The Year of the Woman Protester

Social Commentary

The Year of the Woman Protester

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

It’s the middle of the day and Ritika is standing outside the Arts Faculty in Delhi University’s North Campus, yelling her guts out for “Azaadi”. There are nearly 40 police personnel and a police-authorised cameraperson recording her movements for evidence should things go south. She has a petite frame, is barely five feet, and if she were to break the proverbial glass ceiling, she would require many shoulders to stand on. Fortunately, she has help.

The walls outside Arts Faculty are adorned with posters announcing, “Safety without autonomy is injurious to health,” and “Sasta chatravaas dena hoga”. These are posters that the members of Pinjra Tod collective have spent days in the lawns of Central Secretariat making. At the protest meeting, Ritika walks through the crowd to read a letter she wrote to her parents, after DU sent a letter home saying she was a part of a terrorist organisation. She’s a second-year student from Bhambhla, the same place in Himachal Pradesh as Kangana Ranaut. “Admin humse darti hai, parents ko letter likhti hai,” she chants, and the crowd chants back with her.

There are about 80 of them here, from various Delhi colleges and of different ages, armed only with their enthusiasm and tablas, harmoniums, and their claps. Their sloganeering isn’t directed toward grand ideas like capitalism or racism or casteism, but the freedom of girls in hostels to have more than one bathroom and the ability to stay outside campus past an idiotic curfew time of 6.30 pm. They successfully forced the all-girls Gargi College to build more toilets and hire extra cleaners (they previously had only one) for nearly a 1,000 girl students last year. Now they have turned their focus on hostels, a privilege for which they have to pay twice as much as the boys.

I thought of the Pinjra Tod protest that took place in Delhi last month, as I watched the shit hit the fan at Banaras Hindu University this weekend. As urban India partied and got drunk, India below tier one aspired to a sliver of the same privilege in the prime minister’s own constituency, where they led a protest demanding their safety on campus.

Woman Protester

Despite being offered equality in the constitution, the women of BHU have always been treated as second-class citizens, and now they’re fighting back.

Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

If the girls braving a lathicharge and sexual harassment on their campus were any indication, we’ve reached the denouement of the year of the woman protester: A year that began with Gurmehar Kaur and is being capped by the women of Banaras Hindu University.

Despite being offered equality in the constitution, the women of BHU have always been treated as second-class citizens. They are not allowed to use phones after 10 pm. They aren’t even allowed to use the “24/7” library, as the university’s vice chancellor, GC Tripathi, a known RSS man, believes that “girls who study at night are immoral”. Women, unlike men, are banned from consuming meat, as Tripathi believes that, “consumption of non-vegetarian food makes women impure according to the Malviya values”.

For their own “safety”, women aren’t allowed outside the campus after 8 pm and are not allowed to take part in any socio-cultural activities outside their campus. The 3,000-acre campus though, for all its talk about safety, has no CCTV cameras and allegedly allows outsiders to roam freely. But we have heard more about the safety of the cow in Uttar Pradesh in the last few months than safety of women. The one measure allegedly set up to protect women in the state, the famed anti-romeo squads, turned out to be sexual harassers themselves.

As videos of women students getting beaten up went viral, the police obviously filed FIRs against them, even as Tripathi fell back on the stock response that the protest was planned by “anti-national” elements. He also added that, “If we listen to every girl, we can’t run the university”, and has continuously stressed that this was a case of “simple eve-teasing”, bringing back memories of Mulayam Singh’s now eternal “Boys will be boys” remark.

The silver lining here, if there is any, is that Tripathi’s views have been roundly panned and he has been summoned to Delhi. Officers have been fired and many more might be; the protest most probably worked.

Woman Protester

The all-girl Pinjra Tod collective aims to bring change in discriminatory regulations in Delhi University, from hostels to curfew timings, via peaceful protests.

Pinjra Tod: Break the Hostel Locks / Facebook

The BHU protest follows the pattern with which women-led protests across India have been received by the corridors of power in recent times. When Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur spoke about violence in DU and eventually raised hell when she spoke about Pakistan and war, it sent India into a tizzy. Movie stars and former cricketers debated her anti-nationalness. The result: India got talking about the violence on our borders, which is at the highest it has been for years.

The viciousness and immediacy of the backlash, though, set the tone for the rest of year, in how the ruling dispensation would deal with independent women protesters. Gurmehar was thoroughly abused and received rape and death threats. Cabinet Minister Kiren Rijiju basically called her stupid.

With BHU and Gurmehar and Bangalore and Pinjra Tod, the last one year is a flashpoint in the logical progression that started with Nirbhaya.

Of course, young, educated, independent women with a view, are a threat to order everywhere. But they are particularly dangerous in a country like India, where our societies are premised on keeping them in check. We’ve seen this play out over the last year, with the marital rape arguments, which could potentially “disturb the institution of marriage”. It’s like the tightening of an already hurtful screw, to which women have responded with striking back.

Woman Protester

In 2017, the average Indian woman has decided that enough is enough.

Pinjra Tod: Break the Hostel Locks / Facebook

Women in 30 cities walked in the night during the #IWillGoOut movement, protesting the mass molestation of women on New Year’s eve in Bengaluru. Filmmaker Saba Dewan created a Facebook event upon the lynching of 16-year-old Hafiz Junaid which became a rallying cry for Indians to come together in solidarity, birthing the #NotInMyName movement. Despite her misbehaviour with Republic TV, Shehla Rashid is seen leading the streets of DU, playing a major part in Delhi’s student politics scene.

Perhaps we could trace this back to the December 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape. The sordid details of the crime propelled a giant media reaction — but it was so close to the bone that it brought young women pouring out onto the streets. Candlelight marches and weeks-long vigils were the order of the day, as India learnt to protest again.

With BHU and Gurmehar and Bangalore and Pinjra Tod, the last one year is a flashpoint in the logical progression that started with Nirbhaya; a desire to fight against the socio-cultural pattern of relegating women to second-class citizenry, third even, if we consider the ascent of the gau mata. In 2017, the average Indian woman has decided that enough is enough.

People like BHU VC Tripathi might still be running amok with power, but for how long? The ides of this march are here.