ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Panel Discussion on 'Sexual Violence'

A report of the recent panel discussion held at the Jawaharlal Nehru University that explores the phenomenon of sexual violence in educational spaces. Sexual harrasment by the faculty, intimate partner violence, and repression of the sexuality of women on campus are some of the issues deliberated upon. The panelists call for the revival of a strong and vibrant women's movement to counter deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes on campus.

A panel discussion on ‘Sexual Violence’ was organised by the Center for Women’s Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on 14 February, 2013.The purpose of the panel discussion was to unravel issues of sexual violence that impact educational spaces directly, keeping the Justice Verma Committee recommendations and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, in the background. Exploring the political potential of the transformative moment created by the Delhi gang-rape incident (December 16, 2012) and its aftermath, the speakers urged the students to think through questions of sexual violence in educational spaces. They discussed contexts in which women chose to protest and in which they preferred to keep silent. The opening remarks were made by Sudha Pai and Kumkum Roy. The first session was chaired by Kumkum Roy and the speakers were Ayesha Kidwai and Pratiksha Baxi. The second session was chaired by G. Arunima and the speakers were Ujithra Ponniah, Abhiruchi Ranjan and Sneha Sudha Komath.

Sexual Violence in University Spaces

Sudha Pai in her opening remarks underscored the need to reflect on the question of sexual harassment in university spaces in the wake of anti-rape protests. Pratiksha Baxi set the tone of the discussion and urged us to enquire how sexual violence is defined in universities, bearing in mind its gendered nature. One recognises the necessity in such a context to conduct surveys to gauge how students, faculty and employees perceive sexual harassment and violence on campus. This also means auditing of spaces on campus where women students have experienced sexual harassment. She emphasised the need to provide better lighting on certain streets, regulate traffic, ensure safer landscaping, install helplines and a sexual assault medical centre with expert counselling facilities. In the course of the discussion, a major issue of concern that emerged was the issue of sexual harassment by faculty members; an area complicated by the extremely skewed relations of power involved and the fact that harassment of this nature manifests in various tangible as well as intangible ways.

Ujithra Ponniah also spoke about the complexity involved in sexual harassment by faculty members in her presentation. She identifies two ways in which the politics of hierarchy play out to the disadvantage of the student who gets victimised. The first violation is of the kind where the guide’s transgressions are couched in intellectualism, and where the women student knows that a line is being crossed in the comments that are being made but finds it is difficult to clearly identify, articulate or pinpoint her discomfort for the guide uses the grey area to his advantage. The situation is doubly complex, if the woman student hero-worships the guide who in most cases is an older man. However, the second type of harassment is easier to articulate; for example, when the guide calls a woman student to his office after working hours, or at home when he is alone for what he calls a ‘harmless’ cup of coffee but has nothing much to say when the student turns up. For students whom spaces of work revolve around their relationship with their supervisors, how does one deal with such instances of sexual harassment? As Ayesha Kidwai speaking on the problems of redressal for cases registered against faculty members in Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) noted that not a single woman who had ever registered a complaint against a faculty member had completed her education. Pratiksha Baxi stressed the importance of swift and deterrent action and a determined stance not to tolerate, protect, or make excuses for any faculty member who sexually harassed a student. While the mechanisms of complaint and redress were tried and tested, a delay can subvert the process and undermine the courage of the student who fights for her dignity.

Ujithra Ponniah shared one instance from the informal space in JNU campus to show how patriarchy and sexual violence were knit into the everyday. At the ‘cultural night’, an annual festival held in every hostel in Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the performances entailed two women dancing and teasing a guy who shared the stage space with them. One section of the audience, largely constituted of men, found this performance disconcerting and they articulated this by yelling “oye chakhe down down”, “kaha hai teri mardangi” and “aiyse nahi milegi koi aurat”, hence asserting a singular machoistic understanding of how men should behave, especially, if they wanted to win over a woman. Anything that went beyond the frail contours of this masculinity was penalised through the evocation of the feminine, which was constructed as the diminutive and the feared other.

