The recent kerfuffles over the Tamil tabloid magazine Kumudam carrying offensive and sexist photographs of women in leggings and a Tamil engineering college imposing absurd rules on women are indicative of how women continue to be controlled with impunity across the country. Radio channels in Chennai may have made fun of the Kumudam photographs but the reality of the control of women is far from a laughing matter, especially in educational institutions.
Across the country, women are subject to imprisoned lives particularly after sunset. The anxiety is around female sexuality which either must be controlled because it is in and of itself dangerous or it must be protected from rapacious men always ready to attack it. The infantilising and simultaneous sexualising of women and the demonising of men involved here are never questioned.
There is a disturbing consensus between family, community, educational institutions and the state on how to 'look after' young women. They have to be locked up, subject to fascist rules and rendered into sexless objects being readied for the marriage market for which they have to remain 'pure.' Women are not seen as subjects able to develop their own presents and forge their own futures. They are mere objects that are transferred from one family to another. This explains the silence and assent of parents/families to the most unacceptable forms of control over their daughters' (women's) bodies and minds in educational institutions. These are only extensions of what they face at home.
Women are told that all these measures which confine and constrict them are for their own good. It is to guarantee their 'safety' and 'protection.' The questions 'safety from whom' and 'protection from what' are never asked. The implicit assumption here is that men ('boys will be boys') will do things to women. There is a social sanction to that. Men, according to Kumudam, are aroused by women in leggings and things might happen. Hence the women are 'immoral.'
Women are never in a subject position. They can't be wearing leggings simply because they might feel comfortable in them. They are always in an object position, an object needing policing and protection. Boys and men are subjects. They need no control and they are likely to 'damage' women. This 'damage' is acceptable within the context of marriage but not outside it. The fear of it happening outside marriage is what women must be protected from and the onus is on women to prevent that 'damage.' Any which way you look at it, women are the problem and the ones who need control, not men. It would never occur to anyone to confine men to homes and hostels so women might roam the world freely.
The fear of women's actively seeking such 'damage' is a paradoxical and simultaneous fear. Women's sexuality remains a source of anxiety to institutions run by men from the family to educational institutions to the state. Women are both seen as infantile and helpless but also as having a sexuality that needs to be safeguarded and only allowed expression, if at all, in marriage. Women are merely repositories of family name, 'honour' and inheritance. Once again, they have no control over their own sexualities. They are merely produced as always already heterosexual and always needing control till marriage.
It is this large body of sexist assumptions and patriarchal institutions that a movement like Pinjra Tod (Break The Cages) in Delhi University is taking on. The capital city and its many Universities are no better than Tamil Nadu in their control of women and the ideology is the same. Indeed the movement hopes to link up with women in educational institutions across the country and form a nation-wide movement against this control of women. It is a movement of hope in a time of renewed patriarchal vigour under the Hindu fundamentalist dispensation in power.
Indeed, these courageous women, already threatened by the ABVP, have taken them on and filed an FIR and a case against the abuser. It is this militant spirit which is needed to take on these institutions and this ideology. It is only when women forcibly reclaim the position of subjects, assert control over their own bodies and minds and expose the deeply sexist and misogynist ideologies that hold up hostels and hostel rules in educational institutions and in society at large that this ideology will crumble.
Ashley Tellis is an Associate Professor in Gender, Writing and Research at IMHST, BALM, Chennai