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Is this a safe space?
CRISIS ON CAMPUS

At IIT-Bombay, your day starts with casual sexism and ends with chauvinism

By Maitreyee Shukla

At the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B), your day starts with casual sexism and ends with chauvinism, punctuated only by moral policing.

I remember, at my orientation that happened a few months ago, we were shown a video about life at IIT. The video began with peppy music and a map of IIT-B on the screen. A little dot started moving from the main gate; going inside the campus, it crossed a hostel—a girls’ hostel—came back, whistled in front of the hostel, and moved on.

In the presence of the dean, faculty members, and the entire women’s cell (a body that deals with sexual harassment on campus), this pathetically sexist thing happened, and no one winced. I heard a few laughs, and it was clear that from the moment you enter the campus, you submit to the male gaze and give in to institutionally-sanctioned sexism.

Our orientation into the culture of IIT had begun.

It was clear that from the moment you enter the campus, you submit to the male gaze.

Like every other technical institute in the country, IIT’s gender ratio is terribly skewed, so much so that out of 16 hostels, only three are for women. This domination of men in public spaces itself limits the accessibility for women. Besides, the absence of any autonomous sensitising body such as a Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), means the majority of men remain oblivious to the sexist overtones in their behaviour. Although, in all fairness, IIT does have a women’s cell, which is supposed to tackle issues of harassment and gender sensitivity.

However, their attempts remain limited to a presentation, followed by pamphlet distribution at the beginning of the academic year.

Institutional sanction

The sexism of IIT peaks during its festivals. Mood Indigo, apart from the incredibly objectifying performances catering to the male gaze, is known for the “Hariyali” (literally, greenery), IIT’s lingo for the lush crop of women it hosts during the fest. For IIT-B’s annual dance festival, AIDS, the entire campus is plastered with posters saying “Chalti hai kya Hostel se Convo” and “Basanti in kutton ke saamne zaroor naachna.

What’s even more disturbing is that they are on full display, online and offline, and even fluttering obnoxiously right in front of the girls’ hostels despite strict regulations on posters inside the campus. Recently, a group of students who pasted some posters on the importance of democratic elections in campus received a mail from the dean, telling them to stop defacing the campus. Where a few handwritten posters are closely monitored, the open display of these posters clearly implies institutional sanction.

Power and privilege provided with apathetic institutional mechanisms force victims into silence.

The girls’ hostel councils are yet to express any concern over this. Sadly, even the women’s cell is either not bothered or it is not within its powers to act against them. It’s important to clarify here that before making these claims, I tried to interview the conveners of the women’s cell. However, they are yet to reply to the mail seeking an appointment.

It’s also worth noting that the website of the women’s cell hasn’t been updated for a long time. The contact details provided are of past conveners, and the last annual report available is for 2014.

The worst F word

Power and privilege provided with apathetic institutional mechanisms force victims into silence. Generally, I have seen that women advise each other to not go to the women’s cell for complaints regarding issues such as catcalling, indecent remarks, stalking, or unsolicited sexual advances. That’s because it is known to either dismiss them as non-issues or demand viable proof. As per the annual report of 2014, the cell considered only five complaints. Out of these, in the case of a student’s complaint against a faculty member, no action was taken as it “was made after six months.”

The scary truth hits you in the face.

The “due process” crusaders, while wagging their fingers at us for putting careers and reputations at risk, were protecting this very power structure.

As a result of the larger feminist movement and certain policy changes, instances of violent sexual abuse have been controlled to a certain extent, but they do not ensure the absolute eradication of sexism. IIT is failing at protecting its women from it. If not in the form of violence, it manifests itself in the form of micro-aggressions, moral policing, and casual sexism. It shows in the rape jokes you overhear and in the friendly advice to take it as a compliment. It shows in the looks men exchange when a woman passes and in the way the security guards look at you when you take a male guest to your room. It is there in all the jokes about women’s inability to do science and in the way men pursue you until you say you have a boyfriend—because, let’s face it, they won’t acknowledge your agency but they’ll sure as hell respect another man’s territory.

These trivialised micro-aggressions, coupled with institutional sanction, act as a silencer for women and alienate us further from the public space of the institute. The classrooms, with their bro-culture, casual sexist banter, and ignorance of male privilege, create a generation of liberal, “woke” men who are all for “equality” but think of feminism as the worst F word ever; men who feel entitled to our time, space, and bodies simply because they were nice enough to not be an outright predator.

Women who reach institutes of higher educations—to reduce it to very simple terms—get there by overcoming gender, caste, and class barriers.

These things seem harmless by themselves, probably that’s why we let them slide. But the harm of ingrained sexism is multi-layered. To begin with, women who reach institutes of higher educations—to reduce it to very simple terms—get there by overcoming gender, caste, and class barriers. These practices push these women to the margins in spaces which, ironically, are supposed to be sites for empowerment. Against the general perception that casual lad-banter is something unrelated to violent sexual assault and harassment, they are highly interdependent. Casual sexism provides legitimacy and normalcy to sexual assault and, in fact, often even directly leads it.

Which is why combating this culture becomes imperative. Women of this campus need to take the reins and assert themselves. We should let go of the fear of alienation and call out our friends over their sexist jokes. One genuine ally is anyway more valuable than any number of sexist friends. Let’s define our own boundaries and never shy away from seeking a safe space for ourselves. We should never stop looking out for each other, and warning other women about sexual predators is the best way to do that. We have to own our agency and, most importantly, know that we don’t owe our time, space, and bodies to anyone.

Let’s refuse to get oriented into the “culture” of IIT.

This piece was first published on Facebook. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com