Breaking the Cage: Women Challenge Discriminatory University Rules in India
“We shall not be cowered! We shall not be silenced. Our collective power is our strength, and we will assert that back to you again and again, louder and louder, every time!”
“Your patriarchy! Your Manuwad! Your aggressive masculinity! Bas ab aur nahi! We refuse to be caged into your Brahminical ideal of the Bharat Mata!”
These are the demands on the Pinjra Tod (Hindi for “Break the Cage”) Facebook page. Scroll, and you’ll find hundreds of images and stories of female students revolting against rules to dress or act a certain way for their own “protection.” Pinjra Tod, which has swept across Indian universities, aims to reclaim public spaces in India for women. By crowdsourcing its grievances, Pinjra Tod gathers opposition to well-intentioned but sexist university policies.
Sexual assault is a widespread and longstanding problem in India. The National Crime Records Bureau reported more than thirty thousand rapes in 2015. But because marital rape is not illegal, the rate of sexual assault is vastly underreported. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that at least half of all rapes go unreported.
As women break into India’s public sphere, they often face violent retaliation.
“Liberalization through the 1980s and 1990s has resulted in a lot of shifts in terms of what young women can do,” Inderpal Grewal, chair of Yale University’s Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, said in an interview with The Politic.
“This creates a backlash in the form of moral policing and physical, often sexual, assaults,” she said.
The issue of sexual assault in India drew international attention in 2012, after a group of men assaulted a woman on a bus in New Delhi. She later died from her injuries. Thousands of protesters lined the steps of the capitol building, demanding that the government properly prosecute perpetrators and prevent future assaults.
Public officials responded with several promises. New Delhi would hire more female police officers for a department where only one out of 161 stations had a female officer on the ground. They would create fast-track courts to quicken a backlogged system with fifteen judges for every million people. They pledged to raise the dismal national conviction rate of 26 percent for rape cases.
More than half of the 500,000 students in Delhi are women. Because most Indian universities do not have their own dormitories for women, they contract out their housing needs through a “paying guest” system at hostels. Universities therefore lack direct oversight, leaving women few mechanisms within the university to influence hostel policies they believe are restrictive and discriminatory.
The 2012 assault brought unwelcome changes in hostel policies. A women’s hostel at Punjabi University in Patiala set a curfew of 6:00 pm. The National Institute of Technology Calicut threatened women with suspension or even expulsion from the hostels for being seen with male students. Both of these hostels also require women to have signed permission from guardians to stay outside past the curfew. Similar policies are in place across the nation.
The belief that women’s behaviors are to blame for their own assaults is not unique to the academic sphere. The chair of the Chhattisgarh State Women’s Commission has said that “women are equally responsible for crimes committed against them.” Letting women out onto the street has become a liability — one for which universities do not want to be held accountable.
University-specific protests against hostels loosened curfews, but only slightly. In 2015, smaller protests merged into the larger Pinjra Tod movement, which targeted the government instead of individual hostels. Its strong media presence speaks to its ability to grow and seize on public unrest.
“For the last couple of years, many movements have emerged outside of traditional feminist spaces,” Vinita Sahasranaman, an activist who has worked with Pinjra Tod, said in an interview with The Politic. “Ten years ago, if we were talking about people mobilizing, we would recognize five organizations and the people at their helm. We often don’t know who is organizing because of their grassroots, social media-based approaches,” she said.
“Pinjra Tod’s strategies are very mature and sophisticated. Along with their demands, they have done their research and created larger networks of supporters and allies. They have found new intersections with other movements across the country to build a coalition,” Sahasranaman explained.
Protests have spread to other regions across the country, resulting in moderate gains for the movement. Some politicians have argued in favor of removing curfews, and Pinjra Tod has catalogued the regulations of local hostels to compile hostel blacklists. Pinjra Tod has built coalitions with other organizations, including Why Loiter.
Sahasranaman described Why Loiter as “a collective born from a WhatsApp group. It organizes women’s presence in outdoor spaces to normalize it. This group doesn’t even consider itself a social movement — Why Loiter was started by an actor as an experiment of sorts.”
The Delhi Commission for Women, a government organization that operates like a civil court, sent a notice to many universities demanding justifications for these “restrictions on women’s freedom of movement.” But framing the problem as a restriction on freedom of movement only captures part of the situation.
“The idea of freedom on the streets is important, but women only recently have thought about reclaiming public spaces,” Grewal explained. “They have fought for legal equality, against forms of violence, and for the vote. Indian women who are constrained in the home could always exert agency through voting.”
“Pinjra Tod is about ownership over where women live. Why should somebody tell me when to come in and go out?” Grewal asked.
The question is buried in India’s early history, when women were considered a monetary asset.
“At the point of Partition this was established when women’s bodies were traded to maintain the boundary,” Grewal argued. “The division was established through massive sexual violence. Women’s bodies stand for the property of the nation.”
This led to a longstanding battle within Indian culture regarding the role of women.
“The issue first arose when the founders of India wanted to harness the power of women to work against the colonial regime,” said Grewal. Women could revolutionize the Indian economy and help make the country competitive against Western powers.
Grewal acknowledges that many people have debated the scope and impact of these efforts, but the central conflict still holds. On the one hand, Indian women are supposed to drive the economy. On the other hand, they are supposed to be the assets of a young nation.
“There is simultaneously pressure to educate women while also containing them,” she said.
Without addressing the basic issue of moral policing and controlling women’s bodies, a full reclamation of public spaces is not possible.
“Safety should not be the primary agenda,” Sahasranaman contended. “Allowing women access to things in the public domain should be the priority. Pursuing safety will only put women back home.”
