By Kannaki Deka
Students at the Banaras Hindu University have been protesting ever since a first year student was molested by three men on bikes inside campus. They allege that the university, instead of responding meaningfully to the issue of women’s safety, decided to instead shame the victim. These protests turned violent on Saturday after guards stopped protesting students outside Vice-Chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi’s home, and the police lathi-charged protesting university students. There’s widely circulated video footage available of police thrashing women protesters, and now, even more bizarrely, the police have filed 1000 FIRs against students for vandalism and arson.
Reading about the draconian measures being used against the female students of BHU sent a chill down my spine. It’s a familiar feeling of fear and helplessness that I often feel around figures of authority.
That feeling takes me back to my years in an all-girls boarding school. I was 12 when my twin younger brother and sister and I were sent away to boarding in the year 1995. It was a time of terrible unrest in Assam.
Once inside the four walls of the school I knew I wouldn’t be seeing the outside world for at least 6 months—an entire semester. Girls were allowed to step outside the school campus only when accompanied by parents or local guardian. With my parents over 2,000 km away from my school in Ajmer and no local guardians, my sister and I, with other girls from the North-east, often found ourselves in school on weekends and holidays.
My brother, who was in the boys’ boarding school across our campus had a little more freedom relatively. Although technically boys too were not allowed to venture out of their campus without being accompanied by parents or local guardians, ‘break bounds’ or short for breaking bounds was an acceptable practice in the boy’s school.
My life until I went to Delhi University was lived between the narrow worlds of the boarding school and my small town.
Not only were our movements restricted, we were under surveillance at all times. We were policed while in school uniform that we wore for 6 days in a week. Even in our white shirts and grey skirts, we were policed for the colour of our bras. A black bra underneath our white shirts was a big no, no! The length of our skirts was under constant scrutiny. We were not allowed to play sports in the rain because of fear of wet t-shirts. All this when the entire campus was mostly women.
Then they finally decided all these measures were not enough and they changed our uniforms to salwar-kameez making sure the shapeless kurtas hung loosely around our teenage frames.
Sundays were the only days we could wear anything other than our drab uniform. We would decide on Saturday what we would wear. Exchanging between us the few set of “coloured clothes” we had, just to add variety. Some of our seniors tried to subvert the usually strict dress code by dressing in their littlest shorts and dresses on that day. We would be in awe and also thrilled at their audaciousness.
Of course, that didn’t last too long. The school authorities then imposed wearing salwar-kameez on all Sundays. Even our nightwear was not spared. In an all-girls boarding school, we were told we had to wear “decent” nightwear.
My first experience of real freedom came when I joined Delhi University. I refused to join an all-girls college even though hundreds of relatives advised my parents on how joining a girls college would be good for me. My father thankfully decided it was time I joined the co-ed world. Luckily for me, my college did not have a girls’ hostel.
I say lucky because most of the college girls’ hostel had a deadline of 6 pm. I was happy to be able to live off campus and found an independent accommodation thanks to my elder sister, who was doing her medical residency in Hindu Rao hospital. For the first time in my life, I experienced staying out late and not having a deadline to return home. Of course, that only meant staying out until 10 pm at the most, considering it was Delhi.
I was lucky to have found that window in University to experience being on my own. A year ago when I had a chance to spend some time in the Hyderabad University campus I was thrilled to be able to walk around the campus alone at any time of the day and night. I was thrilled for the girls studying there but also a little sad since they will not experience the same freedom once they have to leave campus life.
The current situation in BHU is my worst nightmare—figures of authority looming over women policing their every move. In my nightmares, I often find myself back in boarding school knowing that I cannot get out of there for months. It’s a feeling of being trapped and helplessness again that follows me even into my adulthood.