Over the last couple of months, a spate of incidents of sexual harassment in university campuses has come to light, shattering the belief that spaces of higher education are liberal and safe spaces. While an institution of higher learning may facilitate greater dialogue and aim to foster a more hospitable and sensitive environment, deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes remain.
The most recent of such cases surfaced in Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. The students of Women Centred Practices had organized a ‘Gender Sensitization Week’ with the aim of making the campus more gender-sensitive and bringing to light problems of sexism and gender-discrimination that persist against women and gender non-conforming persons.
As part of the gender-sensitization programme, a blank banner was put up, inviting people to anonymously share accounts of sexist attitudes and instances of harassment that they might have faced on campus. The banner filled up in little time with ‘casual’ sexist comments that people hear, along with personal incidents and complaints. Some of these cases have been brought to the notice of bodies concerned within the institute and investigations are under way.
On the night of September 27, a signed comment in red ink was noticed over the writings on the banner; it read, “Sexism is an accusation sluts level against dissenting voices for recognizing that a slut is a slut.” In a campus that most believed was more sensitive than the world outside, especially because conversations around gender, patriarchy and sexuality have been initiated and sustained over time, the comment bore testament to all that is still wrong.
An photograph of the banner.
Though the comment was signed, it was not possible to find out who the person was. Guests are allowed on campus, so it needn’t necessarily have been a TISS student.
Nevertheless, the comment has left many students distressed and dimmed the hopes of many as well. For those who came out with incidents of sexual harassment on campus, a comment implying that sexism is a false accusation is particularly harrowing.
Instances like these on university campuses have made it evident that campuses, even those which are centres of social sciences learning, are not safe spaces. The trivialization of the issue of sexual harassment can serve as a deterrent to those who have been wanting to come out with complaints. Along with this, the casual and derogatory use of the term ‘slut’ also suggests a deep level of insensitivity towards issues of sexuality and sex work.
The attitude towards sexism and sexual harassment and towards women and gender non-conforming persons in general has been condemnable and often, unnerving, across the country. With instances like these in spaces that are believed to be better than most others, it’s clear that there remains much more to be done in terms of sensitization, conditioning and immediate action.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.