Often in our preoccupation with the details of how an incident of harassment took place, in uncovering the minute particulars about who did what to us and what scars were inflicted where – we forget to ask what happens after.
This trauma is carried by us every day to all the spaces we occupy and to all the people we meet.
As I sat for a panel discussion on everyday gendered harassment in college, I wanted to address these very issues of how we negotiate our experiences in the different educational institutions we are a part of. In front of my five closest friends and ten other people we weren’t expecting to show up, in a corner room with a loud fan, I decided to share experiences I knew had to be said.
I was coming from an understanding that the student is not placed in the classroom outside their personal life or larger reality. It was here that I was trying to highlight our personal lives as being riddled with conflict and discrimination and that it was impossible to leave that pain outside our classrooms.
We navigate through multiple institutions at the same time and I discussed this in context of something I went through personally. I carried a scar on my face for a day in school. It was right beneath my left eye, swollen and red and hurt, especially because I had been crying all night.
The beliefs an educational institution holds affects the individual psyche of the student.
It was a physical visible sign of my situation. There was no real redressal system where I could bring this up but most importantly, the ideas and practices I had experienced in my school made me scared of speaking up. The beliefs an educational institution holds affects the individual psyche of the student and it is through the things which are said to us every day we come to form a view of what our place is. I tried to relate my experience of choosing to keep silent with the larger malaise of patriarchy which gripped my school.
Our mornings in my convent school began with the disciplining of bodies. The hem of short skirts was made open in front of everyone; messy hair was tightened into braids, and any form of individual expression was crushed. These were not lone, petty examples but ways in which fear was instilled in our minds. These were the mechanisms because of which we got no space to discover our selfhood. As a result of this, I always resented this place and saw it as a largely patriarchal space which ran by punishing our bodies.
In such a place, there was no vocabulary for me to use to describe my pain. There was no way I could describe the familial violence I faced to people who glorified the role of the family and of women in it and those who punished women into accepting that very role. Violence doesn’t have to manifest itself in grand ways but shows up in the little things we teach and tell each other.
I also realized that though personally, I may not be comfortable with my identity as a Muslim woman, it did not translate it into losing its public importance. Coming from a Muslim family with five siblings, I was reminded of how backward my parents were and that no one in the “modern context has five kids ever“. I was afraid that sharing my story would reinforce the idea of a Muslim household as a site of regressive values which I knew was an extremely dangerous idea to propagate.
College wasn’t any better and getting admission in one of the most ‘prestigious’ colleges in the country didn’t offer any hope either. After almost a year in college, I was sick of the privileged behaviour which most students and professors showed. In my class about feminism, I had to explain to a certain group of privileged, upper caste men why misuse of dowry laws was not as prevalent as they thought and how this was a sexist idea to push back against any kind of feminist achievements.
What was most infuriating about this episode wasn’t the fact that we still had to engage with such rudimentary, misplaced ideas but the fact that these boys with their inflated sense of self could say these things and monopolize an entire discussion in class. In short, I was angry at how easily they could eat up so much space. Their loud, baritone voices and plain ability to say misogynist things with perfect confidence meant that others like me who were still struggling to form our sentences, build our courage and calm our breaths couldn’t speak.
These ideas of elitism were reinforced constantly. In our morning assemblies, we were told what it entails to be a true ‘Stephanian’ and how we were different from other college students who didn’t take excellence as seriously as us. Such casteist ideas of exclusion were part of how we prided ourselves as an educational institution. Hence, it was not surprising when a friend during his interview was told he didn’t really “look Dalit”.
There were myriad other ways through which college as a whole became an unsafe space for me and many others I knew. A professor joking about mental illness in class showed my friends and me that this college wasn’t a space that would take our experiences seriously. Who would we go to for help when we ourselves were shaken by the fear of someone trivializing our pain?
casteist ideas of exclusion were part of how we prided ourselves as an educational institution.
We celebrate educational institutions for bagging the first rank on some list, for producing individuals who achieve great heights and for maintaining a social brand. Behind the glory of these institutions, the students become faceless and voiceless. I would argue that this kind of suppression of students and their experiences both within and outside college is not incidental but carried out actively to maintain this kind of sheen.
Whilst I do recognize the power of external forces it is important to see how the individual negotiates with these structural constraints. I, therefore, see my decision to not speak as adapting to the kind of normative ideas and expectations present. Silence was not only reflective of my powerlessness but also maybe a way of coping with the circumstances.
This is probably why I chose the panel discussion and not the formal setup of a complaints committee or the ‘counselor’ within the college. Within this casteist, patriarchal college I wanted to create a space of discussion where I could freely talk about my personal experiences and disrupt the kind of divide between personal and academic lives that was maintained. What followed was a deep conversation regarding our toxic family situations and our ways of coping with it. We created a small space of subversion in the tiny room with a loud fan.
We need to address questions regarding whether or not and to what extent do our educational institutions accommodate the identities of its students and provide them with ways to create congruence between the various aspects of their lives. The idea of education and especially that of the university is such that it encourages social justice and democracy. It is time we use these values to bring forth voices of students who have been shamed and terrorized into silence.
Featured Image Credit: Procurious