Pinjra Tod: Witches you couldn’t burn yesterday!

December 11, 2016

By Chepal Sherpa. The author is a PhD scholar at JNU and an activist member of BASO


I was invited by one of my friends to join a “night vigil” called by ‘Pinjra tod’ group (break the cage) at Delhi University premises on 23rd September 2016. This was the second such program they had organized in the university since the formation of the group last year in the month of September.

The idea was to defy the “curfew timings” imposed on women’s hostels/ paying guests (PGs) to reclaim the otherwise male dominated public spaces throughout the night. Everyone was to assemble at the Arts Faculty gate, Delhi University. As expected, I was already late in reaching the venue, but only to be surprised by what I was going to be a part of in a couple of minutes while marching through the lanes of university premises.

Through massive protests outside of hostels, a clear and open message was conveyed. It was the messages of solidarity and unity against the established codes of control on women students imposed by hostel and paying guest authorities.

This message highlighted the need to put an end to the severe control and bullying perpetrated by wardens and landlords of hostel/PGs. The rally marched on to the gates of various hostels and appealed women to defy these oppressive rules and join the march to register their protest.

What is Pinjra Tod?

Pinjra Tod is a group platform consisting of female students of different colleges and universities of Delhi. It started as an initiative of few students and gradually has taken shape of a mass movement. The group was primarily born out of the need for an intervention that would end discriminatory and authoritarian women hostel rules and curfew timings of PGs.

They have organized to reclaim the public spaces hitherto denied to women. The agenda is also to highlight the exorbitant and ever-increasing hostel fees of women as compared to the men’s. Women’s hostels are doubly expensive than men’s hostels in Delhi. Therefore, one of their objectives is to make hostel facilities accessible at decent rates.

By highlighting these issues the group has successfully been able to challenge the institutionalized gender discrimination. The explicit message is that no more control and restriction on women in the so-called centers of higher education will be tolerated.

This is what Pinjra Tod has been fighting against in a university space since the last one year. It is a significant step for creating democratic spaces in the institutions of higher education and beyond. One of their central demands is the constitution of anti-sexual harassment cell in colleges and universities in accordance with the Vishaka judgement of the Supreme Court ruling 1997.

Pinjra tod has successfully exposed the authoritarian character of the of university system which controls women in the name of providing “safety and security”. Their argument exposes the very discourse of ‘safety and security’ as merely a justification to restrict women’s mobility and freedom.

Hostels and PGs are therefore no more “(second) homes” but cages curbing the freedom and rights of women students. As for a worker laws appear as nothing but prejudices, similarly, for women students these hostel rules, PG norms and university codes of conduct are prejudices of patriarchal power wielded to suppress and curb their agency.

Pinjra Tod provides us with the lens through which we can see through the patriarchal order embodied in the rule books of universities and colleges.

The patriarchal order is nothing but power relations which subjugate women and legitimizes sexual violence against women. Victim blaming typically emanates from the Brahmanical notion of “Laxman rekha” (Laxman’s circle), a Hindu mythical allegory that women are not to transgress the predominant social code of conduct as their safety measure.

By that logic, they are themselves responsible for violating it and thereby invite on themselves and become deserving of the impending punishment. Pinjra tod is challenging this logic by speaking truth to power that these logics have nothing to do with safety and security of women but basically are modes of patriarchy controlling and policing women’s bodies, feeding into and drawing from unequal gender relations.

Exposing the Bogey of “Public” Space

Universities have become the spaces of discrimination against women and a playground for men to celebrate their machismo. These supposed public spaces are patriarchal. Let’s take, for instance, Delhi University. Down the busy roads of North campus, on any “normal” day, one would witness a strong presence of the intimidating machismo of cars speeding through the roads mostly after sunset.

It was not the case tonight while the protest march of Pinjra Tod disturbed this normalcy. It is taken for granted that these spaces are not meant for women after a certain point of time, i.e. mostly at night. The men dominate these roads, lanes, and highways.

These are the symptoms of the problem the way we have been forced to accept these normal and “natural” ways of living in the cities. We have internalized by now that Delhi is also synonymous with the term “rape capital”, as has been exposed through the post-16th December anti-rape movement.

One can sense a gross problem with this state of affairs where powerful and rich men have successfully monopolized all these apparently “public” spaces of the university.

The resultant effect of this monopolization and normalization of the idea of male-dominated public spaces is violence against women in the form of rape and sexual assault, and an entrenchment of a culture of misogyny. This very logic that it is “natural” and “normal” – that men dominate these spaces – are put forward to justify victim-blaming.

