Women deserve a life on their own terms
The vice-chancellor of Banaras Hindu University, Girish Chandra Tripathi (mercifully, no relation of mine, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual), doesn’t like to listen to mere girls. Note, he said girls—not women, though the students at his university are adults, and are therefore women. Tripathi thinks he cannot run a university if he has to listen to “every demand of every girl”.
This statement, reeking of patriarchal bravado, would at least be laughable if it was made at random. But he said this while answering questions from The Indian Express, which asked him for a response to the campus-wide agitation seeking respect for the rights of women students. The young women were complaining about rules that severely curtailed their freedoms: There are restrictions about when they can return to the hostel, whether they can access the internet in the hostel (they can’t), whether they can cook—or eat—meat in the hostel (“boys” can, “girls” can’t), and whether they can watch television in the hostel (there’s a TV set all right, but it doesn’t work). Even if these are considered trivial complaints, and they aren’t, consider this: Some women have complained about men leering at them from the streets, and in some instances, performing repulsive, obscene acts outside their windows.
The students wanted Tripathi to use his authority to enforce order, by improving security so that the roadside Romeos would be sent away. Recall that this is Uttar Pradesh, a state that had announced with great fanfare a so-called “anti-Romeo” squad, which was going to protect women from being harassed. But if such a law enforcement squad exists, it is probably busy looking for young men and women of different faiths found together, like Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the mutawa’ahs, do. Some university officials asked the women to close their windows so that they don’t have to see the men outside.
This forms a pattern, and is consistent with the misogynistic, patriarchal and conservative views many men, who see themselves as elders and protectors of women, tend to have. Such men are deeply suspicious of women wearing jeans, of women using the cellphone, of women eating chowmein, of women who want to see—or make—“lady-oriented” films.
They set rules for the length of skirts women can wear (if at all—they much prefer women to be clad in saris or salwar-kameez with dupattas draped modestly on their bodies). They confuse respect for women with protecting them by denying women their agency and freedom. For them, women are always the weaker sex; their harassment described euphemistically as “eve-teasing”, and their assertions of identity blamed on the evil influence of television or cellphones—or chowmein.
This broad generalization forms the backdrop of the attitudes and thinking that prompt men like Tripathi to feel annoyed when women talk of sexual harassment. Tripathi said that women on his campus who spoke of sexual harassment were putting their modesty in the market. Such views are regressive and annoying when a retired uncle makes them from his couch. They become dangerous when uttered by someone in authority, someone applying, setting, administering and implementing standards on a university campus.
When Tripathi dismisses a case of molestation as “eve-teasing”, he is not only attempting to make what should be punishable seem like a prank, and not only is he making light of a serious offence, he is normalizing such behaviour. In this, he isn’t alone. Popular culture—in particular Hindi cinema—has countless examples of situations where the hero acts crass in seeking the attention of the heroine, who has no interest in him, but when the song ends, she smiles demurely and walks hand-in-hand with the hero. Karna tha inkar, magar ikrar, tumhi se kar baithe (I wanted to say no but I ended up saying yes).
Such an attitude exists at all levels. Overturning the guilty verdict against film-maker Mahmood Farooqui in a rape case, Delhi high court Justice Ashutosh Kumar said that a woman’s “feeble no” may mean “yes”. His lengthy ruling goes into why he believed that the incident involving Farooqui and an American graduate student was consensual, even though her testimony during the trial showed how intimidated she felt, and how he persisted even though she kept saying no. The reasoning failed to notice the power relationship between the two; Farooqui is much older. Had he been her academic instructor or professor at an American university, he would have been dismissed, regardless of the criminal charges that might have followed.
Too many men around the world, and too many men in India in particular, suffer from these delusions: that they know better; that when a woman says no it may not mean no. But when a woman seeks protection, it is the job of the one who has authority to protect her rights such that she can enjoy her rights, such that she can exercise her freedoms, and not curb her movements or freedoms. And yet, these two instances show that the protectors have peculiar notions of women’s agency, and they want to decide what’s good for them, and want to set boundaries on women’s freedoms.
This is outrageous and unacceptable. But thus are standards set and verdicts pronounced. It deserves wider protests, across the nation, and not only from women. The good news is that many men are livid too; it is time for them to assert themselves and be allies of the sisterhood.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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