On the eve of International Women’s Day, Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women and Child development, paraded a string of astoundingly sexist remarks before an audience of college students. Speaking to NDTV, on the importance of Women’s Day, the minister defended the restrictive conditions enforced by hostel and college authorities across the country, ostensibly to ensure the safety of women residents.
Gandhi observed that an imposition of early curfew in hostels was a necessary condition for protecting women. Moreover, she went on to say – even more bizarrely – that a lakshman rekha must be drawn to protect women from their own "hormonal outbursts."
The minister’s comments (even though such comments are by now a hallmark of Indian politics, from men and women alike) left the students flabbergasted. A report in NDTV said: "Asked why girls in hostels should have an early curfew and not boys, Ms Gandhi said, 'As a parent who’s sending a daughter to a college – or a son – I would expect her and him to be protected. And perhaps, one of the protections is against themselves. When you are 16 or 17, you are also hormonally very challenged. So to protect you from your own hormonal outbursts, perhaps a lakshman rekha is drawn. It really is for your own safety.'"
One wonders if Gandhi, who often sets herself up as a votary of women’s rights and empowerment, could hear herself! Responding to whether colleges and hostels should enhance security measures for female students, Gandhi said: "No, not by two Bihari gentlemen at gate with dandas (sticks). It has to be solved literally by giving time limits for everything… Give them (boys) two nights to go to the library and two nights for girls – if you want to go to library, that is."
Clearly, the Minister was suggesting that women could well use the pretext of studying in the library to do other things – probably socialise and meet with boys.
Instead of peddling this nonsensical argument about protecting "hormonally challenged" teenage girls by limiting their mobility, Gandhi should indeed have focussed on the real challenges confronting young girls. For instance, the need for them to be aware of their bodies, or to know their rights and gain familiarity about reproductive health issues.
Enough surveys attest, by now, to a high level of sexual activity among adolescents in the country. Surely the best way of protecting young women is not slapping stifling restrictions on their movements, but introducing sex education in school curricula.
On being further questioned about whether male students, too, should be subjected to curfew hours, the minister said: "Yes, so maybe the same deadlines should be there for both boys and girls... Why should the boys be allowed to wander about in the campus after six-o-clock? Let them also stay in and do their work."
This is not the first time that union ministers have gone on record, spouting random morality lessons. It isn’t even the first time they have expressed a desire for a repressive code of moral conduct for how girls and boys, women and men, should live their lives. For most part, these guidelines are targeted at girls. There has never been any lack of political endorsement for such policies or visions of society.
More often than not, when senior state functionaries fall back on a standard rhetoric about women's rights and gender equality, they end up promoting sexism and misogyny.
Defending meaningless and restrictive rules for women in academic institutions and women's hostels, or refusing to criminalise marital rape, are just a few among such innumerable examples. Most paradoxically, these advocates of codes of conduct turn a blind eye to the failure of the police to do their job, by ensuring the safety of women in public spaces.
Gandhi's comments bring to mind the rampant gender discrimination currently being practised by authorities in Banaras Hindu University (BHU). From restricting the movement of girls on campus to banning non-vegetarian food in the girls’ mess, and barring girls from wearing short skirts, the administration is implementing a range of policies which are outright sexist and discriminatory.
None of these regulations, however, apply to BHU’s male students, who can roam around at will, are served non-vegetarian food, and can even go on leave without filling in proper application forms. The only taboo common to male and female students is the university’s restricted library hours, with the authorities refusing to keep the library open 24 hours.
Challenging repressive hostel conditions, women from Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University, National Law University and Jawaharlal Nehru University launched the Pinjra Tod (break the cage) campaign last September. Using multiple modes of publicity and activism, the campaign's members are mobilising large numbers of students to resist patriarchal fiats. As the minister's comments painfully reveal, the students have a long fight ahead.
Updated Date: Mar 08, 2017 11:20 AM