The first time Shivangi Choubey missed the curfew at her student hostel was a night in late September. It was not the only rule she broke that day.
Women students at Banaras Hindu University are not supposed to protest. Many are made to sign a contract that spells this out explicitly. Men are not required to sign anything of the kind.
Nor, at many hostels on campus, are women served meat, permitted to speak on the phone after 10pm, or allowed out in the evenings when their male counterparts still roam the tree-lined campus on sputtering two-wheelers or cram into the library to study.
So it was especially shocking – and unprecedented in the university’s 100-year history – when Choubey led 200 women through the gates of their college to join hundreds of others assembled outside Lanka gate, the campus’s bustling entrance. “Nobody ever misses a curfew,” she says, pulling a scarlet shawl around her shoulders. “That’s something very big for us. But we were so agitated, because these things keep happening to us.”
The day before, an undergraduate student walking home from her department said she had been sexually assaulted by two men on a motorbike. Campus security guards had been sitting in plastic chairs about 20 metres away but did nothing, the woman said. She told others that the warden at her college had dismissed the incident, telling her: “They just touched you. They didn’t do anything serious.”
“These comments were a spark on already burning logs,” says Dhriti Dharana, a psychology student living at the same college as the alleged victim. “We thought, to hell with everything. We’re going to protest.”
The days of demonstrations that followed have brought one of India’s most prestigious and conservative universities to its knees. Its vice-chancellor is on indefinite leave. The head of security resigned. Colleges were emptied of students – “evacuated”, one said – days earlier than a scheduled holiday after footage of police using batons against young women went viral, drawing national condemnation.
Banaras Hindu University, sprawling across hundreds of hectares in the holy city of Varanasi, is an unlikely site for a rebellion. Many of the women on the bikes that ply its quiet, lushly vegetated roads wear modest traditional clothing and gamchas, cotton towels, over their faces. Until this year women and men took segregated classes in the university’s large and renowned arts and social science departments.
The university is a magnet for the brightest students from impoverished regions such as Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, often the first in their families to attend college, eager for a foothold in the Indian middle class.
Students laugh when asked if anyone drinks on campus. “Only in secret,” says Dharana, grinning. “We take a birthday cake down the Ganga [Ganges] ghats. That’s how we party.” In part, this conservatism reflects many of the students’ own values. But it is also rigorously enforced. “It is scary, very scary, to be a woman here,” says Choubey, 21. “Eve-teasing” – a south Asian euphemism for sexual harassment – is rampant on campus, she says. “It happens to everyone. Boys go about on their bikes and they touch your dupatta [shawl], they grab your clothes, they speak shit about you, they abuse you in slang language.”
One popular form of harassment is for men to label a woman “bhabhi”, or brother’s wife. “It means the girl has been set up with a guy in their group,” Choubey says. “The girl is the property of that guy. So every time his friends see me around, they call him and say, bhabhi was here, bhabhi was with another guy. And then the guy I was with gets beaten up.”
She can instantly recall the last time she was harassed. “A few days ago,” she says. “I was going through the campus. It was 7pm. I was with a friend and two guys came by on a bike and called me a prostitute. There is no girl who hasn’t faced this problem on campus.”
Inside their residential hostels, women students see a different side of the patriarchy – the one claiming to protect them. Starkly divergent rules for men’s and women’s hostels are a fact of life at many Indian universities. Such discrimination has sparked a national protest movement called Pinjra Tod – “Break the Cage” – as well as a supreme court challenge.
At Mineshi Mishra’s college, women are banned from talking on the phone late at night. “In my first year my phone was taken away because I was talking to a friend. It was 11pm,” says the slight psychology student, peering hard over her square glasses.
“They shamed me for it. They started asking me personal questions publicly. Like, the name and number of the person I was speaking to. What kind of relationship I had with him. It was weird. It was very embarrassing.”
When reports that a student had been sexually assaulted on 21 September began to spread, Dharana, 23, said women were angry, but did not initially plan to protest. “Every girl at the university has been Eve-teased, molested, from the second she stepped on campus,” she says.
It was when they heard the security guards and hostel staff had failed to act – and worse, apparently shrugged off the incident – that the campus ignited. “These people are supposed to look after us, but they are against us,” Dharana says.
“That is what erupted this thing.” By the second night of protests, more than 1,000 people had massed outside Lanka gate and the vice-chancellor’s residence, most of them students, and a majority of them women.
The vice-chancellor, Girish Chandra Tripathi, has claimed he was trying to meet with students to contain the unrest when people started throwing petrol bombs and stones. (The students say their protests were peaceful and any violence was perpetrated by outsiders.) At some point, the khaki-clad police elected to charge the crowd several times with batons, corralling the students into their colleges and shutting the gates, injuring several in the process. By the next day, footage of male police officers striking young women was being broadcast across the Indian media.
The outrage was fanned by a series of car-crash interviews by Tripathi in the following days, in which he denied any problem with sexual harassment on campus, defended the baton charge against “criminals”, and told the Indian Express: “If we are going to listen to every demand of every girl, we won’t be able to run the university.”
The difficulties faced by Indian women – amply illustrated by evidence of their diminishing contribution to the workforce, lagging literacy rates, and the frequency with which they are murdered as infants – have become part of the global narrative about the country since the 2012 rape and murder of a Delhi physiotherapy student.
Less well known are myriad examples, especially since the Delhi attack, of women in India asserting their right to worship, loiter, divorce or live free from violence.
“Women are speaking up, young girls are speaking up, they are protesting,” says Professor Reicha Tanwar, from the Women’s Studies Research Centre at Kurukshetra University. “They know that sexual violence is against the law – earlier they were not even aware.”
Since last month’s protests, Banaras Hindu University has appointed a new head of security – the first woman to hold the job. She has promised to relax women’s curfews and restrictions on food, alcohol and clothing. Mishra and other students welcome the appointment, but caution: “What we are fighting for is not complete.”
Those two nights of rebellion will not eradicate sexual harassment from the university, nor the gauntlet of taunts, stares and worse that Indian women face outside its gates. The women are back inside their hostels by 8pm each night. But inside their minds, Mishra says, something has shifted.
“We stayed sitting out there despite the curfew timings,” she says. “We did not go back to our hostels. The fear which was inside our heads – that broke up. And that was the best thing about the movement.”
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