The carefully tended grass, spread out before the red and white of St. Stephen’s College, has of late taken to rustling a bit too loudly.Students have been protesting against the unfairness of having an ‘in-time’ only for female residents in the college hostels–girls must be back in their rooms by ten o’ clock sharp, but there’s no such limit for boys. Throughout February and March, a section of the students battled hard for the girls’ right to freely move around the college campus at night. The authorities threatened to expel all protesters from the hostels, and such blatant intimidation ultimately turned the game in their favour, at least for the time being. By mid-April the protests had died down. But the meagre participation in the protests even when they were at their peak, raised questions about what people from the ‘different worlds’ within an elite college like Stephen’s think about actively campaigning for women’s liberty.
Right from my first year, it had been all too clear that as far as responding to questions of sexuality was concerned, minute fault-lines divided each world from the others. My own experience of sexual liberation in the journey from my home-town Dhanbad to Delhi, had taught me the difficulty of positioning oneself with respect to each of these worlds. On one hand free-flowing conversations about menstruation and other aspects of the female body within the classroom and without had been a heartily welcome release from the claustrophobic silence surrounding sexuality back home. On the other hand, sexual jokes seemed to be the trademark of specific, dominantly elitist groups in college, many – but significantly, not all – of whose members firmly believed in the need for greater liberation for women and people with alternative sexualities. Few students however, seemed to understand that someone uncomfortable with this kind of humour could still be fiercely free-thinking and conversely, merely cracking such jokes did not amount to any meaningful assertion of such liberation. There were boys who had become popular by documenting on Facebook how they’d kissed a gay friend in front of the café ‘just for fun’, yet showed no interest in the campaign against the 10 o’clock curfew for girls. Perhaps it wasn’t fun enough for them.
“One would expect students from regions like the North-East, who’re painfully familiar with the routine sexual violence that has become synonymous with armed conflict, would protest more vehemently. But apart from two or three extremely strong voices, North Eastern students were largely absent from the campaign.”
But most people other than me, who did not participate in such humour, didn’t seem interested in actual liberation either, beyond the occasional short skirt or quirky hair-do. So the overwhelming majority of students who were scandalized by the patriarchal language used by the authorities in response to the protests,were upper and upper-middle class girls from Delhi, Bangalore and a few from Hyderabad or Kolkata. They were enraged because the freedom they had come to naturally accept through the years of growing up was being ridiculed. Links were drawn between the use of such language, loaded with notions of male superiority and control, and rape –its logical albeit brutal extension. Others however, refrained from connecting the two. Many girls from Kerala for instance, insisted that the December 16 incident was the result of aggressive male sexuality exclusive to the U.P. – Haryana – Delhi belt of the country or a sort of incident that could happen only in a metropolis like Delhi. They’re fully aware of the conservative attitudes back home that most of them had to fight, to even reach a Delhi college but they refused to recognize that the patriarchy at work there, needed to be resisted just as strongly. Most of them were scared of losing their places in hostel because their families could not afford to accommodate them somewhere else. Many thought their parents would in fact, take them out of college if they got ‘kicked out’ or worse still, if they were found shouting slogans for women’s liberty – since such discontentment surely meant they were going astray. More importantly, it seemed to be the implicit acceptance of patriarchy as natural that ensured their passivity. The same acceptance convinced them that protecting themselves was the simple solution to unsafe city-conditions.
One would expect students from regions like the North-East, who’re painfully familiar with the routine sexual violence that has become synonymous with armed conflict, would protest more vehemently. But apart from two or three extremely strong voices, North Eastern students were largely absent from the campaign. It is true that the percentage of students from the North East is lower in Stephen’s compared to other DU colleges, with even fewer students living in the hostels. But the marked lack of interest even among that small number was surprising. Perhaps they too did not grasp the pervasiveness of the patriarchy that merely differed in degree from one situation to another? If at Stephen’s we were fighting against the bare bones of the discourse itself, then in the North East one encountered a more evolved and immediately threatening form of the same organism. But then again, given how North-Eastern girls have graver concerns for their security on the Delhi streets and are often specifically targeted for sexual harassment, maybe they considered the women students’demand for greater access to public spaces a misguided one altogether. And what about the near absence of Kashmiri women students? Was the security of hostel-life too important to risk losing, in a city eminently hostile to them? Or, having fought their way to Stephen’s, was scoring high grades their sole focus? In that case, activism of any sort might be considered a distraction they can’t afford and in case of retaliation by the authorities, a step that would derail their hard-earned progress.
Anger, tinged with disbelief steadily grew among the protesters as the authorities continued to speak the patronizing and demeaning language of patriarchy. But outside this group, each section in the richly varied student body reacted to the authorities and the protests themselves, differently. In my case of course, liberation had been a lesson largely learnt in college. But no matter how dear it was to me, the desperation to reach Stephen’s made it hard, once I was finally there, to even realize that my rights were being violated; let alone question the gendered ways of working of the administration.It was only when we began actively discussing such biases and how the authorities capitalize on precisely this desperation to keep us quiet, that I tried connecting my high-flying theories of gender equality to daily experiences, and failed. But then a fresh battle began, between my newly internalized radicalism and what my parents thought about it. If I lost Residence for having protested against its discriminatory rules, they did not have the means to lodge me elsewhere. It was hard enough for them to keep up with the spiralling college and hostel fees. The message was clear – for the moment I should shut my mouth tight and concentrate on studying: ‘once you’ve built yourself a career and started earning an income, go campaign for women’s rights’. My own claims for liberty seemed strangely luxurious before the matter-of-factness of financial crisis. A progressive ideology was turning into one, I could not afford to practise. The many worlds had begun to reveal mirrors in which I saw my own helplessness, scattered everywhere.