By Saba Dewan
(For Vrinda, Uma, Sukhpreet, Dipta and all of us who found strength in each other to raise our voices in protest…)
A few months back I visited St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University for a screening organized by the students there of my film, ‘The Other Song.’ It was my first visit after 26 years when I had been an undergraduate student here from 1982 – ‘85. I confess I have never felt any urge to go back nor have I suffered nostalgia about the three years I spent in St. Stephen’s College although I have carried vivid memories of that time. Sharp, brittle memories that defined many of the choices I have made in life over the years; the most important being of believing in and hopefully practicing a feminist politics based on equality and respect for all. Feminism truly has been a legacy that St. Stephen’s College inadvertently bequeathed to many of its women students of my generation.
The year was 1982. Freshly out of school we were brimming with excited anticipation of the world outside. Our first experience of that world had been sobering when we were confronted with our total numbers in college. Our batch of B.A. Honours history for example had out of around 50-55 students, only 12 to 13 women, a ratio replicated in most other courses with the exception of perhaps English and Philosophy. To be fair to St. Stephen’s this skewed ratio was not unique to it. Many other co educational colleges at that time in Delhi University reeled under similar under representation of women students. Perhaps gender prejudice and crude sexism was common to all colleges as well but as women students of St. Stephen’s our battles necessarily had to be fought here, an institution which in our times made much of its ‘premier status’ as an abode of learning.
We realized pretty early on that St Stephen’s which had under duress begun admitting women students only a few years before our arrival was deep in its heart still very much an all boys’ club. Women students in our times were not taken into ‘residence’ or the hostels that remained the exclusive domain of the boys. As day students most of us could therefore participate only marginally in extra curricular activities outside class that were organized, late in the afternoon and evening, to the convenience of the core students of the college, the boys in Residence. I suppose it can be argued that had we really been interested we would have made the effort to stay back late evenings by negotiating not only the erratic DTC bus service available in the university once U specials left for the day but also anxious parents at home wondering how their daughters would make their way back safely in the absence of a regular or efficient public transport system (the metro was to make its entry only a quarter century later.) Since none of these were issues of relevance to either the college administration or the greater majority of men students, who lived on campus, women students were left to figure out for themselves the extent to which they could participate in the cultural/literary activities of various clubs and societies in St. Stephen’s.
However the issue was not of timing alone. To gain privilege of being part of essentially boys’ clubs and boys’ societies we had to learn too the art of either being one of the boys or being the girl boys thought girls should be. We had to learn for example to laugh at ourselves as women; to appreciate or pretend to enjoy the sexist, even misogynist jokes, comments, put downers that came often and fast. To be counted as one amongst the boys we had to for example, learn to look forward to that unique Stephanian contribution to sexism – the chick chart.
As regularly as the boys could manage, a chart rating the 10 top ‘chicks’ in college on the basis of their physical attributes would be brought out and publicly circulated to bring cheer to our otherwise dreary lives. Each ‘chick’ would be rated and either cheered or booed on the basis of her assemblage of body parts, butt, breasts, legs, mouth. Much awaited, the ‘chick chart’ would generate excitement and controversy amongst our male peers – did the chart do justice to all the chicks on it? Had some deserving chicks been left out? Was it as funny as the previous one? Notwithstanding such minor quibbling, chick charts were generally seen as ‘good fun’, part of a boys’ tradition that made the college so special. Even the college administration seemed to think so since it allowed chick charts to be displayed on its official notice board.
In our first year of college many of us, the women students didn’t quite find the chick charts ‘good fun.’ We would talk about it, sometimes enter arguments with our male friends but had little idea about how to register our protest. Tolerated at best as unwanted visitors in college our confidence to take on a much loved ‘tradition’ would falter in the wake of jibes to be more ‘sporting’ and ‘open minded’. Many of the women students we spoke with while voicing their discomfort with chick charts did not wish to make an issue of it with the authorities or their male peers. A miniscule few found the chick charts funny, a boys’ things they were happy to go along with. This was we were told part of being in the game. For many of us who didn’t want to play the game or couldn’t learn how to play the game, the game was up.
