One day after the NCRB report released, where Assam has topped in the list of crimes against women, an incident of moral policing happened at Girijananda Chowdhury Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Tezpur where a 19-year-old girl was denied entry at the examination hall by the official in charge of the examination centre. It was an external examination that was organised at the premise of the institution and both the candidate and the official in charge do not belong to the institution. While the girl went to the examination hall wearing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts as no dress code was mentioned in the admit card, the official denied her entry and asked her father to bring a pair of long pants.
As it was difficult for him to find the ‘appropriate’ pants and she was running out of time, two other girls made her wrap a curtain around her after which she was allowed to write her examination. In front of the media, the 19-year-old expressed that it was mental harassment to go through this. She was told that it is all about common sense and if she doesn’t have the common sense to know what to wear to an exam, what will she do in her life!
The incident quickly grabbed the attention of the media, some of which compared the act with that of Taliban militants. Till the time of writing this article, the half-pants issue was a visible issue on social media where news channels were interviewing people, creating polls on whether one should wear half-pants to the exam or not. It had reached such an extent that a local news portal in Assam asked her sister if she was hurt somewhere on her legs for which she wore the shorts.
The news was sensationalised and people’s comments on the girl’s ‘extra-modern fashion’, ‘skin show-off’, ‘uncultured behaviour’ etc. followed. Not surprisingly, her family was not spared by commentators who remarked that her father should have given her lessons on xongskriti (culture), stan–kaal–patro (place-time-people). An educational institution is a temple of knowledge where one should not wear oxaleen (vulgar), omarjito (indecent) clothes, they said.
While some of them condemned what the official had done, according to some, it was a very accurate step to teach such girls a lesson. Some had resorted to name-calling and verbal abuse and some had decided that this was “the dangerous side” of women empowerment and feminism. People also pointed out the hypocrisy of allowing men but not women in shorts and the fact that it is a common practice in some of the higher educational institutions in India, while others are simply ignoring these facts as false assumptions or extra modern practices that are endangering Assamese culture.
The representation of the issue in media again made it clear how the episodic style of representing the issue focusing on an individual incident tends to negate the possibility of perceiving them as a part of the systemic problem. In media representations, moral policing took a back seat, while the girl and her family and those who are supporting the girl continued to be policed and harassed mentally. The focus shifted to entertaining the viewers by creating polls on whether one should or shouldn’t wear shorts to the exams. The girl and her decision was subjected to the predominantly male gaze of the audience, thus minimizing the angle of moral policing in this respect.
It highlighted a very pressing issue: the media’s disinterest in approaching problems from a thematic point of view, which may result in restricting the viewers from identifying violence that is not physical and sexual. In this case, the mental and verbal violence was also symbolic and organised in nature. Symbolic violence results in the internalisation of humiliation and legitimation of social inequality that results in self-blaming and maintaining status quo as the appropriate social order.
Radical feminists including Mary Daly criticised the idea of culture as man-made and androcentric which maintains the social order. The radical feminists also pointed out that bodies are always the sights of exercising power and are regularised according to the man-made culture. The power of altering the norms of how the bodies should behave, look according to time, place and people is only in the hands of the heterosexual upper-caste men. The knowledge created by them often neglect the possibility of others as the subject of knowledge and consider themselves as exhaustive. These subjects of knowledge consider themselves as the ‘self’ and everyone else as the ‘other’ as pointed out by Donna Haraway. However, it is not the case that only men will oppose if an act violates these norms made by them since knowledge created by men is not always contested but accepted by a larger part of the society, including women. Thus, men and women, who are the bearers of androcentric knowledge, will judge people who happen to break the boundaries of social order. The transversal of values advocated by Daly becomes important if we analyse the incidents of moral policing based on androcentric values.
The opponents of sati and child marriage prohibition and women’s education in the 19th century considered the reformers’ action as a threat to the Indian culture caused by Western values of liberation. Similarly, even though the issues have changed, the context is still the same when a woman who doesn’t fit into the code of conduct is considered a threat to society’s norms and values. But we must remember that all those rights that women have achieved so far are because of the violation of the code of conduct at and in front of some stan-kaal-patro (place-time-people) where it was not accepted, though the range of violation differs from time to time and from place to place.
Prayashi Goswami, is a passionate social science learner, with an intersectional feminist point of view, who loves reading, writing and researching. She aspires to ‘live, love, laugh and travel the world’. She is a resident of Guwahati and has appeared for the M.A final examination in Women’s Studies from the Department of Women’s Studies, Gauhati University, Assam. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.