Bois Locker Room case underscores vital need for radical, political reimagining of an education that liberates us

The Bois Locker Room and the crisis of our society in its current breakdown have a lot to say about each other. Both of them tell us that we have reached the limits of the system we live in. If the way out is together, then we need an education on what it means to do that.

Paromita Vohra May 12, 2020 10:27:54 IST
Bois Locker Room case underscores vital need for radical, political reimagining of an education that liberates us

In 1984, Delhi’s St. Stephen’s college was in the news for a time-honoured tradition: chick charts. Tradition is such a flexible word — making a practice sound unchangeable. In fact the college started admitting women students only in 1975 (it had been co-ed in the past, from 1928-1949). The nine years that women had been attending the college, was enough to term tradition, the frequent posting on the official college notice board, of Top 10 charts, made by male students, rating women on their breasts, butts, legs, mouths — and sometimes maybe, smiles. Smiles were what most women apparently used to mask the discomfort of the back-handed humiliation. When women are a minority, granted entrance to the worlds of men, going along with such behaviour, or being called a bad sport are often the perceived choices.

That year, the college was closed as Delhi witnessed harrowing anti-Sikh violence. Shortly after it re-opened, a “Sardines Chick Chart” came up on the notice board, sardines being slang for sardarnis. The most striking quality of quotidian violence is its wild-eyed avidity. The instinct to further leer at the women of a community that has recently been brutalised puts the violence in sex like masala films can but dream of.

The incident however, broke the uneasy acceptance of the ‘tradition’, and grew over time to become a protest that made it to the newspapers. Consequently, as the filmmaker Saba Dewan has recounted on Kafila, women students had men hissing ‘fuck off’ at them as they walked the corridors. The Girls’ Common Room was vandalised and students’ bras and panties were strewn everywhere, including furled from the college turret, just like victory flags of war. A Hen Chart was put up, making the clichéd connection between feminists and frumps, naming the most vocal members of the protest. The administration never held any men accountable, but did call in the women’s parents to complain about them.

At around the same time, the filmmaker Bela Negi was studying in Sherwood College, a posh boarding school in Nainital, which too had only recently begun to admit women. “I was the head-girl. I was a bit of a goody two-shoes so I would take my job somewhat seriously, and the boys didn’t like that,” Negi said to me. On one occasion, she had checked a boy over something. A few days later, “when I went out in a short skirt”, a group of about 25 boys pounced on her and gave her bumps on a pile of horse dung. “Given how things were, I knew it was no use complaining to the administration. I got up and walked away, refusing to give them the pleasure of knowing they’d humiliated me.”

The similarity to the Bois Locker Room incident — an Instagram group where schoolboys aged 14 to 18, rated schoolgirls’ body parts, shared their Instagram posts without consent, morphing their heads onto naked bodies — does not require over-articulation here. There’s no real difference. Bonding in private rooms, competing to trash talk women, dismembering women metaphorically, into body parts. Threatening to assault actually or metaphorically through public shaming, when called out. Traditions are what keep a society going, no?

One of the unexpected discoveries I made while writing this essay was that the niece of a close friend was one of the minors discussed in the Bois Locker Room. I had heard over the last year that she and her mother had had several conflicts over her posting very sexualised images on Instagram. “Why do you think she does it?” I’d asked my friend then. “It’s the only way for girls to be popular in their schools”. It’s a tricky path, when popularity is equal to being an aspirational object, often leading to violent responses that you’re a bitch if you aren’t attainable, and a whore if you are. Eventually you find yourself beheaded via app and discover the dehumanisations that gives these currencies of attractiveness their power — for all genders.

Bois Locker Room case underscores vital need for radical political reimagining of an education that liberates us

At the very least, Bois Locker Room may remind us that we need sex-education which is age-appropriate. Image for representation only. AP Photo

St. Stephen’s and Sherwood College are among the country’s elite educational institutions, grooming the rich and powerful for generations, a tradition being carried forward by the growing number of private schools today. Many students who were part of the incidents described above, as participants, or as uneasy bystanders, doubtless occupy positions of influence today — in politics, in civil services, in media, in academia, in corporate life. Many would be considered liberal leading lights. None of them, until today, have managed to create structures that naturally incorporate the point of view of anyone except elite heterosexual men — that we know of. Many of them might run the kind of organisations that yielded a bunch of #MeToo stories. Maybe on jolly social occasions, they say to women who object to their wife jokes, ‘yaar stop being such a feminist. You’re too serious’. Well, they’re just good students. They were groomed to decide what is serious and what is not on other people’s behalf. Someone married them, not expecting, or simply going along with, becoming a wife joke. Perhaps their kids go to the ‘good South Delhi schools’ everyone keeps mentioning when they express shock at the Bois Locker Room case.