And so two years went by. It was now 1984 and we were in our final year of graduation. In the same year cataclysmic violence shook us out of our orderly little lives in Delhi. Indira Gandhi’s assassination was followed by the massacre of Sikhs in the capital and other parts of the country. University shut down. Many young students including I worked as volunteers in relief camps for Sikh refugees hounded out by violent mobs from their homes. Those were terrible, terrible times.
A month later university reopened and students began trickling back. The mood was somber. Within a week the chick chart makers decided that it was time we all had a jolly good laugh. In a master stroke they drew up a ‘Sardine’ chart, rating ‘top ten’ Sikh women students on the basis of their sex appeal. It was neatly pinned up for all to read on the college’s official notice board. I can still remember the nauseous disgust with which I had recoiled back from the chart. I was not alone. Two Sikh girls from my batch who had been named in the chart were furious. As were the majority of other women students. Sexism in college had hit a new low. It now came welded with communal prejudice and complete apathy to the terrible events that had shaken much of the country just a few weeks back.
We had insisted on meeting Dr. Hala the acting principal of St Stephen’s at that time. Apart from murmuring platitudes he could offer us nothing. There was no question of the guilty students being punished or even reprimanded. Suddenly no one it seemed knew their identity. It was pointed out to Dr. Hala and his administrative staff that the chart was pinned inside the official notice board. Clearly whoever drew up the ‘Sardine chart’ had access to the notice board keys. At this more hands were wrung and sighs taken. No one whoever it seemed had the faintest idea how office keys could have come in the hands of students – this in a college that has always taken pride in its discipline and efficiency.
That day and those following were unusual ones for the college. Groups of women students could be seen coming together in agitated discussion on its campus; a rare sight in an institution that believed in women being seen but not heard. Clearly we were stepping dangerously out of line. We had to be shown our place and fast.
Within a couple of days of the ‘Sardine chart’, the ‘Hen chart’ made its way on college walls. Care however was taken not to put it up inside the official notice board. The more conspicuous amongst the women students were targeted as ugly ‘hens’ protesting ‘chick charts’ out of jealousy of the prettier girls who made it on the latter list while they didn’t. Gloriously, unapologetically misogynist in intent and content, the ‘hen chart’ however achieved just the opposite of the silencing down that its writers had probably hoped for.
Women students as also some men came together in protest at a spontaneously organized public meeting on the lawns of St Stephen’s College. It was a beautiful afternoon. Many, many girls featured regularly on the ‘Chick charts’ spoke up openly and bravely about the anger and distaste they always felt upon seeing their names on that miserable list. The meeting demanded that the students responsible for putting up anti women material like the ‘chick’, ‘sardine’ and ‘hen’ charts be identified by the college and punished.
Women were raising their voice and asking questions, making demands so far unheard of in St. Stephen’s College. Clearly we needed to be taught a more bitter lesson than merely an attempt to humiliate us on our physical appearance. A week or two passed in uneasy quiet. One winter’s morning as we entered the college gates we were greeted by spray painted graffiti on the drive way and walls ordering us to –“Fuck off!” Inside, the women’s locker room had been raided, lockers had been broken open. Women students’ clothes and undergarments had been pulled out and strewn all over the locker room that had violent threats spray painted on its walls.
Dr. Hala made guttural, incoherent sounds when we barged into his office. Mr. Dwivedi the college dean wondered why we were so agitated. It was just a stupid prank. Other senior faculty members were upset by the ‘prank’ but added philosophically that ‘boys will be boys’. It was obvious that apart from offering the usual lip service the authorities yet again were in no mood to initiate some action. In the midst of all these developments somehow some journalists got wind of the locker room break in and began contacting for comments those amongst us identified as being more vocal on the chick chart issue. Next morning the break in had made headline news of some English newspapers; not surprising really given Stephen’s hallowed reputation and status.
