Ranjona Banerji: Prejudiced, bigoted and illegal

Sep 27, 2017, 15:01 IST | Ranjona Banerji

The events at the Banaras Hindu University show that the attitude towards women in India needs to change. All they seek is equality

If we listen to every girl, we can't run a university, said the vice-chancellor of Banaras Hindu University, Girish Chandra Tripathi. What has this one girl said? That she was sexually harassed by three men inside the campus. When she complained, she was asked why she was out so late.

The response of the university authorities led to students sitting on a dharna at first and then an all-out battle. Sadly, this led to a lathi-charge by the police in which students were hurt. The university claimed that the police action was not aimed at the students but against outsiders who had infiltrated the campus. Oddly, if that was the case, why were so many FIRs filed against students? Between the thought and the action falls the shadow, if one can paraphrase TS Eliot here, the shadow showed the university authorities up in a pretty bad light.

An injured student writhes in pain after the police beat them up during the clash at Banaras Hindu University
An injured student writhes in pain after the police beat them up during the clash at Banaras Hindu University

The treatment of women in India, even here in the 21st century, remains stuck in some distant and discriminatory past. It does not matter how many government schemes are launched to educate girls or how many women become cabinet ministers or corporate heads. In everyday life, patriarchy is everywhere. If anyone imagined that in 2017 by the time girls became women in college, they would have reasonable freedoms, they would be wrong. Not so long ago, it was female students at Aligarh Muslim University who protested against the unfair treatment meted out to them compared to their male counterparts.

Universities, for those who are lucky enough to attend them, are supposed to open your mind, introduce you to new possibilities, challenge the certainties you were spoonfed in school and thereby allow you to choose your own way. This is a privilege that few get and a quality education is to be cherished. Instead, we have turned our colleges into rote factories where ideas and attitudes are regimented. And no one feels this more than women.

I refuse to call them "girls" because it is an insult for adults to be marked down even if they have just attained majority. Once you are old enough to vote, man or woman, you are old enough to make other decisions in your life. Day and night, we discuss the ramifications of politics and this party or this ideology over that. If you can make the decision of who rules us, then you can surely decide what to wear.

In India, adults are often infantilised, but women far more than men. What to wear, what to eat, where to go, who to talk to, who to fall in love with, what career to choose are all decisions to be made by someone else. So if men are harassing you, presumably the correct response is never to leave home so you can never meet any men?

It is this form of patriarchy on display in the Banaras Hindu University and in its vice-chancellor's unfortunate comment. It comes at a time when women in India are fighting to be heard, unwilling to be ignored. Whether it is the fight against instant talaq or the long, tough battle to get courts and governments to recognise marital rape as a crime, women in India have the right to be taken seriously and their voice to be heard.

The answer to harassment can no longer be a chastity belt for women. To shame and blame the victim can no longer be the acceptable response. In fact, within the vice-chancellor's remark lies the arrogance of patriarchy. It is a clear signal to the women he is supposed to guide that their best interests interfere with his administrative interests.

It's a complaint one hears more often these days. That women are asking for too much, are overreaching themselves, that they expect their problems to be addressed. Why can't it go back to the good old days when men were men and women stayed at home, cooking and cleaning? You see it in America all over again – why don't non-white people know their place any more?

But any way you spin it, this attitude is prejudiced, bigoted and it is illegal. Love jihad is illegal. Ignoring complaints of harassment is illegal. And not giving women their due, no matter how difficult it makes running a university, is illegal.

What does the Constitution say? It gives us equality. Why is there any more that one has to say?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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