On 22nd November 2018, a 19-year-old student in SRM IST, Chennai, walked into a lift inside the girls hostel building. She was met by a man who was employed by the hostel management as a garbage collector. He soon started masturbating in front of her. When she tried to press the button for the next floor, the man stood in front of the button panel and blocked it from the reach. She somehow escaped, only to be met by the perplexing intricacies of the management staff regarding the action that needed to be taken.
After going through this horrific experience, she was asked to write a letter requesting permission to access the CCTV footage for the corridor in front of the lift, since there was no CCTV camera inside the lift. She was also told by the wardens to stay mum about the matter. After much delay, the man was identified and his contractor was called.
When word spread throughout the hostel, agitated girls started questioning their safety and privacy in the form of Whatsapp messages sent to the wardens. The replies they received were “If you were the victim in this situation, would you want to publicly have a conversation about the matter like this?”, and “Don’t send unwanted messages without knowing the action that is being taken, otherwise action will be taken against you.” When asked to specify the aforementioned action being taken, she decided to ignore the messages. This failed act of intimidation led to further agitation.
What was initially intended to be a simple conversation with the staff, transpired A Huge protest.
When the girls started moving downstairs towards the reception in the evening to seek answers, one of the wardens decided to address the issue by elaborating on all the security measures that are already being taken. When asked how such an incident occurred despite those measures, her response was to ask the girls what they wanted the staff to do instead of giving a reasonable answer. She also suggested that they bring the culprit to the hostel where the girls could punish him themselves by beating him up.
What the wardens and hostel staff didn’t realise was that this is not a simple question of what happens to the culprit, but it is tangled with many other issues. Where was the loophole in the staff and security? How could they let such an incident happen despite the aforementioned security standards in place? Who will be held accountable for letting this happen? What actions will be taken now to avoid such incidents in the future? What is the point of the strict 7:30 PM in time (with no such restrictions for boys) when the harm is being done inside the building?
All of the questions were left unanswered by the management, while the girls are still living in fear inside their own hostel.
What was initially intended to be a simple conversation with the staff, transpired into one of the biggest protests the campus has witnessed, one that has since gained nationwide attention. While they’re expected to be back inside the hostel by 7:30 PM every evening under normal circumstances, the girls broke the barricades at 9:30 PM, and stormed out of the hostel towards the director’s residence to have a conversation with him, a first in the institute’s history.
It’s almost like the shared trauma of our gender binds us together and gives us the capacity to keep fighting.
In the process, security guards and wardens tried their best to stop them, often using intimidation and insulting as tactics. Phrases like “We know you drink and smoke inside the hostel” were met with from the wardens. One even went on to say that “This incident has occurred because the girl is a North Indian student studying in a South Indian college.” After much agitation, the chancellor asked to meet the said girl. One of the wardens then asked her to go change into ‘appropriate clothing’ before leaving.
This is not an isolated incident in which the security of a student has been compromised inside the campus. There are multiple accounts of female residents being ogled at, groped, and flashed. One resident recounts how she woke up one morning in her room on the ground floor to a man standing at her window, peeping inside the room. Multiple residents have also complained about plumbers and electricians barging into their rooms without knocking first which has resulted in awkward encounters. Despite all the warning signs, no action was taken. Instead, the girls were constantly harassed with questions about their clothes, choice of company, etc.
Educational institutions like schools and colleges are cesspools of misogyny and sexism, especially when people in higher authorities propagate behavior like normalising casual sexist remarks, victim blaming, and mistreatment of women.
Twenty four hours after the incident, with no apology issued from the management’s side for letting this traumatizing incident take place, no answers about precautionary measures regarding our safety being set into place, the girls are left waiting, scared. Only with the memories of last night when the collective anger and trauma of literally hundreds of girls being objectified, intimidated, harassed, and restricted on a daily basis lashed out.
So many of them didn’t know the others personally, but they acted together in unity like they knew exactly what the girl beside them who they had never spoken to was feeling. It’s almost like the shared trauma of our gender binds us together and gives us the capacity to keep fighting every day. For once, their anger had a channel. Their screams were being heard. Together, we marched on.
Update on 28 November 2018
Twenty four hours after the incident, a press release was issued by the Institute which stated that the culprit had been arrested at 3:30 AM the very next day after lodging a complaint with the police under section 354 (assaulting or using criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty) and 294(b) (singing, reciting or uttering any obscene song, ballad or words, in or near any public place) of the IPC. The wardens who made disgraceful comments about the dressing choices, habits, and regional identities of the students were suspended until further notice. The security system processes and procedures are being re-analyzed. An internal committee has since been set up to investigate the happenings.
The note also stated that “…the hostel is well equipped with CCTV, it helped us to identify the culprit quickly.” However, more than half of the eight lifts inside this particular hostel were not equipped with CCTV cameras at the time of the incident. The camera that was used for identification was located in the corridor outside the lift. Can the hostel really be called ‘well equipped with CCTV’ until all of the lifts are equipped with functional cameras inside them?
Moreover, the vice chancellor of the institute was quoted on a video that made rounds on social media saying, “You are making an issue out of nothing.” He was also quoted on audio by The Quint dismissing the incident as “…a small incident of misbehaviour happened as has been reported here and there.”
The aforementioned press note stated that, “SRM Institute of Science and Technology will continue to be an institution that will strive to better maintain the safety of the students.” However, such trivialisation of a crime by a person of high authority only leads to emboldening men and making women more afraid to participate in public and private spheres.
Featured Image Source: College Duniya