Sekar Viswanathan, the dynastic Vice President of VIT Univesity, has among his ‘Core Values’, as posted on the university’s website, “No discrimination based on race, language, caste or creed”. Interestingly, he missed gender- an omission that becomes more and more glaring when one tries to contextualise the recent happenings at the university.
The self-proclaimed #1 private university in India is probably not too far from the number one spot with respect to gender based discrimination. With a moral code as complicated and illogical as a religious text, the university administration makes no apologies about blatantly using ‘Indian Values’ and ‘the Institution’s Reputation’ as an excuse to prevent girls (and sometimes boys) from living an enriching university life, or at the very least, exercising the basic rights guaranteed to every citizen of this country.
Recently, two girls from the university have been asked to go home. Why? Because they dared to dissent. As per sources from VIT, on being denied permission to extend their hostel in-time so as to be able to effectively work with an NGO they were volunteering with, one of the girls, irked by the ugly double standards and stereotyping, started an online survey about misogyny in the university and complemented that with a facebook post. This brazen act of free speech was too hot for the university to handle. Allegedly, calling the survey ‘a loaded gun’ to the head of the administration, they asked the two girls to go home, but didn’t officially declare them suspended, for fear of discontentment and a possible uprising within the student body (it goes without saying though, that peaceful protests are banned within many university campuses in India, especially if said protest is against the university administration).
Not only does this act of unbridled authoritarian tyranny offend my sensibilities as a feminist, but it also enrages me as an Indian, and as someone who values doubt, enquiry, and above all, the freedom to think and to speak.
VIT university is the custodian of the academic and professional future of about 17,000 students, and supposedly has no qualms about using this as leverage against anyone who chooses to be disobedient.
Most of the people I spoke to within the student body of the university did not want to be named for fear of intimidation by the university administration. It was, after all, a facebook status that got the girl into trouble. One of the people who wrote to me said:
“I wish the report was all there was to the story of discrimination at VIT. The rules for men and women are starkly different, with no logical explanation behind them, at all. What is more, following the report in the newspaper, all professors have taken to teaching Moral code 101 to their students. Statements like, “You should consider yourself lucky that your parents let you attend college”, “Indian culture decrees that men and women not be equal” and “If you came back late in the night, every night, no one would marry you” were heard in classrooms all over the University today. Teachers, the supposed harbingers of knowledge, justified sexist and misogynist ideas and practices under the blanket of the Indian culture. In the classrooms of a professional institute, women were dissuaded from competing against men, and challenging the so-called superior Indian culture. They were dissuaded from seeking jobs which required them to work late hours, told to give up professional ambition and take up light or no jobs because the “Indian Culture” decrees women cook, clean and care for their families. It seemed as if the University authorities were using teachers as their instruments. If so, it just goes on to show what they would do for their reputation. Even more worryingly, if the teachers were speaking their own mind, education in India would just be another source of misogynist, sexist ideas. People who hide behind 2000 year old, misinterpreted, badly written, unjustified social norms should not be allowed to teach the next generation. These lectures should be punished, by law, for spreading of ideas that are discriminatory in nature. They definitely cause more harm than the “defamation” of the institution that spreads them.”
Even though our rights aren’t absolute, university campuses are our last bastions of free speech. They are the places where people are most amicable to imbibing new ideas and most malleable in their application. These are the years where people can conceive and augment their principled convictions before they test them in the big bad world outside.
And even though we can’t expect every university campus to serve as a Miranda House or LSR-type hub of an indigenous feminist movement, any university that discriminates on the basis of gender is deplorable and ought to be stripped of any laurels that grace the ‘reputation’ of the university and along with that, UGC recognition. And this isn’t just a trivial matter of hostel in-times and out-times. It’s a lot bigger than that- our best-educated boys cannot grow up in an atmosphere of male privilege, while being provided constant reminders that ‘culture’ and ‘reputation’ are to be taken more seriously than the right of their sisters or their daughters to do what they want. Our best educated girls cannot grow up in an atmosphere where the cost of speaking up is so high, where they have to surrender a lot of their legitimate career aspirations to meet society’s expectations. Universities are meant to liberate people from patriarchal traps, but these policies attempt to, and to some extent, succeed in internalizing the misogyny into a new generation of bright young students.
And of course, this isn’t true only of the Vellore Institute of Technology. Universities all over the country are guilty of jettisoning the student lives of their girls simply because it’s the more expedient option- like a man forcing his wife to stay at home because the world could be a strange and scary place for a woman to be roaming about. Of course, different universities have their own specimens of authoritarian regulations that are inexplicably archaic and laughable- like a certain hostel warden in VIT supposedly prohibiting girls from bathing or washing clothes late at night, or like IIT Bombay, which apparently requires hostel room doors to be open 45 degrees when people of opposite genders are in the room. But the general thread running through most of the sexist narrative is the same.