It’s such a sleight of hand, ‘good’ schools, ‘good’ families, that conflates virtue with privilege. “How can an educated person do this?” people exclaim. It is precisely an educated person who does these things. Elite education is designed as it always was, barring a few cool accessories, to train elite men to dominate other people and express that domination in a variety of ways.

Education is structured to underline the importance of material success and competition at all cost, including the cost of understanding your own pleasures, relationships and emotions, which are considered distractions to be quelled, a source of weakness. Parents focus mostly on whether you are studying, when they think of your future, not about nourishing your inner life. They might notice an issue with your inner life only if you don’t do well at school. Everyone else is your competition. Everything you do requires fitting in but still, having an edge over others. The limit of learning is the exam — not the idea that you will keep learning from life. Exams are war and everyone must be an exam warrior. When we are trained to always go to war, what can we possibly know about how to go to peace?

As you go up the ladder, the self-congratulatory declarations — “it’s just business”, “I’m just being practical” — all mean that empathy and emotion have been successfully numbed, enough, that you can defend the scrapping of labour laws and can go to the government and say, “Do not send migrant labourers home. We may need them for our (just) business.”

The making of chick charts, the rating of girls, the slurs against queer and Dalit colleagues — these are all social reminders that elite, straight men are the ones entitled to define these structures, who get to grant approval and make decisions, in schools and colleges, and later in offices, governments, the internet. Your continued presence is contingent on fitting into this system and not objecting to its ‘just fun’ traditions. They are the foam in a double shot cappuccino of privilege.

25 years after the incident in school, Bela Negi ran into one of her classmates at a school reunion. “He said to me ‘remember how we gave you bumps, ha ha’. I said, I can’t believe that as a grown up you’re laughing and bragging about it instead of feeling remorse or embarrassment.’ Other male classmates looked uneasy when she brought it up. Women at the party told her ‘forget it, now it’s in the past.’

But it’s not in the past, is it? It is firmly with us in the present — the sexual language used to attack women in a political disagreement online. The baying for sexual violation of Muslim and ‘sickular’ women by right wing men. The number of liberal men named in #MeToo accounts. The calling Safoora Zargar, the arrested member of the Jamia Coordination Committee, prostitute and saying ‘give her a condom’ because she is pregnant — and Muslim and politically active. It is so much with us, that the day the hashtag #boislockerroom started trending I didn’t pay attention because I thought, “it must be some new web series”.

A lot goes into maintaining the illusion that elite men are not sexually violent on a casual and intensified basis all the time. Part of this is the reigning discourse around sexual violence, which privileges the safety of women — elite women — over their freedom. The public space is painted as a dangerous one for women, where they are under threat of being attacked by ‘other’ men — read, lower caste or class, men. If elite men bother to talk about women, it is only to hold them up as emblems of purity or achievement, or to school other men for not knowing how to respect women. (In other words they don’t seem to know how to talk to women, but that’s another discussion).

Being a bro who stands up for feminism is an elite pastime across the political spectrum — sometimes they are scolding creeps in a music video, sometimes they are killing your boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. This discussion about ‘others’ is like a curtain. Behind it is the private behaviour of men — and that is never to be discussed. A man who does it is weak. A woman who brings matters private into public light, risks marginalisation and vilification. We have seen that, through domestic violence scandals and sexual harassment cases.

That is why the first responses to many such incidents is to blame women — #girlslockerroom — and then to clamp down on the freedom of women or blame them for acting as if they lived in a world where men’s violence against them is not a given. Boys will be boys, goes the platitude. As if this is an immutable condition and we must all tiptoe around them, which we are constantly, daily being trained to do, lest we provoke their boys-will-be-boys-ism.

The other response is to demand strong punitive action against perpetrators — we don’t mind if boys are boys as long as their privilege does not expose itself through an act of criminal violence. Then, we must teach them a lesson. One sometimes wants to say, but this is the lesson you have been teaching them: of supremacy. All other lessons are sitting in the pocket of that lesson.


Interviewed by media, one school principal expressed bewilderment that their students could be involved in the Bois Locker Room because “the school has regularly provided inputs on gender”.