Spaces of Silence

Pratisksha Baxi called for a sustained and a systemic effort to bring the question of sexuality out of the closet during this moment of transformative politics in university spaces. She pointed out that the use of laws and policies against sexual violence to regulate “transgressive” sexuality was a worrying trend. When love was characterised as rape and rape is disguised as love by laws and policies, violence is normalised and sexual agency denied. She said it was important to critique all forms of homophobia that were deeply entrenched in university spaces to transform what it means really to live in bekhauf azadi (freedom without fear).

Abhiruchi Ranjan brought out the conundrums faced by women activists in their articulation of sexuality. There seems to be a constant pressure for women student activists to self-censor their sexuality in order to be taken seriously. While this can be viewed as a taming in of femininity through adoption of conventional masculine idioms, it can also lead to a covering up of the so-called “deviancies” from accepted modes of feminine sexual behaviour so that attention is not taken away from the political opinions they espouse. Hence, the sexuality of women activists is constantly repressed and depoliticised for them to be taken seriously as activists and for a certain kind of politics to thrive. Vanessa Chisti from the audience, speaking from her experience of being a left activist said that while it was true that women activists engaged in processes of self-censuring, they also had to think through ways of expressing one’s sexuality in a patriarchal society. She gave the instance of her having short hair for the longest time and how that became a topic of concern in many political meetings off-campus, instead of the issue at hand. Shivani Nag from the audience speaking about her experience of being an activist said that though she agreed with Abhiruchi, she felt that being an activist on a campus like JNU she did not have to worry about the way she looked, something which might have been a matter of concern outside, or in a familial context.

Similar to such self-censure, is the issue of intimate partner violence which gets relegated to the so- called private space of partners and is shrouded in silence. Ujithra Ponniah spoke about the kind of violent and abusive relationships that women were in on campus. Some of these were marred by physical violence, while the others entailed women circumscribing their dreams, choice of friends, clothes, places of visit, time of visit and academic pursuits according to the wishes and whims of their partners. She said that while love came with the potential of challenging the social order --marked with caste, class and gender cleavages-- and as a source of great personal fulfilment and joy, it also came with the threat of exploitation and abuse. While applauding the recognition of marital rape as punishable under law by the Justice Verma Committee, it was also important to speak openly about violence present in the intimate spaces. Pratiksha Baxi spoke about the need to develop ways of redressing domestic violence between intimate partners. Universities need to create a task force to identify areas of intervention by putting in place an emergency response system. Information about counsellors, lawyers, support groups, and officials must be also made available. Information about how to file a complaint, where and in which format should also be disseminated.

Ujithra Ponniah then spoke about a case of attempted rape/sexual molestation that happened in the JNU campus in October, 2012, and raised questions about the pervading silence on the issue. Soon after the incident, which occurred in one of the hostels on campus, a case was registered both with the police outside and with the GSCASH cell on campus. Both were later withdrawn under pressure from the accused and his friends. Once the case was filed, a pamphlet was brought out by the JNU Student’s Union (JNUSU) condemning the event and the black mark that it left on the just gender culture of campus. Subsequently, a group of women students brought out a pamphlet asking the JNUSU to clarify the details of the case and that how the GSCASH was going to proceed with it. This pamphlet acted as a pressure technique pushing some of the left groups on campus to refer, or write about the incident. In the mean time, GSCASH began its inquiry process, and repeated summons were sent to the guy who refused to cooperate. He was seen moving around the campus freely. A campus in which one might not even require to open the morning newspaper since its walls are covered with opinion pieces and news articles, maintained its silence on the issue. Ujithra Ponniah raised the following set of questions in her presentation on this issue: was there silence on the issue because the guy involved was a Dalit student and the girl perhaps not? Was the silence maintained because when it comes to a sort of intersectionality between caste and gender, we as students with our numerous political affiliations find ourselves paralysed by our own sense of self-imposed progressiveness? Was there silence because our politico-academic understandings are not nuanced enough when confronted with two competing identities that do not necessarily need to be pitted against each other? And was there silence because the responsibility of sexual harassment cases lie with the GSCASH alone?

