By Kavita Krishnan:

Ever since I spoke on TV about the AMU library issue, students from a variety of other institutions (ranging from Delhi to Guwahati to Hyderabad to Allahabad) have reached out to me about gender bias and moral policing on their campuses. These students have spoken about how those who have raised their voice have been victimised and so they are in fear to speak out openly. And yes, what is a common feature is the logic given to justify all the double standards for women students – ‘….. is an unsafe city/town, we are in your parents’ place, we can’t allow girls to take risks since we’re answerable to your parents, if you raise these issues you are maligning/betraying the institution.”

Picture credits: Thakur Vishant Singh on Facebook

Isn’t it alarming that barring a handful of rare exceptions (less than a handful really), all higher educational institutions in our country seem to insist on treating adult women students as ‘wards’, infantilising them? Is it not unfortunate that instead of offering a welcome break from the regime of surveillance they experience at home, these institutions take on the mantle of surveillance and restrictions in the name of safety – reproducing and replacing the ‘family’ institution?

What happened in Lucknow University on 15th November – where an ABVP mob could act as censor and effectively impose a ban on a public meeting that I was addressing, declaring that ‘we wont let her speak on OUR campus’ – shows that the patriarchal discourse of ‘honour’spreads from family and community to educational institution as well, threatening violence against those who ‘betray’ this ‘code of honour’ and mobilising the campus to rise up in defence of this ‘honour’. The space for women to speak freely about their grievances or assert their rights, effectively shrinks, in the face of this aggressive display of ‘honour’.

I feel a need to step back from the ways in which this discussion has been framed till now, and widen the lens. To do this, I went back to read the report of the UGC Task Force on Issues of Safety for Women and Youth on Indian Campuses. This Task Force that submitted its report last year, included several eminent feminist academics on its panel.

This report observes that most campuses do not have properly functional gender sensitization and anti-sexual harassment mechanisms. It also observed that it the Open Forums organised by it, “Several speakers stressed that locking the women up was not the answer; the custodial responsibility was to make university spaces safe enough for them to live with a sense of freedom and equality. There were protests about early hostel hours where women students had to be “in” by 6 pm; hostel terraces were locked at 6.30 or not open at all; transport between the main campus and undergraduate hostels stopped at 7pm, and in some universities did not exist at all.”

The report also said that in the Open Forums, “Students and faculty in minority institutions were particularly vocal about the need not to compromise on issues pertaining to gender equality on campuses. While respect for diversity is necessary, every encouragement must be provided to minority students to express their experiences of harassment or discrimination in an atmosphere of safety and confidentiality. The procedures and guidelines to handle complaints must be seen to be adhered to.”

The report also observed, “The university was a living space as well as a work space. It was a place where it should be possible to think further about equality, to take risks, to experiment, to learn about how not just to tolerate but to live well with others who are different— socially, economically, in terms of religion, race, sexual orientation or ability. Students felt that the university should help women transition from the protected atmosphere of the home, into a real life situation where she had to be independent. They felt the university did not take the women students seriously enough. Notices for lectures rarely reached women’s hostels; they were not encouraged to go on educational trips or speak up at lectures or in class. Many stressed excessive moral policing, and insistence on dress codes was echoed by several students.”

Here’s more from the report, “Concern for the safety of all women, but particularly young women students should not lead to discriminatory rules for women in the hostels. The attitude to women’s safety in hostels often infantilizes these adult women and does not empower them to learn to strategize about their own safety. Most importantly the focus would have to shift to ensuring a safe environment around the hostel and campus. An urgent issue to address is safety for all women on campuses who want to sit in the library till late or in the science departments to do experiments. Proper lighting and shuttle buses that take students to the hostel or the nearest bus stop are necessary. The mentality of “policing” as a panacea for deep prejudice only spawns alternative forms of violence and subjugation.”

While the students and faculty members spoke to the Task Force about their frustration that ‘security’ resulted in moral policing and gender discrimination rather than gender sensitisation and action against sexual harassment, the authorities appeared to be in denial.

One of the questions in the questionnaire posed by the Task Force to the authorities who ran campuses was “what measures existed to ensure that women students have equal access to campus facilities such as the library, laboratories or any campus event at all times.”

