! As we protested to demand the suspension of the Chief Warden among other things, Seema Soni, Deputy Commissioner of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs paid us a visit and told them how ‘bizarre’ their demands were since, even she didn’t step out of her house post 9 p.m.

We hope that you would hold a similar conversation with your cabinet to discuss how not to securitise the bodies of women. Its clear that the problem runs deeper – when in the education sector women participation is nearly equal to that of men – they continue to make us and our families feel personally obligated and eternally grateful to the institution for giving us a place in their ‘prestigious, exclusive, exclusionary’ dens. Higher education is not a fiefdom of few – you should know that since you’re a very vocal critic of ‘dynastic politics!’

As an alumnus of JNU, where there is no curfew on women students and where there is maximum participation of students from various backgrounds, we hope that you will understand the importance of our struggle rises above the politics of labeling and castigating voices of resistance as ‘anti-nationals,’ as you did with students of JNU.

It is this style that our administration in RIEs too has happily reproduced – it overreaches its role of giving us ‘suraksha’ by weaponising the horrible reality of violence against women in society as an excuse to locking us up behind the four walls of our hostel rooms everyday – it securitises our bodies to control us and further characterise us ‘immoral’ for questioning the hollow rhetoric of security.

In the spirit of recent struggles in universities across the country such as BHU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Army Institute of Law, Hindu College, Patiala University, JNU, etc. against curfew, gender discriminatory fee hikes, sexual harassment and so on, it’s important for us to raise our voices collectively to end the caging of women. We continue to persist with our demand to have 24×7 access to our campus even as the administration calls it ‘illogical’ and mocks us.

Structures of patriarchy operating in institutions of higher education have kept us in cages for far too long. These age old foundations of patriarchy are being rattled every day with women collectivising and raising their voices. It is only a matter of time before they come crumbling down.

We request you to ask the NCERT and MHRD administration and officials to not be a barrier to our freedom. And to you, we say again, women students on the country will reject any attempts at the securitisation and surveillance of our bodies, lives and dreams!

Pinjra Tod, Bhopal

Note: This article was first published on Pinjra Tod’s Facebook page. The views expressed here are that of a collective.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: IndiaTV/YouTube; Pinjra Tod/Facebook; Pradeep Gaur for Mint via Getty Images.
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