Sneha Sudha Komath, having been the GSCASH chairperson in the past, shared her experience of dealing with cases that involved competing identities. She said that if it was a fight between gender and caste, it was unfortunate to see that many a time gender lost. This had a lot to do with the socialisation of women who were taught from a young age to put their family and community above their own needs. She narrated an instance from the Hyderabad University where an upper caste girl had filed a case against a Dalit boy because he was stalking and violently pursuing her. Unfortunately many people, including women from the women’s groups in the University, thought that the girl’s rejection of the boy's advances had to do with his caste and that the case was not valid.

Spaces of Protest

Pratiksha Baxi said that universities today were being transformed into sanitised spaces where dissent was being controlled, disciplined and put under surveillance. She narrated an instance where permission was denied to hold a late night march in Delhi University (DU) to protest against Delhi gang-rape on the grounds that women protesters would be harassed at night. She also spoke about the harassment of students and faculty who protested against Narendra Modi speaking at Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC). A petition to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi described how many female students and teachers were molested, manhandled and abused with the crudest sexual language and gestures by the police personnel. Words like kuttia (bitch) and randi (prostitute) were amongst the mildest of the abuses hurled. Furthermore, in a brazen attempt to cover up this shameful and outrageous conduct, the police lodged FIRs against nine of the protestors (one teacher and eight students, five of whom belonged to JNU). Since the fear of counter-cases and violent harassment was a deterrent to filing criminal complaints against this sexual harassment by the police, Pratiksha Baxi recommended the formation of a working group of teachers and students to write a report on the role of the police in universities with JNU perhaps taking the lead. She said that JNU should inquire into the students' complaints against sexual harassment by the police and demanded that the Apex Committee against Sexual Harassment, Delhi University should also conduct an inquiry. She further added that JNU must demand that the sexual harassment policy must be activated in circumstances where sexual harassment is reported during protests. This was important as sexual violence and its threat is used as a tactic to control and quash dissent. She asserted that not activating the anti-sexual harassment policy in such situations is tantamount to tolerating rape culture.

Ayesha Kidwai narrated the events around the formulation of GSCASH, and compared the vibrant women’s movement prevalent at that time on campus with the present day JNU, which lacks a gender critique or any women’s groups. She said that though JNU was considered a model for other university spaces and was the first university to formulate the guidelines for GSCASH, one needs to prod further to see how far that has taken us. She said that while the processes through which security can be achieved have been explored, the right to security does not grant women the freedom from fear. Similarly while we get the right to complain, we do not get the right to redressal. She raised several questions: “Are questions of equality to be raised only by punitive bodies”? “Why does JNU not have any semblance of a women’s movement as there is in DU”? “Is GSCASH enough”? She said that it was time to think of another pressure body on which complainants could rely upon.

Commenting on the presentations, G. Arunima said though GSCASH was achieved through a movement, in the present context it functions only as an official body. She reiterated the absence of any feminist positions on public politics on campus and this silence requires to be reflected upon. She asked how questions of sexuality, violence and love-- which had been discussed vibrantly in the past-- be brought back within the women’s movement on campus. To elucidate the point further, Pratiksha Baxi shared anecdotes on how as students in JNU they had formed the Gender Studies Group and the Forum Against Sexual Harassment, which in addition to receiving complaints were also amazing spaces of solidarity; something that is missing in the present context.

In the discussions that followed with the audience, it was brought forth that the conversations and protests on JNU campus needed to go beyond the rhetoric of gender justice. JNU being a safe enough campus for women to walk around late at night was reiterated time and again. But was that enough? It was asked if one could collectively think of making gender a political issue on campus. It was also brought out that one had to be mindful and sensitive to the fact that women do not fall into a single category and that gender cuts across class, caste and religion complicating the formation of a broader form of solidarity. At the same time one should not be paralysed by the multiple and competing forms of patriarchy and should work towards a stronger women’s movement. Though sexual violence might appear at times to be something out there, it is subtly knit into our everyday existence.

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