“We are doing this for your own good”
This is the notion that misogynistic environments justify misogynistic policies. Very few things are as reprehensible as using examples of recent gory crime against women in the country to legitimise discriminating further. Women can have either security or liberty, but not both. A recent report on sexism in VIT, compiled through anecdotes from students, made the simple demand that the campus be better lit, and has security vehicles patrolling, to ensure safer movement. This seems like a reasonable demand; but what strikes me as appalling is that the university pretends its locking you up for your own good, when the alternative solutions for making the campus safer are quite basic and ought to be provided by any university, private or public. (IIT Bombay does a wonderful job in this regard). It is the obligation of any university to ensure safety of their students, which of course cannot be absolutely guaranteed, in which case the students’ capacity to take risks should be respected.
Apparently no one cares if the male students of the University get raped, mugged, or murdered, the women are supposed to be magically protected by letting them out only once a week. Because all rapists take a break on Saturday, so if women go out to buy medical supplies, take classes or work for an NGO or do whatever else they may please to, and if they get attacked, the University can do a happy dance and say, “I told you so”. Because they went out more than once a week, they are entitled to be raped, and then be ridiculed because they were. When an educational institution with more than fifteen thousand students on its campus sends out the message that women who want to work outside or have fun outside deserve to be raped because they should ideally be locked up doing nothing but cooking and sewing, that is the message that the youth gets. The possibility of domestic violence/rape is a myth, here, because women only get raped when they step outside, after dark, on all days except for the third or the fifteenth of every month. And if those days happen to be not a Saturday, then the rape is completely the woman’s fault. Even on Saturdays, shouldn’t they be cooking?
“Thou shalt not question”
Change takes place when the status quo is questioned, problems identified and solutions sought. When an educational institution curbs your right to think, question and express opinion, and sends you back home, declaring you insane because your ideas don’t match the ancient rotting ideology they follow, you know that the society is stuck in the past. The fear that the voice of reason may break down the concentration camp that they have been running makes them send those away that question. Reason is kept locked outside the boundary wall of the institute. Those who question are made an example of, never mind their academic careers, to silence all others who may hear them and dare to speak. And the institution proceeds to violate all other fundamental human rights, because the Right to Freedom of Expression is effectively taken away, and all dissent is curbed.
“We let you go to class. We don’t discriminate”
Providing equal access to classrooms, labs and other facilities to all fee-paying students is hardly a defense against allegations of discrimination. Even if the institution did grant equal access to all opportunities within campus, the question of who bears the cost of all extra-curricular, employment and educational opportunities lost outside of campus. Treating men and women differently is discrimination, even if it is done on only a few grounds. Different curfew times for male and female students, different rules regarding how often and for what reasons they can leave campus, and the procedure to be followed for the same is discrimination. Asking only women to choose between a shopping trip and an MBA coaching class is discrimination. Subjecting only women to humiliation and terror every time they want to teach the poor children or participate in a cleaning drive or take part in a college fest is discrimination. Sending female students home on indefinite suspension because they wanted to work as much as their male counterparts could is discrimination.
VIT authorities have not reacted to the report in the Hindu yet, mostly because of their belief that anyone who talks of gender equality is a lunatic and must be sent home. But the non-reaction is also because of the fear of their beloved “reputation” getting maligned further. Reputation, here, is everything. The University locks up women inside, so they don’t get raped, tarnishing their reputation. It hushes all students down, and should they dare speak, sends them back home, jeopardizing their careers so that not one finger points towards them. And when it does, they declare the finger in question “brain-washed”.
I hate to speculate in this manner, but it seems strange that in a university of 17,000 people, pervasive gender discrimination and a purported paranoia about the safety of its women, not even one case of sexual assault as come to light.
The solution is simple- we need to ensure that the uncorrected misogyny of Sekar Viswanathan and his likes tarnishes their reputation more than one or two incidents of belligerent girls behaving badly and speaking their minds. Supposedly, many people have written to firstname.lastname@example.org to educate him about equality and dignity and this could possibly be of some help. It would be wonderful if someone were to emulate the ’Pink Knickers’ campaign that was executed against the Sri Ram Sene where pink underpants were mailed to the group to protest against its actions at a Mangalore nightclub.
But in general, students in all universities ought to show a non-negotiable commitment to gender neutrality. The cost of speaking up is extremely high if it is just one or two people, because such institutions often thrive on exemplary punishment- disproportionate and unfair. But if a critical mass of students were to get behind a particular cause, there’s really nothing a university can do such that its reputation remains preserved and that it can’t budge on its policies.
If these temples of higher learning are meant to equip us to transform the country and the world, we ought to transform our universities first, because these are the years we’ll look back at- as the ones that made us who we are.
***SIGN THE PETITION TO MAKE VIT UNIVERSITY LESS SEXIST***
Disclaimer: My sources for most of the facts about VIT’s policies are students of VIT who spoke to me under the condition of anonymity (for fear of facing repercussions) and a report on Gender Discrimination by the VIT Gender Equality Task Force.
Appeal: If you want to express your story of gender discrimination at the hands of VIT or any university administration, please write to email@example.com, your identity will be protected and anonymity will be maintained.