I want to share with you an excerpt from an article on Feministing about last month’s women student protests at Banaras Hindu University. I don’t have much to add to this story, and am not especially familiar with the current climate in India, but I almost missed this story and I want to make sure you don’t.
The women students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), one of India’s premier institutions of higher education, are only served vegetarian food. They’re not allowed to stay out of their university accommodation past 8 pm. They may not talk on their cell phones after 10pm. And if they experience sexual harassment or molestation they may be told—as one woman was last week—that it’s their fault for being outside of their accommodations past 6pm.
Male students of the university, on the other hand, are served meat in their dining halls, have no enforced restrictions for cell phone use, and enjoy a laxly-enforced curfew of 10pm
It’s in this context that since last Thursday [Sept. 21, 2017], women students of the university have staged a protest so forceful university administration has resorted to shutting down the dormitories, unleashing police violence, and even diverting the route of the prime minister, who was scheduled to drive past the university late last week. The protest broke out after a woman was groped by three men on a motorcycle. When nearby security guards refused to intervene, and university officials shamed rather than helped the complainant, the women students blocked the university gates, refusing to budge for days.
In response, police brutally beat the women, causing many to be hospitalized. The university administration filed police cases against more than 1,000 protesting students. And rather than address the women’s complaints, the university Vice Chancellor defended restrictive rules including curfew, accused the protesting women of being misinformed and instigated by “outsiders,” and proceeded to nominate a man who has been found guilty of sexual harassment to lead the university hospital.
While the comparison is far from direct, I am reminded of student protests in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, too, American students were subject to gendered curfew and dress code rules. Students protested these rules and ultimately got them removed. Historians have pointed to the rapid growth in the number of students attending college (and thus concentrated in one place) during that period as one reason for these protest movements were born and grew; perhaps we are seeing something similar here.
One thing I appreciate about being a feminist is the feeling that I am part of a greater global movement. Opponents of the protests at Banaras Hindu University claimed that they are being organized and fomented by “outside agitators,” but from everything I have read these protests appear to be organic and locally based. While ideas do circulate from one group or region to another and having institutional support or resources can be critical to a fledgling a movement, it does not require “outside agitators” for women to grasp the importance of self determination and freedom from violence.
For more context and additional information about women’s rights in India (and the recent setbacks activists have faced), read the rest of the Feministing article. This story, I should note, isn’t over. For more on what has happened since the protests, read these posts by students at Banaras Hindu University.