About 40 per cent of the more than 17 million students enrolled in the Indian higher education system are women, many of whom are struggling against great odds to pursue academic careers. Even in a society where teaching is considered as a “safe” profession for women, academic ambition beyond the masters degree or a professional education is frowned upon. Nevertheless, for those who do manage to stay on, the university often comes to be the first public space for the articulation of their rights as women.
Since the late 1970s, the Indian women’s movement has been fed by women student activists; however, the protests that Delhi and India have witnessed following the gang rape and murder of the young 23-year-old medical student have been unprecedented and honestly, unexpected. Not only hundreds and hundreds of young women turned out to protest, but as many, if not more, young men have as well.
Whereas in earlier times, protesters would have come from the handful of progressive left-leaning universities in the country, the groundswell of distraught young people is fuelled by a changing, primarily urban, youth culture that has begun to locate the issue of women’s safety in the context of women’s rights in the home and the public sphere .
The hundreds of young women in Delhi standing with placards screaming “we want justice!” are not just merely talking about security on the streets and amendments of laws, they seek to set a national agenda that will discuss sexual violence as one end of a spectrum of outrage that denies women the right to life (son preference has led to a completely unnatural child sex ratio of 914 females to 1000 males), the freedom to dress and to love (and leave) as they please, the right to resist suffering marital rape and abuse in the home and sexual harassment at university and the workplace, and most importantly, the right to be treated as equals.
What has impelled this upsurge? One major cause is undoubtedly the lived experience of patriarchy that enables young women to make the necessary connections, but another equally important one is the newfound avenues of communication of these linkages. The Internet and social media have of course played their part, but at least in the major Indian universities, the preconditions for a genuine exchange on questions of gender justice were set by a 1997 Supreme Court of India ruling that sexual harassment requires a special complaints mechanism in all public institutions. By 1999, the two major universities in Delhi had implemented the judgment, with a democratic twist.
First, the job of these committees is not merely the resolution of complaints, rather they are charged with the primary task of gender sensitization. Second, such committees are constituted not by designation or nomination, but by popular elections from among students, administrators, teachers, and non-teaching members of the university community. Together, these factors have created a stable university space in which gender and women’s rights are regularly discussed. And even though these committees have not always been successful in obtaining the just redress of actual complaints of sexual harassment because of an official resistance to act against men, their popular character has held out a promise that is just beginning to show results.
The first protest against the gang rape of the 23-year-old was led by the student union of the left-wing Jawaharlal Nehru University, the university with the oldest serving gender sensitization committee. Together with women’s groups and other student organizations, the task now is not only to amend and improve laws and procedures on sexual assault and sexual harassment, it is also to ensure that each one of the nearly 100,000 cases of rape languishing in the Indian justice system receive a speedy and just resolution. Whether we will succeed is of course far from certain, but this is undoubtedly young India’s Tahrir moment, as the process has already made one major advance that has to be safeguarded – the everyday narrative of being a woman in India has at last come to the centrestage of Indian politics.
Ayesha Kidwai is on the faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University and serves on its Gender Sensitization Committee against Sexual Harassment.