Mishandled sexual assault cases. Troublesome comments from members of the staff. Student activists with clear faculty support, but murkiness from top administration.
Despite being thousands of miles away, the University of Hyderabad faces very similar problems to those at Occidental regarding sexual assault. I explored these issues and more by sitting down with Sayantan Mondal, a convener of the sardonically named organization, Just Another Students Group (JASG). Several weeks ago, in commemeration of International Women’s Day, members of JASG wrote and performed a street play around campus protesting both national and campus attitudes regarding gender and sexual violence. They performed thrice, at three of the most populated student facilities (the equivalent of the center of the Quad, the Cooler and the Branca Patio).
Their work was multicentered — drawing on media influence, traditional culture and the university climate itself. One component of the play was based on a true incident, where non-university members came on to campus and attempted to drag a female student into their car. Fortunately, other students observed this and were able to call the university gate and report the car’s license plate number. But when the girl approached the university’s Chief Security Officer for assistance in taking legal action against the harasser, he proceeded to lecture her on sexual morality.
“Don’t roam after nine, don’t wear inappropriate clothes, a girl going out after seven should take a boy,” Mondal recounted. “Campus should be a place where you can roam around.”
UoH is far from the worst campus in India. Mondal described another incident at Benares Hindi University, a less liberal campus, where two male and female Ph.D students were observed together after dark. Some security guards escorted the girl back to her dorm, while others proceeded to physically assault the boy. While caste and class are the top issue in India, Mondal says, “Wherever you look, underneath, the gender issue is always there.”
On a national level, a country that was rocked by prominent sexual assaults in 2012 is making stuttering steps toward progress on gender issues. While the Indian Supreme Court recently recriminalized homosexuality, they just this month recognized transgendered individuals, or “hijra,” as an official third gender in Indian law. Public anger has certainly been galvanized against formerly widely tolerated practices of male sexual violence against women, but actually enacting change in long-formed mindsets will always be difficult.
This is where work like the street play comes in. The street play used satire to address serious issues “taken from the memory of the campus community.” One scene showed a woman, stuck in a horrible life, see her world be radically transformed after using a commercially popular skin-whitening product. This kind of humor can get into people’s minds in a way a person shouting with a microphone cannot. Notably, the play involved people who had real experiences with sexual harassment from the beginning, a point Mondal emphasized.
“No matter how much I try to learn, as a male, we take a lot of things for granted,” Mondal said. “We’re not aware of mistakes. It’s important to be humbled with apprehension that you may not understand what happens to women. No matter how progressive you consider yourself, it’s always the best thing to let subjects who really face this talk.”
On a whole, Mondal finds the campus “enabling” for the kind of work his organization does.
“In campus people read, they know what’s going on. Outside” — he paused, looking for the right word — ”is more regressive.”
Mondal was quick to clarify that campus mindsets still had a long way to go. At a rally protesting the 12 a.m. curfew mandated only on female students, the vice chancellor of the university (the Jonathan Veitch of the University of Hyderabad) made a remarkably out-of-touch statement.
“You girls, what is your demand? You want 24 hours of freedom?” he said.
Faculty criticized him for this statement and Mondal characterized him as “confused” by the changing world around him.
Among students as well, there is room for improvement. In documents prepared during the street play planning process, JASG sought to confront daily conversational language that remains, “extremely gender biased… [in public spaces] popular sexist slangs are not seen as offensive but are quite okay and funny!”
For Mondal, joking is a serious matter.
“Anything you talk about, you preach,” Mondal said.
It’s not a matter of being politically correct – “you should be correct,” according to Mondal.
In a country with a strong patriarchal history and memory, some would cut slack to students coming from less progressive backgrounds. Not Mondal. Upbringing is “as minimal as any other factor” in determining someone’s behavior.
“You encounter many influences [in life] and everyone has a minimum responsibility to take a stance among all the choices. If you say, ‘I’m this way because I have all that is on this list,’ you’re not being responsible to yourself or others,” the activist asserts, imagining a tally sheet of reasons why a person might not be progressive.
Fortunately, there are more supportive members of the campus community. The Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) composed of students, administrators and faculty provided funding for JSAG’s play. According to Mondal, the group is familiar with both the academic and popular rhetoric surrounding sexual assault and is a valuable resource.
Even more, the community is showing improvement. The security officer, when asked to apologize, did so. Mondal sees this as a growing awareness of political correctness.
“People learn what language to use,” Mondal said.
The activist sees this as a small step in the right direction, considering how important language is. After the play, the organization has seen major shifts in the campus conversation. They’ve even been asked to perform outside the campus, and are currently working to set up shows at other universities around the city.
Throughout our conversation, Mondal’s speech was interwoven with ideas of prominent Western thinkers.
“Art for art’s sake is a fascist project. We [JASG] firmly believe that,” Mondal said, paraphrasing German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin.
However, according to Mondal, many great Indian social activists influence his work as well, notably BR Ambedkar, a Western-educated Indian who devoted his life to improving the status of India’s “untouchable” class, of which he was a part. Similarly, hijra recognition came both from Western NGOs and also the third gender’s long recorded history in South Asia.
While there are many ways countries all over the world need to improve their issues with gender, seeing activist groups like JSAG and OSAC work to make changes locally is a crucial first step to seeing progressive changes around the globe.