“Let there be no mothers/ Let there be no wives/ Let there be no daughters/ And there will be no crimes,” read Anubha Sharma to a hall packed with students like her, all listening with rapt attention. A student of Indraprastha College, New Delhi’s oldest women’s college, Sharma wrote the poem, later published by Indian daily the Hindu, out of frustration after a long argument with her father on the parameters of safety for women.
On Thursday afternoon, she, along with some of her teachers and many of her fellow students, held an impassioned discussion of the infraction of their personal freedom in the aftermath of the horrific Delhi gang rape. Last month, the crime galvanized an entire nation into a flurry of protests, in which Indraprastha students, who hail from all over India, zealously participated. For weeks, teachers and students camped out at protest venues, marched and submitted memorandums to government authorities to make the city a safer place for its women.
But even at this female-centric institution, students’ day-to-day freedoms have shrunk since the Dec. 16 attack. Curfew for students living in campus dormitories has been brought forward an hour to 9:30 p.m., and girls are now required to seek permission from the college administration before going out with friends and provide details of the friends they are going out with. These measures, the girls were unanimous in saying at the meeting on Thursday, pose a serious threat to their personal freedom. “Every time incidents of sexual assault or molestation happen in any part of the country, we girls face more and more restrictions,” one student said during the discussion. “Why should we pay for the crimes men commit? Lock the men up. We are not the culprits!”
They are not, but in the labyrinth of India’s complicated patriarchy, women are not just victims but scapegoats. Every time there is a rape — and there have been at least 10 more gruesome rapes reported in the past month, including that of a 7-year-old girl in Goa — knee-jerk reactions from family members and political leaders alike place the onus on women by imposing restrictions on the way they move and how they dress. Indian media recently reported that the government of the northern state of Uttarakhand passed an order stopping women from working after 6 p.m. in both private and government jobs. The regressive edict, conceived by the state government as a way to curb crimes against women, was widely opposed by women’s-rights activists and the political opposition, leading the state’s chief minister to deny that such an order had ever, in fact, been passed.
It was not an isolated transgression. Earlier, Delhi police had issued a list of dos and don’ts for women in the capital to stay safe, including not boarding empty buses and going straight home after school or college. The government of the union territory of Puducherry came up with the bizarre solution of putting girls in overcoats, a move that was strongly opposed by students all over the country, leading civil society to force the government to backtrack. In Haryana, khap panchayats, the all-powerful and all-male informal village councils, have made suggestions that girls should be married off sooner or not be allowed to use mobile phones. These retro diktats, made both before and after the Dec. 16 crime, have many worried that the hard-earned freedom of Indian women is on the line. “It’s not just fear about safety. It is an excuse to impose lots of patriarchal strictures,” says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “It becomes a mask for anxiety about your daughter’s sexuality or a control of her sexuality. That anxiety has no simple solution.”
Women, too, are imposing stricter limits on themselves after looking over their shoulders a little too often following the Dec. 16 incident. Many women say they have started dressing more conservatively in response to a society that has repeatedly advised them to be invisible in order to be safe from sexual predators. “Whatever 10 steps we had advanced, this incident has put us back by at least 20 more steps,” says Tulip, a 27-year-old publishing professional who lives in New Delhi. Tulip, who has led a blithe life in the capital for the past couple of years, sharing a flat with a few other girlfriends, says she suddenly feels trapped. Her parents, who live in the Himalayan town of Dehradun, get frazzled when she goes out in the evenings. On their advice, Tulip has taken to dressing more plainly so as not to attract undue attention. “One section of society will certainly ask for more restrictions,” says social activist Aruna Roy. “[But] if the country shifts back to any regressive position, it will be fought tooth and nail by many of us.”
Women like Tulip and Anubha Sharma, the student poet, have showed up by the thousands to protest venues in the past month with placards that loudly proclaimed their opposition to these patriarchal decrees. They have walked the roads at night to reclaim the streets for themselves. They have fought with their parents and family members to reclaim their independence. Many activists believe it is this assertion of freedom at home that prompted such a tremendous social reaction in the public sphere. “I don’t think that all the reaction was due to the fear of sexual violence,” Krishnan says. “The reaction is also to the assertion of freedom. When a woman starts demanding freedom and rights, that’s where the discomfort begins.”
This discomfort has led to an increased policing of Indian women in the wake of the Delhi gang rape. But the rape’s fallout has also brought out the steel in Indian women, whose voice of protest this time around has been persistently irrepressible. On Thursday afternoon, as the discussion was winding up at Indraprastha College, a group of young girls in their early 20s debated passionately what they could do to counteract the force of this repression. Long-term change might still be a while away, but the unwavering voice of youth might just hasten it. “You will have to give space to the hundreds and thousands of young voices that is the future of India, who have clearly stated that they want justice and freedom, they do not want the clock set back,” says Roy. “Today the middle classes have broken their silence, and that gives us hope that there will be no going back to repressive times. We women will continue to fight together in solidarity as we always have.”