I gawp at her limbs with impunity,
I slowly detach her personhood from those limbs
For her limbs are not her own
They have been crafted for my consumption.
Students, both boys and girls, lined the path leading from the academic block to the Amul store, holding placards emblazoned with words that spoke of the everyday sexual harassment that girls on campus face. Several posters carried simple, powerful reminders about limits that must be acknowledged and respected, with a few expressing the anger of the student body at the dismissiveness of the university administration.
What triggered this demonstration was the attitude of the university administration towards the incident involving the third year girls that took place in the morning of 5th September and the callous reactions of several students of the university. The third year girls decided to boycott the committee elections that took place on the 10th of September. A few members of the university administration, including the Vice-Chancellor, spoke to the class, reprimanding the girls for disrupting the electoral process, and asked the girls why they hadn’t brought the incident to their attention, despite the passage of several days. The Vice-Chancellor did not address the students about the incident and apologized on behalf of the boys. The administration also indicated that elections must not be disrupted due to the occurrence of such a ‘small incident’.
Appalled at the attitude of a few boys, and that of the university administration, a few girls decided that something must be done not just to express their revulsion, but also to address the problematic nature of campus culture. A discussion took place in the girls’ hostel, which culminated in the decision to urge the students of the university to display the aforementioned placards. The aim of the exercise was both to address the university administration and to engage with the student body on an issue that has long evaded discussion. Rishika Sahgal, as convener of the Student Welfare Committee (SWC) and as a concerned student, spoke to the VC about the issue, and put forth the demands of a large segment of the student body. The VC agreed to conduct a sensitization program for the students of the university, which will be organized by the SWC in collaboration with Professor Mrinal Satish. The VC also allowed the students, who had by then already lined up with placards, to engage with the community.
In order to understand why the incident occurred, it is important for us to recognize the power wielded by the patriarchal norms that govern people’s attitudes towards women’s bodies. The incident itself is symptomatic- the by-product of a culture where the commodification of women’s bodies is commonplace, where women’s bodies are viewed as exhibits that may be commented on or ogled at. Harassment of such a nature stems from a deeply skewed culture where women’s bodies aren’t viewed as being intimately connected with their personhood, but as belonging to the public realm, where they exist for the gratification of others. It is in a culture such as this that their bodies are subject to constant appraisal to determine if they satisfy the unforgiving, ever-changing caprices of the male gaze. Women aren’t perceived as possessing autonomy over their bodies, largely due to a failure to relate the woman, as a person, with her body, and the subsequent inability to recognize her ownership over her body. It is a culture where the value of a woman’s ‘no’ diminishes in comparison with that of the desire to penetrate her privacy, where the cloak of anonymity allows individuals to do what they may never do in public without fear of censure, and where those committing unacceptable acts seek solace in the safety of numbers. One also realizes that it is the fear of social reprisal that keeps individuals from committing certain acts, as opposed to the reprehensible nature of the act itself.
It is deplorable that the only body that possesses the official power to punish the offenders fails to comprehend the grave nature of the issue, with those who boycotted the elections being viewed as posing a hindrance to a democratic process rather than as individuals raising legitimate concerns about the culture of the place they call home. The lack of acknowledgment on the part of the university administration further cements the deeply ingrained structures that constitute this culture, and it is vital for the authorities to recognize this.
The demonstration was a success- the participation of both girls and boys in the exercise, the creatively crafted posters, and the large numbers that expressed support, gave vent to the long withheld frustration of the student community. Perhaps one of the most important developments following the incident and the subsequent demonstration was the mobilization of a significant proportion of the student body. One hopes that it was the first step in cultivating a long-due spirit of activism and change within campus- a spirit that enables students to acknowledge the systemic flaws that are so deeply entrenched in campus culture, and identify those of their actions that are responsible for the perpetuation of such a culture. It is important for us to acknowledge that incidents such as these are both the manifestations and ramifications of the deeply gendered nature of our society. The demonstration brought to fore issues that must be spoken about- harassment that is little discussed despite its, or perhaps because of, its all- pervasive nature.
(The language used in this piece may seem strong to those who have never paused to give this issue a thought, but the author would urge them to imagine what it is like to live in a society where one is subjected to sexual harassment on an everyday basis.)