College authorities that had so far refused to take either our complaints on the chick chart seriously or had found the vandalism of college property by their students a matter of any serious concern, were now jolted into prompt action by the newspaper reports. Except that in line with the sexist philosophy permeating the institution the action was directed against the women students; especially those amongst us who had been consistently speaking out on the issue. Dr. Hala and Mr. Dwivedi had been unanimous in directing their ire at us for daring to speak to ‘outsiders’ about college issues that they described as ‘family matters’. Patriarchy was in full damage control. Section 144 was imposed within the campus forbidding any meetings or even groups of students to assemble. We were ordered to keep our mouths shut to ‘outsiders’. And our fellow male students, in two and threes took it upon themselves to shadow the more ‘troublesome’ elements amongst the women including me to insure that we behaved ourselves, did not speak or meet or conspire to further bring down the ‘reputation’ of ‘their’ esteemed college. And just to make sure that we were truly terrorized into submissive silence they would keep muttering as they followed us around, the words that had been emblazoned upon the driveway of the college they professed to love so much –“Fuck off!”
Our complaints once again to authorities fell on deaf ears. We had provoked the boys by our irresponsible actions, made them justifiably angry. It was as usual our fault. And so began our discovery of our strength as women. Realizing that our own college had now been turned into a repressive, hard space some of us began contacting students of other colleges, especially women’s colleges like Miranda House. I.P and Daulat Ram College. The solidarity we received was overwhelming. Students across north campus began joining in to protest gender discrimination and harassment of women students within St. Stephen’s College. Those were enriching, wonderful times. Some of our teachers within college like Dr. Tanika Sarkar, Dr. Sunil Kumar and Nandita Narain extended much needed support. Several alumni like Dilip Simeon, Mukul Manglik and Saleem Kidwai too joined in. And a huge demonstration, one of the biggest ever in Delhi University till then, comprising of students and teachers from various colleges and departments protested outside St. Stephen’s College.
That day, all of 20-21 years old, we learnt our most important lesson as women. There we stood shouting slogans of protest at the gates of our own college; a college that had chosen to consistently discriminate against women and then harass and persecute them when they dared to protest. We learnt that day that as women our most fierce battles would perhaps begin within spaces we thought were our own. The personal is political.
Subsequently some of us, Vrinda Grover, Sukhpreet Bhinder, Uma Gokale, Dipta Bhog and I, were charged with indiscipline, of acting against college interests and threatened with expulsion unless we apologized. Our parents were called in on the assumption that they would be sufficiently frightened by the threat to make us grovel. They instead in one voice chose to tell Dr. Hala that they not only stood by their daughters but were proud of their actions. Instead of penalizing their daughters it was time they said the authorities were taken to task for their retrogressive and partisan attitude.
Flummoxed and beaten the authorities now declared peace. It was just a minor misunderstanding they said that had crept up between them and their women students. Under pressure some kind of inquiry too was instituted to look into the locker room break in. The boys involved were identified but never punished.
More than twenty five years have passed since those turbulent times. St. Stephen’s now has many more women students than men. The girls are everywhere – in the classrooms, running different societies and in residence, the once all male hostel of St. Stephen’s College. As I saw the bright, eager, young women sitting in front of me during the post screening discussion I felt a strange, wonderful, glow inside. One of them asked if I had been to the college before. And I had said – yes. I too was a student here long ago.
Today I read about the desperate attempts being made by the present principal and college council to turn the clock back on the takeover of St. Stephen’s by women. They have suggested reserving 40% seats in college for boys. Mercifully the college faculty have shot down the proposal. Ridiculous as the proposed quota for boys is it reflects the intolerance of patriarchal institutions, be it the family or a college, to gender equity. The hopeful news is that with changing times such pathetic attempts to maintain status quo will become more and more difficult to uphold. The cookie is crumbling and crumbling for the better…