Space And Control Of the Female Body

“In all of these three instances, the women didn’t appreciate or ‘enjoy’ the male gaze and action. If that had happened, this article wouldn’t be about sexual misconduct. But the women had different reactions to all of these incidents, which cannot be reduced to a formula,” says Soumabrata Chatterjee as he witnesses three separate incidents of sexual misconduct in his campus.

University spaces are generally unlike any other kind of space functioning around and through us embedded in it. I am not saying that they are better spaces as certain researchers and students claim them to be but, that they work and project themselves in a different way as opposed to the spaces that work in the free market of quasi-capitalism prevalent in our country. If we take into account the idea of ‘leisure’ we would be able to etch out the reason behind university spaces standing apart from others. The use of space here is very different, and in that way I wish to suggest that ideally in a university, everybody is equal. The students, the professors, the staff members, the hostel workers, the mess cooks, the sweepers every body has a claim on the spaces of adda and meaningless discussion which are not legitimated by the other category of people. This does not however mean that there isn’t an inherent hierarchy working here. What I do mean is that the idea of interpersonal relationships works much better here. A parallel example would be that of a market, in the suburbs with sellers sitting on the pavements and crying hoarse over the presumed quality of their products. The interpersonal relations with certain customers who have been buying from the same seller for over ten years will trump a new guy interrupting the social alliance. But even then you would see the sweepers eat at the dining table after all the students have finished their meals and hence never get a meal which is lukewarm, to say the least. However, I cannot put forward the same point for any other hostel or university rather than the one I live in. This kind of segregation is not coerced nor does it talk about the fact that there isn’t a mutual respect, but the fact remains that the guards at a hostel will refer to you as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’, despite your requesting them not to do so.

This culture of assimilating a motley crew of people from different social backgrounds and putting them in the same workspace gives rise to a sense of complacency about the place being purged of the general problems of gender sensitivity or casteism that we encounter in the larger, messier world.

Politics here seem to be crystal clear and yet, in the recently concluded JNUSU elections, there happened to be a question of gender sensitisation, which took the center stage. Also there was the event of an Ambedkarite party launching a verbal attack on the supposed Brahminical attitude of the left alliance party. These issues bring us back to the question that if university campuses are really that different, then why do these problems keep producing themselves?

In this piece, I wish to look at three disparate incidents which went unreported not because of any institutional ‘slackery’ or general lack of awareness but because the people involved in it didn’t want to take this forward. Names will be omitted of course and no survivor shaming or perpetrator blaming will form the kernel of my argument. The argument will be about space and control of female bodies, the gaze which looks at them, and the other male gazes (friends like us) who try to support them but also fall into the same trap of survivor-perpetrator binary.

The first instance is when I had recently accessed the campus and its privileges. I was basking in the glory of being admitted to what people refer to as one of the finest educational institutions in the country. A female classmate told me this story about a man who was sharing a hostel room with me due to the fact that she was quite close to my roommate. So he met my classmate during admission when they had exchanged some words and soon lost contact. One fine day, he came across this woman, followed her to an empty classroom and banged the door behind her and asked for her phone number. Flustered and irritated and, with a lot of trepidation, she agreed to provide him the number. Now this is a fairly straightforward narrative of sexual misconduct. Let me talk about the other three and come back to this.

Two of my friends go out to take a walk around the ring road of JNU when a car follows them with possibly two or more people in it. At that time of the night, there are generally fewer people on the streets, which probably gave impetus to the guys following them. My friends reach the point where they can contact the guard and these guys drive off. One of the guys incidentally lives right across my room and my friends point it out to me. We confront them along with two other friends and discuss the matter in detail.

What follows is absurd: this guy claims that he didn’t do anything wrong simply because he hadn’t said anything, signaled or even engendered some kind of physical gesture. The fact that he and another guy who is an erstwhile student of JNU were following them is in itself a deeply problematic and what is even more disturbing is that he feels that he has done no wrong.

In this exchange of opinions what came across is another issue that we often grapple with amidst our daily problems of representation and violence. The women said something pertinent at the end of it when they pointed out that we (me and another male friend) spoke more about it with the perpetrators than they did. What we presupposed as an act of solidarity and empathy could be interpreted as an act of speaking for the survivors. It is an extremely curious and important point, which should be studied in detail.