At every school and college where I, or my colleagues at Agents of Ishq have done a talk or workshop, in the last two years, young women have come up to discuss, exactly the same experience of the Bois Locker Room case. They don’t know how to counter the distasteful misogyny that the cool, edgy filmmakers and forthcoming media sensations of the future subject them to. “Why don’t you say something?” I ask. “Because I don’t feel like being rude to a friend.” “Because they call me a prude or they might think I’m un-cool.” “Why do you care what they think?” I asked a young woman. She kept quiet. She knows in theory, that she need not care, but the world has not reshaped itself enough to make this automatic and there is very little conversation to help her figure out the way to do this positively, not negatively as a victim or an aggressor.

If you are a woman working in a cool corporate job, media, art films and so on, you will recognise this experience. In elite worlds where cool is a very necessary currency, you try to hold on to it tenuously, timorously. To not accept the banal misogyny and poor humour of men, marks you as un-cool. Despite being a grown woman, you must carry out an adolescent exhibitionism while talking about sex, to show you are blasé, so you may be accepted as one of the guys — and it’s simply a different version of young schoolgirls posing in particular ways, to gain importance in this world. Even my gay friends have called me a prude (and consider, I run a platform about sex) when I tell them not to bore me with misogynistic TikTok clips. If you don’t talk about sex the way men have been trained to talk about it, then you are a prude and simply not cool enough for school.

The workshops might not be useless. But they are not the real answer to finding our way out of this dystopia. Education, like patriarchy, is a structure. Just dropping new content into it doesn’t change what it does. In the structure of competitive education, those gender and sexuality workshops too can become one more competitive module you learn to ace — because your basic purpose has not altered. The same boys who are in Bois Locker Room, might easily be acing the Model UN and debating circuits, the social media conversations, saying all the right things about gender bias, toxic masculinity and inter-sectionality.

Liberal parents often show off their children’s by-rote sensitive (but not always good) writings — the passionate awareness of being a victim of gender discrimination, the performative pain of class inequity. It is not so different from saying ‘uncle ko poem sunao’.

The same by-rote politics will manifest later in ‘women-centric’ films made by men — liberal men castigating others for not knowing how to treat women. The right gestures will be made — like putting your mother’s first name as the middle name for the entire crew, in a sudden burst of born-again feminist consciousness. The catechism or rights-based discourse will be read out. And the performative mea culpas and ritualistic discussion of toxic masculinity will follow.

In a world where life is an exam — where you have to know the poem, not become it — everyone learns the right things to say, in order to win approval. And in the same way, everyone also knows what to hide.

Bois Locker Room case underscores vital need for radical political reimagining of an education that liberates us

Education is structured to underline the importance of material success and competition at all cost. Image for representation only. AP Photo

Education and all the resources we put into it are about succeeding in public life — to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet, as TS Eliot wrote. We do not value the private sphere enough to put thought into an education for that, mostly hidden, part of life. We can be depressed but not surprised at the inability of young men to stand up for more humane relationships with women, sexuality, desire, because that has never been part of the syllabus anywhere. They have no language for it. Young women don’t have the means to recognise it — they still imagine that a man with the right terminology will also be decent. They have only been taught to think of men in terms of public attributes, not private ones. It would be hard to find the profile of a successful man in the Indian media, which mentions what kind of friend or partner he is, or asks what he feels about the world of love and emotion.

Sex is even more separated from the discussion. It is never discussed as part of life. It is a place of secrecy, shame, embarrassment and judgment, only made public through lewd jokes or lectures about violence. The only sources of sexual knowledge — in an experiential and not clinical sense — is mainstream pornography, which fragments sex into discrete acts and bodies into body parts — and online frat house culture. Mixed with a cultural universe and an educational system that emphasises hierarchy, disconnection and competitiveness, this gives us a recipe for self-hate. It leaves young people of all genders with a complete lack of resources to manage the world of desire that surges within them. “It’s like they are all competing with each other for one-upmanship” said my friend whose niece had appeared as one of the girls discussed in Bois Locker Room. “The boys are competing for who can say dirtier things. The girls for how many people think they are hot. When it comes out then it’s victims and villains. It’s all so mechanical and about projection rather than being.” The only language young people have is a second-hand one, and how can you find your own self, when you are always speaking in someone’s given language?

At the very least, Bois Locker Room may remind us that we need sex-education, which is age-appropriate — a curriculum that grows in scope along with the child — and that it should be comprehensive: looking at how health, desire, orientation, emotion, politics and culture intersect to create a sexual world.

But the task before is a more radical and political one. If education enslaves us, compelling us to be part of herds, gangs, clubs and cliques, then what does an education that liberates us look like? If education fragments us, keeping our minds, bodies and hearts separated like Science, Arts and Commerce, what is the education that integrates all these different aspects of being a person look like?

