I Wish You Had A Grandmother Like Mine

Kanu Priya (left), the recently elected campus president of Punjab University Campus Student Council, interacting with hostellers at the University in Chandigarh.(Karun Sharma/HT)

This piece is written in response to Wing Cdr. D.P.S. Bajwa’s article in The Hindustan Times: ‘Buying trouble in the name of freedom at girl’s hostels’, on 23rd September, 2018. You could call it an open-letter. Portions from the article are in italics, while my responses follow.

Ms Kanupriya, the recently elected president of the Panjab University Campus Students Council (PUCSC), is seemingly very enthusiastic about the rights of students, girls in particular. Her latest demand to do away with the curfew in girls’ hostels might seem like a welcome step for the hostellers and earn her cheap popularity, but as a father and grandfather, I have a totally different take on this so-called unbridled freedom.

Wing Cdr. Bajwa,

Your opening paragraph is enough to set off the wrath of a million women (and men) upon you. I’m wondering therefore, if this piece is an attempt by you to gain cheap popularity in your social circles. Now, if you ever get a chance to read this, please brace yourself up for my take (and, I believe the take of all the women I know) on what this ‘so-called unbridled freedom’ truly means.

First, let us understand why a student lives in a hostel. It is because he or she is from a distant town and has come to study at the university. Therefore, if the goal is clear to achieve some academic excellence, then the first priority must be a conducive environment for studies with comfortable living and dining. So how does this demand arise for keeping women’s hostels open round the clock?

The first two sentences in the paragraph above are absolutely true. The third too. When you seem to be displaying flashes of coherence and logic, I’m wondering why it doesn’t come into play when you ask the question at the end. You just answered it yourself, Wing Cdr. Bajwa. A conducive environment includes the freedom to stay out till as long as they wish, regardless of what they wish to do. How can you be so sure that a student can possibly have no academic work to do after sundown, outside the university campus?

Unfortunately, the underlying reason seems to be the desire to enjoy parties at pubs or with friends.

Did a little blue birdie tell you so? Did the women themselves tell you so in secret and under conditions of anonymity? Oh, no, they didn’t? You just assumed. That’s OK. We all do. We can disregard this and move on, for the moment. There’s a lot of ground to cover.

This leads to the question that though students have a right to enjoy life and party, is it safe for women to return to their rooms after midnight? I also wish to ask such students as to how many times have they made such demands at home and how many times their parents have allowed them to return home after midnight without any questions asked. So why this demand for freedom now in hostels?

While you have, out of the largeness of your heart, acknowledged that (women) students have the right to enjoy life and party, you seem to be caught like the coachman in Cinderella, who simply has to go back to being a rat at midnight. Cinderella could’ve stayed back and had a great time at the ball had her fairy-godmother not put restrictions on her. She could’ve married the Prince (or not) the very next day without all the unnecessary drama of the lost glass slipper. It would’ve made for a much more empowering story than the one you grew up on. But, I don’t blame you, Sir. I blame the Grimm Brothers. You, like so many other men out there, are just a victim of misogyny and patriarchy that was thrust upon you.

You do sound like a reasonable person every now and then, so I’m going to tell you about something called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It says, in a nutshell, nobody in this world has the right to tell anyone where to go, whom to marry, how long to party, what to wear, what religion to practice, what to say, and so on. Let me spell out some of those Articles for you:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 26: Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

Article 28: Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29: In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Have these girls never heard of incidents of people like them being waylaid by troublemakers after they come out of pubs or other late night parties? Have they not heard of ‘trusted’ male friends taking undue advantage of women at some weak moments? Have these girls ever consumed liquor or drugs while staying with their parents?

Have you tried to do something about the men who violate the rights of these women? Have you written a piece calling out obnoxious male behaviour? Have you asked boys the same questions you ask girls?

It is common knowledge that young people could indulge in drinking and take drugs inadvertently under peer pressure at PGs or hostels, something they would hesitate to do under the vigilant eyes of parents and siblings. But when there is no check or fear of parents, then they wish to experiment with their new found freedom.

Just so you know, I am now 37, and a daughter, who drinks with her parents, a sister who drinks with her brother, a mother to a 7-year old boy, who sees me drink, a wife, who drinks with her husband, a bahu, who drinks with her mother and father-in-law, and a friend who, drinks with other friends. Despite the influence of alcohol from various family quarters, I have turned out just fine. While I was in college, my parents were vigilant with me, but they were also liberal and trusting. Let me tell you, young people don’t let down those who have faith in them. I also know many other women who drink and smoke with their parents and are perfectly normal human-beings. So, no Sir, no one should have to live in fear of their own family. Even if they became addicts.

