Since a first-year student was molested at the Banaras Hindu University campus on Thursday, BHU has been rocked by huge protests. When informed about the molestation, the warden blamed the victim, asking her (of course) what she was doing out late at night, and when students began protesting this shameful response, they were lathi charged by police on Saturday. The latest news is that the police have actually filed 1000 FIRs against students for arson, “disrupting government work” and vandalism.
These events make The Sound of Silence, a new documentary by multiple National Award winner Bina Paul, even more pertinent. The Sound of Silence explores the issues of gender bias and discrimination on Kerala university campuses, although, as Paul notes, “the protests at BHU show that this is not a Kerala problem, or even an Indian one. It’s an entire world view.”
The students at BHU rallied behind the survivor, and were lathi-charged when they were approaching the house of the vice-chancellor en masse in rage. But not all cases reach this zenith, and not all campuses can muster the power that BHU did. For many students who face institutionalised gender discrimination daily, huge protests just aren’t a viable option, either for lack of knowledge, fear of being pulled out of college or being targeted by vindictive professors. In these cases, women turn to covert, everyday methods of resistance.
Paul says that smaller resistances can mean something huge for the women who undertake them. “Because of family pressure and other reasons, it’s really not easy for them to even break the rules. A lot of them can’t do it often, so it does become a form of protest for them. It’s useful to [assert yourself by] breaking the rules.”
Dhanusha Panicker, 23, recalls that back in her time at Vishwajyoti College, Kochi, women weren’t allowed to leave the hostel after 6.30 pm. Thankfully, there was a bit of the hostel wall that was caved in, making it the perfect spot to leap over to freedom. “All the women knew about it, and the senior girls would tell juniors the exact location and how to cross.” Ardra B, a Kochi-based MC, remembers that in her college, St Teresa’s College, women would flout the draconian dress code by wearing sleeveless blouses, but always while keeping a sweater on standby to pull on when a teacher passed them by. It feels like for many women, college life is an exercise in balance: Asserting your own will while also suppressing it so as not to get into frustrating confrontations with authority figures.
Ligin S, an architect, used to live in a working women’s hostel near her university in Kottayam, because the curfew was two hours later than her college hostel’s. She wasn’t allowed to have a mobile phone though, and there was no way for her to charge it there. So instead, she reached a complicated agreement with a gent who worked at a nearby restaurant: She would leave her phone to charge in the hotel after college, and her friend would leave it at a designated spot on the wall two hours later for her to pick up. She said she always felt proud that she’d managed to outwit her “evil” warden, and laughs that she would throw her deeply satisfied looks from time to time, which probably left the warden mystified. Ligin says that crazy conditions push you to think “out of the box”.
Amina, 29, a stay-at-home mother and graduate of Sree Maharshi Vidyalaya, Nhangattiri, told me about her hilarious college escapades. Her class would be taken to a temple opposite the institution daily. There, Amina and her boyfriend would wait for their teachers to close their eyes in prayer and then bolt from the rest of their class to share a few minutes alone, before rejoining their ranks on the way back as though they’d never left. “I never thought of it as a rebellion, I just did whatever I had to do to get what I wanted.” And isn’t that, in essence, what rebellion is all about?
Most women speak of their college rebellions with glee, and remember them as exciting and fun. These memories seem to take on more meaning in hindsight, and they agree that part of breaking these rules is knowing that you can, whenever you want to. Knowing how to break the rules gives them confidence, and makes them feel like they have some kind of choice in the matter. It’s an important thought to hold on to when your freedoms are being curtailed.
Many women feel that college was the turning point in their politics. For some, it’s meeting inspiring teachers, being exposed to authors like Virginia Woolf and Kamala Das, or meeting students from other states. For others, it’s the disappointment that universities pose that prompt them into action: it’s hard not to feel betrayed when you come to university full of hope, looking for freedom and adulthood, only to be treated like children while watching male classmates live their lives to the fullest. For these students, it’s coming face to face with discrimination that forces them to act. “The girls are being so suppressed that they’re protesting. This is why girls are leading the protests now,” Paul observes.
KK Aishwarya, a former student of the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, and an organiser of the Break the Curfew movement, has engaged with resistance in a serious, methodical way. Break the Curfew was a comprehensive campaign from 2015 against discriminatory hostel rules in Kerala. The organisers consulted with journalists and activists, launched an open discussion forum, started campaigns to educate fellow classmates and parents, tricked the college into giving them permission to host a rally (by telling them it was a rally for women’s safety), approached then-education minister Abdu Rabb (who, Aishwarya says, discouraged them from pursuing the issue “until he suddenly remembered he was the education minister and then told us to write a complaint”) and MP Shashi Tharoor, who supported their cause, and also organised protests on campus. They dealt with vicious opposition too, like when the principal moved their internal exams up a week early purely to interfere with their protests.
Aishwarya says movements like this take time to bear fruit, and credits student movements like Pinjra Tod for the laying the foundation for the overwhelming response from students at BHU. “Pinjra Tod is responsible for the students realising these issues are out there, that they are happening and important, but it’s the administration that is clearly still two generations behind. I was expecting a huge change from Pinjra Tod when it was launched in 2015 after Break the Curfew. I know it has changed and can change so many campuses, but I think it will still take some more time.”
To Paul, the beautiful thing about these resistances is that they’re like a journey for young students. “The protests themselves are a learning process. The girls come into a new, big campus, and initially, they’re afraid to raise their voices. But if an issue does push you, you go on a journey by getting involved in protests. First they’re scared, and they learn how to make a change [through the process of protest].”
Sukanya S, who studied in Kerala before pursuing her Masters at University of Hyderabad, says that acts of rebellion can feel very personal. “The biggest act of rebellion according to me is doing what I want to do and not caring about what people say, but also not being hostile to them.” Aishwarya agrees when she says that the process of protest has made her confident in her ability to handle any situation. “I love people, and now I have the tools and the rationality to engage with them.”
Even if everyone isn’t able to take to the streets in protest, it’s clear that women are resisting in ways they can, and feeling pretty good about it. Ligin says knowing you can outsmart figures of authority makes you less afraid of them, less confident in their omnipotence. “They keep trying to tell us that we can’t get the better of them, that they are aware of all our tricks. How can you take them seriously after that when you know you’re outsmarting them under their own noses?”
Co-published with Firstpost