The answer from those who ran educational institutions was disappointing: “This question did not elicit any interesting responses – women’s colleges said that it did not apply to them, and co-educational institutions declared that they were equal access institutions overall. A few mentioned that they had separate facilities such as common room for girls, or separate stair cases even. Others mentioned efforts such as giving women ‘priority’ space in the library or promoting sports events for women. It was the following more focused question on whether differential timings for male and female hostel residents to return to their respective hostels (including night outs) that provided some indication of differential policies and rules in place that are quite widespread. Once again women’s colleges (and of course those institutions that did not offer accommodation to women students) said the question did not apply to them. Among the rest (about 800 institutions) 349 (or 44%) admitted that they had differential timings, often amounting to at least one hour or more in the evenings. Further details included having to give notice well in advance to a warden or proctor for staying out. A few said that they applied strict timings to both male and female students equally.”

Alarmingly, several of the institutions also recommended moral policing as the answer to sexual harassment. Asked by the Task Force about any suggestions they might have to improve the situation in relation to cases of sexual harassment, “about 3.5 per cent suggested self-defence classes for women students, 5.3 per cent women/gender studies classes, and 19.5 per cent awareness programmes. Among other suggestions (totally 21.5%) the predominant ones were security and surveillance related, including raising boundary walls, more security, installing CCTV cameras and such like. Still others called for proper dress codes for women, self-monitoring among students. Even more problematic was the suggestion from a few that parents or guardians needed to be brought into the picture and should be the first to be informed about any problem on campus.”

It was students in the Open Forums who protested vociferously against differential rules, differential timings, and differential access (as quoted early on in this article).

Clearly the concerns that emerged in AMU are by no means peculiar to AMU or to institutions with a ‘minority’ character. Is the media pursuing AMU with a zeal it does not show for other institutions? Is it interested in painting the whole thing as a problem of ‘minority’ institutions (and therefore minority/Muslim communities) alone? In my opinion, yes. And this does not help the women students of AMU in any way.

When beleaguered as a community and isolated as an institution, women in institutions like AMU are, rightly, wary and suspicious of being ‘used’ (by media, by the HRD Ministry of a BJP Government, and so on) to target the community and institution. Therefore, we see a zealous show of loyalty on their part. Ironically, the same institution that normally prevents undergraduate woman scholars from participating in marches on campus, allows them to participate in a march where they can declare the VC to be their father! The inevitable result is that the women students’ own voice finds it more difficult to articulate itself in a way that is not appropriated either by a right wing agenda or by the paternalistic institution.

AMU’s undergraduate woman students need to know that in fact, their articulation of their demand for access to the best library on their campus, has inspired students of other campuses to relate to them, and to raise demands on their own campuses.

Instead of allowing the media to frame the debate as ‘gender-biased AMU vs the righteous rest’, students of various educational institutions should themselves pursue the recommendations of the UGC Task Force. This would include demands to ensure functional committees against sexual harassment and for gender sensitization, and an identification of all the differential rules and regulations (such as hostel timings) and absence of infrastructure (such as adequate hostels, transport) that make women’s experience of campus life less rich and less free and more insecure than that of men. It would be ideal if the AMUSU and the women’s students’ union in AMU (that have, by all accounts, taken a reasonable and sensible approach and have condemned the VC’s sexist response to the women undergraduates’ demand), could take a lead in forging this discussion across campuses. Media institutions, if they are indeed not interested merely in singling out AMU, should also do stories from private and government-run campuses in every state, enquiring from students and faculty if the recommendations of the UGC Task Force Report have been implemented.

You can read the entire text of the UGC Task Force report here. I hope that students in campuses all over the country read this report, and reach out to each other in solidarity to take the discussion forward.

For women, persuading parents to send them ‘far away’ to study is hard enough. This is why many women students have to think many times before raising their voice against sexual harassment and gender discrimination openly. If they do so, they fear that their parents will recoil in fear, and discontinue their education in the institution of their choice. It is the duty of institutions to ensure that women students can raise their voice with their privacy intact – to complain about sexual harassment, and also to challenge and change discriminatory rules and regulations. If women are locked up in hostels, if they’re restricted from enjoying access to the city/town they live in, to films and public meetings and protest marches – they end up learning less. Their experience of higher education ends up being less rich than that enjoyed by men. Telling them they have to put up with discrimination in the name of their safety, is an insidious form of victim-blaming for the sexual harassment they face all too often. In every institution, they are protesting against the double standards. Let’s reach out to them, and tell institutions to treat women students as adult women, to do their duty to create an atmosphere on all campuses that repels discrimination and sexual harassment and promotes equality.

(Kavita Krishnan is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association and tweets at @kavita_krishnan)