Varanasi: Students and police in a standoff in Varanasi late Saturday night. Female students at the prestigious University were protesting against the administration's alleged victim-shaming after one of them reported an incident of molestation on Thursday. PTI Photo  (PTI9_24_2017_000107B)

These women are making revolution in one of India’s most conservative universities

The women students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), one of India’s premier institutions of higher education, are only served vegetarian food. They’re not allowed to stay out of their university accommodation past 8 pm. They may not talk on their cell phones after 10pm. And if they experience sexual harassment or molestation they may be told—as one woman was last week—that it’s their fault for being outside of their accommodations past 6pm.

Male students of the university, on the other hand, are served meat in their dining halls, have no enforced restrictions for cell phone use, and enjoy a laxly-enforced curfew of 10pm

It’s in this context that since last Thursday, women students of the university have staged a protest so forceful university administration has resorted to shutting down the dormitories, unleashing police violence, and even diverting the route of the prime minister, who was scheduled to drive past the university late last week. The protest broke out after a woman was groped by three men on a motorcycle. When nearby security guards refused to intervene, and university officials shamed rather than helped the complainant, the women students blocked the university gates, refusing to budge for days.

In response, police brutally beat the women, causing many to be hospitalized. The university administration filed police cases against more than 1,000 protesting students. And rather than address the women’s complaints, the university Vice Chancellor defended restrictive rules including curfew, accused the protesting women of being misinformed and instigated by “outsiders,” and proceeded to nominate a man who has been found guilty of sexual harassment to lead the university hospital.

“Getting harassed is a very common thing in BHU. It happens almost every day,” said a protesting student in an interview with The Quint.

But, says another student, “The problem is that no one wants to listen to our concerns.”

The Vice Chencellor’s response?

“If we listen to every girl, we can’t run the university,” said the vice chancellor in an interview with the Indian Express.

The uprising at BHU comes on the heels of several setbacks for women’s rights in India. In the legal realm, a recent high court judgement blamed a rape survivor for being too “promiscuous.” Another high court judgement set a dangerous precedent by labelling a “feeble no” between intimate partners a “yes.” In education, the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the country’s highest-profile liberal arts institutions, recently defied central government guidelines against sexual harassment by unilaterally disbanding the university’s elected anti-sexual harassment committee in favor of a body appointed by several university administrators already suspected of or found guilty in sexual harassment cases.

Rules like those imposed upon the women of BHU are not unusual in Indian higher education, where, in the name of women’s “safety,” universities impose severe restrictions on women’s mobility, freedom, and access to university resources. These regulations include over-securitization of campuses in the form of guards, police, CCTV cameras and physical walls which prevent women’s mobility; moral policing of women’s clothing and shaming of women’s sexual behavior, presumed sexual orientation and gender presentation; and curtailing of women’s political activity in the name of safety. And while the Indian central government’s education regulatory body has banned discriminatory rules against women in public universities, these guidelines are not widely complied with and leave out private universities entirely.

And while the BHU women’s protest is one of the most militant examples of women’s struggle against repressive universities, it comes as part of a long line of women university students’ movements. Most notably, the Pinjra Tod, or “break the cages” movement has spread from an autonomous women’s collective in Delhi to a nation-wide movementPinjra Tod connects the caste system, class hierarchy, and patriarchy to argue that women’s restriction in university settings perpetuates a system in which women are the possessions of either their husbands and fathers (for example, women often need permission of their parents to exit university accommodations after curfew). Moral policing of women in universities upholds the idea that women are receptacles of a community’s honor and maintains social hierarchies.

Pinjra Tod and BHU women’s challenge to university restrictions also comes in the wake of the December 16, 2012 movement against sexual violence, following the violent rape and murder of Jyoti Singh. In that movement, feminists articulated a vision of “freedom without fear,” tracing sexual violence to the intimate spaces of the family and relationships rather than just the threat of the other, the outside, and the street.

As of now, the wave of protest in BHU has calmed, but the anger has not. And while the university’s Vice Chancellor may be doubling down on a regressive vision of women’s safety, the protests and harsh response to them have stirred up a furor in the media across the country. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: No matter how many patronizing words patriarchs offer about “women’s safety,” women’s rage cannot be contained. That’s exactly the rage, exactly the thirst for freedom, that scares universities and governments into regulating women so viciously.

When university authorities claim to restrict women for “women’s safety,” what they mean to say is that women ought to be restricted in order to protect the safety of the people in power. Because when women are free, when women make movements, when women are organized, when women seize our rights, the entire system of patriarchal control shakes to its foundations. Women’s bodies can be caged, but our rage cannot be.  And in the face of this irrepressible rage, every cage will be broken.

Image credit: Indian Express

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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