When an event like a sexual misdemeanor/assault or molestation comes up in the general public or a defined ‘public’ as in university students, there is also the question of the audience which receives it and discusses it. Often we, as friends (in this case) or even as people who do not know either the perpetrator and survivor, place ourselves in a position which is ethically oriented towards understanding the point-of-view of both the sides. What happens in most of the cases is that we tend to make judgments about the issue at hand and try to appropriate the people involved as pre-defined actors in a thought-out scene. This turns out to be problematic because then we come across cardboard characters and a story, which has been played out so many times that it, has lost its edge or newness. What happened in this instance, without us realising it as it happened, is that we put ourselves into this ambivalent position of both being empthasisers and jury of the issue. We catered to both the parties (perpetrator-survivor) albeit in different styles. When the discussion happened and he was told that the women would file a complaint with the governing body, something else occurred which changed the basic power structure of the whole argument. We started thinking about this guy who was some years junior to us and that we shouldn’t destroy the career of this young man. He was called back and asked to apologise again and that it shouldn’t happen again.

This is a malleable point for me personally because I have seen this argument play out in media and in society that women should always come up with narratives of their abuse. “Out with the abusers!” — as if it’s that easy. It isn’t.

In a country like ours where ‘victim shaming’ (I have serious concerns with the word ‘victim’) is prevalent, to say that women who don’t come out with their personal narratives are either cowards or they didn’t fulfill their politico-ethical prerogatives is pretty stupid. Women who do come out require an immense amount of courage and commitment but, women who don’t aren’t really lacking in those departments either. What happened in that small room that day pushed me to the limits of my theorising abilities as I saw two of my closest friends didn’t go through with their original plan. They are feminists, or at least people who study and believe in the notions of sexual justice and sexual equality and difference. They are also privileged members of the community insofar as they study in JNU and they come from affluent families. They aren’t cowards either or lesser feminists. What ensued that day was our misappropriation of the nature of support we can provide to our friends and also their independent agential choice of not taking a juridical step against this man. And we need to understand the politics of both of these facets extremely clearly.

The third instance is something which has flummoxed me the most. So, I was with a female friend of mine; we were chatting and suddenly she looks at me and says (breaking into laughter), “Look, that guy is masturbating in the next room!” This guy in the opposite room has opened the door to such an extent that he can see her and pleasure himself. It works the other way too, as the woman can also see him. I walk up to the room thinking I should just abuse and slap him. My friend asks me not to do anything of that sort. So I shut the door and I come back absolutely fuming about the whole thing. “It is really disgusting”- I thought to myself and I look at her and she is still laughing. That it was an act of power is quite understandable considering that the guy opened the door so much so that she can understand what he is doing. But the woman here finds it absolutely hilarious about the fact that the guy thought it would intimidate her.

Her response to this issue is extremely difficult to be put into categories. It is an almost violent disavowal of the sexual power that the guy thought he had on her, but it is an authoritative account of a woman laughing (almost mocking) at this pathetic show of power.

It could have offended another woman, but it didn’t offend her in that way. She rather found it to be a cheap parlor trick worth nothing.

What I was trying to arrive at through these three instances is the fact of the woman deciding her course of action, without depending on whether she has been slighted in some way. Don’t get me wrong. In all of these three instances, the women didn’t appreciate or ‘enjoy’ the male gaze and action. If that had happened, this article wouldn’t be about sexual misconduct. But the women had different reactions to all of these incidents, which cannot be reduced to a formula. It cannot be calculated and hence as citizens, comrades or friends, we cannot expect a woman to give the same reaction and then judge her when she doesn’t do that. The ‘public’, which reacts to questions of sexual assault often questions the woman based on her dress, or her conduct, or her intentions and finally the main issue of this piece- her stereotyped eagerness to follow a certain juridical path to justice or some kind of redemption. And when they stray, we link this nonchalance to bad feminism (in most discussions about feminism) or the rudimentary fact that they must have enjoyed it. That should stop immediately. Agency cannot be manifested in a singular way; it boasts of the nature of a chameleon.

Soumabrata is a research scholar in English Studies at JNU.

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