The right to be in the public space, Sahasranaman argued, is not the same as ownership of that space. Today, women who have the right to vote do not have the right to be outside after 7:30 pm.
The fight for this freedom is at the heart of Pinjra Tod’s activism. When women go to college, the burden of pressuring women to behave in a certain way shifts from parents to universities. Anuradha Mathur, a Yale World Fellow, runs an all-women’s graduate program in Delhi. Her program has a relatively relaxed curfew of 10:00 pm, after which women are allowed to be outside so long as their locations are known.
Mathur instituted the curfew to reassure the women’s parents.
“We run a new all-women’s program in Delhi,” she told The Politic. “We need to be able to have conversations where parents would be comfortable knowing the program is thinking about their children’s safety.”
If women are not able to remain safe in the streets, the university becomes responsible for enforcing those rules meant to protect them.
“I am conscious that the generation I am working with is not a throwback to the past. We have a fine balance because Indian parents have long ties to their kids and continue to pay. In the United States universities expect parents to pay the bills but do not communicate to parents about their children,” said Mathur. “This mentality does not exist in India.”
If parents cannot protect their daughters in person, they expect universities to do it. Both situations leave women with little agency over their own bodies. While women’s movements have led to some important legislative changes — from amendments to sexual harassment laws to harsher sentences for sex crimes — many activists and academics don’t think this is enough.
A focus on legislation directs attention away from underlying cultural problems.
“Those in power work in various parallel systems,” Lawrence Liang, a Rice Visiting Fellow at Yale, explained to The Politic.
Liang believes that effective solutions require broader cultural change, possibly in the realm of media and entertainment.
The 2016 Bollywood film Pink directly tackles the issue of sexual assault. In the film, three men attempt to assault three women, but one of the women acts in self-defense and escapes. In an act of retaliation, she is kidnapped and assaulted in a car. Eventually the movie shifts into the realm of a courtroom drama as the three women attempt to jail their attackers.
Pink marks a departure from other courtroom dramas in how it depicts the three women. “The women in this film diverge significantly from previous narratives featuring idealized, traditional heroines,” Liang explained. “An entire genre of film emerged in the 1970s of ‘avenging women.’ Victims of sexual violence are denied justice from the system, resulting in vigilante violence. They are a surface critique of rape that rely upon depictions of rape as sexual titillation.”
But the women of Pink are not glamorized, glorified, or sexualized for the viewer. They are not upper-class wives but instead single, working women from diverse backgrounds, each trying to make her way in Delhi.
The film is also noted for its casting of Aamitabh Bacchan, a Bollywood actor of almost mythological status, as an attorney for one of the young women.
“[Bacchan] is important for a certain form of sovereignty in India,” Liang said. “Not in the classical sense of the state and the dictator, but symbolically. By virtue of this status, for him to say certain things is incredibly important.”
Bacchan’s role in Pink is especially remarkable when contrasted against some of his previous films. In Cooli, he kidnaps a woman and holds her in his room. The film resolves when they fall in love. This film presents a common trope in which the protagonist performs an act the audience knows to be outlandish but which is still presented as an acceptable form of romance. Pink does nothing of the sort.
In his cross-examination of one of the women, Bacchan’s character asks about her sexual history, her habits, her profession. But, at the end of her cross-examination, an unexpected twist — no, he says to the courtroom. None of this matters.
And, consequently, the women win their justice. The film posits that a woman’s sexual history should not impinge her ability to withhold consent, accuse her attacker, or access justice.
The resolution of Pink marks a sharp distinction from earlier films in that, after immense struggle, the three protagonists get justice through the legal system. The film presents an optimistic message that there is a possibility of the legal system acting as an ally.
Thus, Pink represents a new wave of feminist women in India and broadens the conversation on the cultural front. Rather than claiming equal rights to work or to vote, Pink demands that women have equal access to public spaces and their own autonomy.
Film often performs an important role in opening cultural dialogues in India, and Pink closely follows this tradition.
“I wouldn’t describe the film’s greatest asset as uniqueness,” Liang said. “With every era, you have slight recalibrations of what is possible in terms of expression in the mainstream media. At the end of the day, Bollywood films are still driven by investments calculated on the possibility of return. When these films do well, they expand the possibilities of what can be said further. In this way, a unique presentation of these dialogues is not so important as a widely available one.”
This dialogue has taken on a new urgency in recent years due to deeper structural changes in Indian society.
Historically, women’s interactions with men, especially concerning their sexuality, have been controlled to keep them marriageable.
“In general, India is a very gender-segregated society, or at least it tries to be. Given the ways in which people are socialized, men produce a need and desire for segregation,” Grewal said.
In recent years, this social segregation has become more difficult to maintain. A globalized corporate economy now means economic prosperity and independence, which in turn erodes women’s ability to fulfill their traditional, segregated role.
As women move further and further from the ideals that Indian culture has projected onto them since its independence, efforts to contain them become more overt. These attempts to control women have been met with strong resistance, and not only from Pinjra Tod. Groups like Pinjra Tod and Why Loiter bring action and reclamation outside of explicitly activist spaces.
These movements are rooted in larger social and economic changes that have inspired their existence, and their goals are onerous. A full spectrum of women’s rights must be actualized in order to achieve their vision of parity: changes in policy, mindsets, families, and workplaces.
The question of women’s roles in India is not going anywhere soon, but neither are the women working to answer it.
“These meaningless rules cannot cage us anymore,” the activists vowed on Pinjra Tod’s Facebook page, “They will be broken, they will be transgressed, they will not be followed anymore!”