I am not against this freedom but knowing the mindset of some males in our society, the girls remain vulnerable to getting exploited. By then it’s too late for them to realise that some restrictions are good for them.

Are you against women’s freedom or for it, Sir? What is this cat-on-the-wall business? By now everyone who has read your piece has seen through your charade, so please, enough of patronising. You don’t seem to realise that your so-called cautionary piece does a lot of harm to the image of men too. According to you, men have no good intentions, and all they know is to get drunk, do drugs and behave badly with the other sex. I should think any self-respecting man reading this piece would be moved enough to file a defamation suit against you. I sincerely encourage them to.

Kanupriya also objected to a notice by the warden in the dining hall of one of the hostels, asking girls to dress decently and not come in shorts as the mess had male staff. Instead of appreciating the authorities’ concern for the safety and well-being of the students, the girls have taken it as an infringement on their personal freedom.

I’m reminded of this episode that you can possibly glean life-lessons from in your twilight years, Sir. My grandmother and I were travelling to Calcutta in a second-class train compartment. I was about 12 or 13 years old. Like many young girls, I was wearing a skirt and a blouse. A man kept staring at me for a very long time. It made me uncomfortable and nervous. My grandmother noticed this too. You know what she did? No, no…she didn’t ask me to change my clothes. She looked at the man squarely in the face and told him, loud enough for everyone to hear that she would gouge his eyes out if he looked at me one more time. The next second, he turned around and fled our compartment. That day, I learnt what it meant to stand up to a predator. That’s what Kanupriya has done too. My grandmother is a fire-brand woman, Sir. Much older than you, am sure, but much more progressive. She will hold a bull by its balls if she needs to tame it, and she’s never spent a day in the military. That’s saying something, don’t you think?

So, if the University’s authorities were at all concerned, they should have removed all the male staff from the mess. Or better still, blinded them.

Any psychologist will agree that any revealing dress can be provocative for a certain category of males. Aping western culture in shorts may be fine but we cannot change the mind set of certain men and the incidents of sexual violence committed every day bear testimony to that fact. Hence the warden or vice chancellor are guardians of all students living in hostels and have to make rules for their safety.

This is really the cherry on the cake. Are you suggesting that our institutes of learning are filled with frustrated men whose sole aim is to ogle, molest and rape women at the smallest opportunity? And even if they are, doesn’t it strike you that the solution lies in education and awareness?

I call upon the various associations of psychiatrists and psychologists in India to take serious offence to your statement, Wing Cdr. Bajwa. With one sweeping remark, you have belittled all their work towards creating an equal, fair, sensitive and just society. Even if they did agree that a dress could be seen as provocative, they will also tell you that that ‘category of males’ needs to be sensitised towards an altered perspective. Most rapes in this country have taken place not because the woman was in a pair of shorts, but because of the rapist’s fundamental disregard for a woman. I wonder where you are getting your facts from!

Hostels must be treated like homes away from home and a safe haven for students.

OK, so this is your last-ditch attempt at redeeming yourself by making it sound mushy? From what you’ve suggested so far, I understand that homes must be like prisons and parents should be like jailers. I suppose that’s the only kind of parenting you know. I feel sad for you, and for your daughter and granddaughter.

Yes, hostels must be safe. For both women and men. But the sort of safety you are proposing is a false-rhetoric, at best. Regressive and suffocating rules such as imposing dress restrictions and deadlines are merely measures to silence women into submitting to the centuries-long narrative that says safety equals invisibility. Please understand that every adult is responsible for their own safety.

A woman must learn to take care, to protect herself from sexual predators, and trust me, she knows how to. Most women do not go to places they don’t feel safe in, day or night. Most women say no when they need to. And those who don’t or can’t stand up for themselves must be empowered with skills and strategies to do so. Peer pressure acts only on those who yield. They must be given the confidence to walk without fear. Again, it comes down to education and awareness.

A man must learn to protect himself too. Men fall prey to drugs more than women do. The statistics are out there. A 2015 a study by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MoSJE), Government of India found that 99% of drug addicts in Punjab are men. What do you say to that? What’s your solution to keeping men safe? Do you know boys are molested and harassed as much as women are? And many of the perpetrators are in their own families. What’s your plan to make homes safe, Sir?

Mr. Wing Cdr. D.P.S. Bajwa, I so wish you had had a grandmother like mine.

Storyteller, Dreamer, Seeker, Aspiring but Reluctant Writer