The bandying of phrases like toxic masculinity and that most Brahmanical of words, ‘problematic’, is not the road to discovering this education and this existence. The idea that boys have to be ‘fixed’ is itself a violence that does not acknowledge that every one of us lives in the patriarchy, is shaped by it and is also wounded by it. Such an attacking language only serves to harden the divisions and make the conversation inimical. It creates an untenable and dead-ended situation where the way to be ‘for’ women, is to be against men rather than finding a way to break free from the gridlock of interactions we are in, all the more in a time of social media.

Three years ago I went to a town in Uttar Pradesh to do a workshop in a programme on masculinity. It was an all-men’s group and it was exhausting. They trotted out the politically correct self-analysis about masculinity. But probed to speak beyond it, about their emotions and relationships, about areas of doubt and experience, they congealed together into a sticky mass of resistance. They made jokes, sometimes demeaning each other and challenged the trainers by trivialising each question.

But when we recorded their narratives individually, very different behaviours emerged. There was a small percentage of absolutely intractable men I have come to categorise as Sententious Lecturers and Eternally Wounded. One kind speaks in lofty proclamations that mean very little. The other refuses to let their wound of rejection or hurt heal, and turns it into a justification for seeing numbness as strength and love and emotion as weakness. “Now I only use girls,” one said. “If I like a girl, I don’t sleep with her, because I won’t be able to give her the love she expects.” The world of emotion is expressed as an impossibility. But the majority of other men spanned the range. Some were tentative about their relationships, some confessing to hurt and inadequacy, even depression. Some laughed at their own sentimentality or discussed wanting more confidence, more love, less pressure.

Detached from the herd, and spoken to as individuals, about their emotions, they were quite different from each other and did not adhere to a fixed identity of gender and its associated behaviours. They did not have the confidence in themselves as individuals, to be themselves in front of a larger group of men.

In that they were reminiscent of the young women, who approached me in distress about the demeaning way their male friends discussed women, their conflict between seeing distasteful aspects of a friend you liked otherwise. These young women also did not have enough language to think through these contradictions.

In contrast, when we have done mixed gender workshops, especially those focused on expressing and articulating one’s own experience, not an externalised understanding of politics, we’ve found that it creates a bridge of empathy between the genders and people — in political terms, where they see how identity shapes their choices. And in individual terms where they see each other as people.

Put very simply, we don’t give young people the means to see themselves as complex individuals — nor each other. Political language is important to identify structural issues, but in its current form where it essentially only knows how to describe a problem, it is insufficient to enable journeys of transformation and spark imaginations of change.

Education helps you to fit in with the herd to serve the larger power structures in a society. If you are very elite, you can learn the double speak of benefitting from this system, while also critiquing the system for your US college application essay.

An education which grants you immunity from the herd has to give you belief in your inner life. It has to grant importance to emotions, to desires, to pleasure, to poetry — to the ill-defined idea of personal life, an inner life — alongside the public.

I know it sounds utopian, but I don’t believe it is impossible. What it does ask from us, is to abandon the old system of report cards, to discard the traditional indicators of success and impact, and undertake a time of understanding things differently to build new models and ways of being.

At Agents of Ishq, once we liberated ourselves from the logic of just garnering numbers for content or even working with a fixed curriculum, we began a journey that has constantly shown us new aspects of what young people need to strengthen their personal lives — they need information, they need conversation, they need a new language which fluidly incorporates love, sex, desire, attraction, lust, queerness, consent, gender identity, affection, friendship, rejection, relationality — not a language which puts all these in silos. Think of it as literacy in intimacy. Knowledge of how to relate with others on their own terms.

Perhaps all of education needs to be reimagined the way sexuality education has been reimagined. Perhaps our inner lives and our inter-dependence have to lead the way more, in redefining education. As we confront disconnection in myriad ways with pandemic isolation, we can see that we need a politics, a philosophy, a practice of relationality with others. Where the understanding that sexualness is mutually exchanged, not simply conquered and captured, is interwined with understanding that our emotional and personal worlds can be places of sustenance not weakness, to be attacked or guarded. And that is also intertwined with being able to see that resources are something to be shared for mutual survival, not hoarded, and grudgingly given or strategically taken away.

The Bois Locker Room and the crisis of our society in its current breakdown have a lot to say about each other. Both of them tell us that we have reached the limits of the system we live in. If the way out is together, then we need an education on what it means to do that.

Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker, writer and founder of Agents of Ishq.

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