Quite recently, a tweet by the United Nations and UN Women, listing a number of gender-neutral alternatives to commonly-used gendered terms in the English language, received backlash.
What you say matters.
Help create a more equal world by using gender-neutral language if you're unsure about someone's gender or are referring to a group. https://t.co/QQRFPY4VRn #GenerationEquality via@UN_Women pic.twitter.com/koxoAZZuxq
— United Nations (@UN) May 18, 2020
The responses pointed towards the seemingly unnecessary policing of language during a global pandemic. A number of writers and social media users went on to make a resounding point about how this was a particularly significant time to be talking about any and all issues pertaining to gender. After all, while countries like India have been seeing reduced rates of crimes such as theft, robbery and murders, in the last few months, instances of domestic violence and cybercrimes against women have witnessed a considerable surge. Not to mention the fact that some of the responses themselves were quite derogatory and sexist in nature.
Hardly any news on the ‘Bois Locker Room’ had broken out, when a Twitter user by the username @Ayioobrows took to social media. They called out eight men from one of the premier institutions of higher education in the country, for having created a Google drive to circulate similar, compromising pictures of women from their social circles.
A group of men from a premier institute from Kolkata, have been using semi-nude and nude pictures of women in a Google drive and circulating it among their friends. These pictures have been used to threaten women in the past. The drive has been existent since 2016.
— Aiyoobrows (@zindagiiksuffer) May 4, 2020
The list of names included students and ex-students of different departments in the University, and even as I write this piece about three weeks after the news originally broke out, my fingers are still shaky, given that I knew each one of them. Soon enough, accounts of misconduct and toxic behaviour of many of these young men began to pour in from multiple quarters. This included women from outside the university.
While reading about these accounts about men who’d been friends, brother-figures, or mentors to me was unsettling, but not a bolt from the blue. Eventually, a large number of women opened up publicly, about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault by other men too. I spent a week skimming through the names of many people I’d known, being called out as molesters or abusers. Interestingly, most of these were cases of violence between intimate partners or involved accusers who were known to the survivors.
This is, unfortunately, the reality that we live in today. Every account I read about, reminded me of my own experiences that I’d brushed aside on numerous occasions. But it also made me increasingly aware of my own complicity in having laughed off improper comments or ignored toxic behavioural traits in people I had known.
But how does this happen? How do people from relatively more privileged and educated backgrounds such as ourselves, belonging to one of the last standing liberal bastions of higher education in the country, get away with such conduct? It quite obviously has to do with the circumstances under which we are groomed and conditioned, not just within the university space, but also outside of it, and even before entering it.
This same conditioning also gave light to another unfortunate phenomenon, which was that of mud-slinging and victim-blaming, especially amongst and by women. As I saw witnessed many such instances unfold during that one week, I realised that as this movement of call-outs also targeted enabling and complicity, and rightly so, it hardly left any person I knew free of culpability. The fact remains that as we grow up, our society clinches onto supposed adages such as “boys mature faster than girls” and “‘boys will be boys.”
Thus, the question of accountability is very swiftly shifted onto girls or young women, who ironically, are granted less agency. This same social structure also gives rise to the patriarchal myth of a “woman being a woman’s worst enemy”, which then goes on to assume some truth value because as the worst affected victims of such patriarchal conditioning, women tend to internalise the same. Quite naturally, we see instances of women slinging mud or tearing each other down, during movements such as these, which call for solidarity-building more than anything else.
However, this social structure that I speak of, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This brings me to the other significant development that accompanied this social media upheaval — scores of young men and women choosing to call out the toxic culture of their own schools. I myself come from one of the better-known all-girls convent schools in the city. There is usually a great hue and cry about the culture of discipline and decorum that convent education supposedly entails.
Despite that, all I remembered of this ‘culture’ when I chose to change schools after 12 years of studying there, was an instance wherein my principal had called my mother to school and slut-shamed me before her, for I stayed a little late at a fest happening at an all-boys school. Oh, and I was seen talking to a couple of boys by our teacher coordinator.
This is one of the innumerable instances of repressive attitudes expressed within our school cultures. Also, this phenomenon obviously isn’t restricted to convent schools. Students attending co-educational schools too face repression and policing, which simply takes a different, and often uglier, form given that you have boys and girls growing up together in the same environment.
Therefore, the need to enforce discipline and chastity is felt all the more rigorously, which effectively subverts what would’ve otherwise been a normal environment. Some students also talked about how their school authorities over-looked or even blamed them for reporting cases of harassment within the school premises. Hence, our tendency to overlook toxic behaviour and microaggressions, to not come forward with our stories of abuse, stems from a deep-rooted sense of guilt and shame ingrained in us. This is the same place that victim-blaming stems from.
All eight men who were named in the aforementioned tweet had studied at some of the best schools in the city. More importantly, they were studying at a premier university. So does that mean that even if our school education fails us in certain ways, we can’t unlearn our conditioning in college?
Perhaps we can, and I know that I myself have tried to do the same. However, even a supposedly liberal institute such as JU might not be the safest space. I know of at least one instance wherein a senior from our university had filed a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) after having been assaulted by another student within the university premises.
After a long, tedious period of hearings and adjacent formalities, the ICC did as little as revoking the library and ID card of the accused. He was in his final semester and had already been placed and thus, went on to graduate. It is evident that even in institutes of higher education, not much heed is paid at an administrative level to sensitise students or at least offer a thorough grievance redressal mechanism.
This essentially brings us to the bitter and also strenuous reality: the responsibility to sensitise ourselves and our peers, and to hold people accountable for their actions lies largely with us. People questioning the efficacy of social media call-outs need to bear this in mind, that oftentimes, there are few other avenues available to people who’ve been wronged. Considering Louis Althusser’s conceptualisation of the ideological state apparatuses, it would be fair to assume that institutions of education serve to further the purpose of state/social hegemony more than anything else.
In this case, the social structure we occupy is inherently patriarchal in nature. The same goes for the apparatus of the family, and by extension, our immediate social surroundings in which we grow up. If a friend’s mother suggests that the only reason why a 22-year-old guy would have shown interest in a 13-year-old girl is that she must have somehow warranted it, then being that girl, it can be difficult for her to unlearn this notion, even as she grows up.
These are the base ingredients that ultimately produce socially-sanctioned concoctions of ”women asking for it”, or as we saw in this recent incident, “Why did these women not know any better” or “How did they get away with this for so long?”
Opening up about experiences of trauma and abuse tends to be as difficult as it can be cathartic. At a time like this, wherein the entire fabric of the world as we know, appears to be falling apart at the seams, there is an opportunity for restructuring. As the entire system of education in the country is being rethought, owing to the lockdown and distancing regulations, the subsequent remodelling could also focus on a more holistic approach to teaching, one that sensitises its recipients and is aimed at diversity and inclusion as opposed to being repressive and restrictive.
However, such changes are systemic and not minor, they require time and concerted efforts. Meanwhile, those of us with privilege and access can use this time to not only work on unlearning our own conditioning but to also carry it forward. It is an uphill battle, but one that must be fought. After all, if there’s one thing we have taken away from being affected by a pandemic, a cyclonic storm, and locust attacks ravaging the country, is the importance of forging solidarities.