Cities have become the centers of all kinds of violence committed against women, workers, slum-dwellers, and the poor in the country. Violence has been normalized in the way we think of city life and the supposedly “public spaces”.

This signals to us the conditions of so-called “smart cities” in our country as nothing but spaces of segregation and domination where women, workers, and poor people are constantly subjected to violence and coercion. Pinjra tod has successfully punctured these otherwise celebrated myth about “smart cities”.

If we look at this process of segregation in the city, one notices that it is in operation at many levels. It is not only gendered but also operates along economic lines. If one takes the instance of Delhi, we can see how there are exclusive spaces where the poor and the marginalized cannot enter – posh and gated residential areas where one senses a stark aversion to the poor. On the contrary there are slums which reproduce the ghetto-ization of the workers, migrants, dalits, minorities etc.

Coming back to Pinjra tod, they have also raised this question of the economic logic of how the rents for men and women are different. The rates for women’s PGs are extraordinarily high and they have exposed how the women’s PGs are run like businesses towards profit-maximization.

Rents of women’s PGs are exorbitantly high precisely because the owners are well aware of the fact that women do not have any choice for alternative accommodations outside of hostels (with limited seating capacities) and these very expensive PGs. This in itself has become a local economy with a nexus of landlords, brokers and hostels parasitically living on women students in and around university campus.

Take for instance North Campus Delhi University. Entire apartment complexes and settlements around the campus flourish on this parasitic relationship – the income of most such “local residents” is entirely dependent on this PG economy supported by women students, the same women students that PG owners and landlords don’t think twice before maligning and mistreating!

Such PG owners and Landlords are able the exercise their power over women students with absolute impunity because they are well aware that no matter how much they oppress and misbehave, neither family, nor university, nor police are going to lift so much as a finger to stop them. This is nothing but a micro reflection of the city and supposed ‘public’ spaces. Pinjra tod presents an alternative perspective that visiblizes this blatant injustice.

Exposing the patriarchal logics

Coming back to Pinjra Tod’s event that evening, I think these very logics of segregation and domination were being challenged and halted by their protest songs, slogans and music. The evening was immersed with defiance and revolt as we moved towards different women’s hostels. Filling the air with the wave of protests in the otherwise strangely masculine milieu we marched with energetic songs and passionate slogans and the momentum of the protest went higher and higher.

Pinjra Tod’s mode of protest forcefully disturbs the very atmosphere of patriarchal normalcy. As the march walked through the gates of different hostels I could sense this strange artistic rebellion.

Two of the very strong slogans spells – “Naahi Baap naahi Bhai, Aurateh laadengi aapni ladai” (neither father nor brother, women will fight their own battle), “Baap se bhi Aazadi, Khaap se bhi Aazadi, hum kya chahe aazadi” (We want Freedom from Fathers, Freedom from Khaap Panchayats, we want freedom!).

It is to be noted that these slogans are the essence of what this movement is trying to achieve. It is not merely the hostel’s discriminatory rules but goes into the very roots of this logic. That logic emanates from the very traditional patriarchal family system. Hostel rules for “safety and security” sound very similar to fathers and brothers as champions of women’s “safety andsecurity”.

Let us slightly dig into the sociological roots of this logic of “safety and security”. Patriarchy in the Indian context bases itself peculiarly on the notion of “honor” of the family, caste, and community which is understood to be intrinsically located on women’s bodies.

Women are the embodiments of this ‘honor’. Therefore, ‘safety and security’ are the mantras to safeguard this honor which eventually translates to nothing but control over women’s bodies. This is visible in a lot of “honor killings” in different parts of India where women and men are murdered by their very families, sanctioned by the panchayats, for their “crime” of marrying outside of their caste or community, or against whatever patriarchal logic their communities hold sacrosanct.

The notion of honor is also the logic which gives legitimacy to rape culture which has become one of the facets of the reality of gender today in India. Family and home is where this culture is rooted and nurtured.

While this culture is a part of the brahmanical social structure, it also promotes the notion of honor in the form of the anthropomorphic Indian nation-state, i.e. “Bharat Mata”. Family as an institution in the Indian context is the zone of perpetuation of patriarchal culture of this notion of “safety and security”. The message in pinjra tod is clear, as another slogan reads: “Tumhare Bharat Mata Nahi Banenge, Nahi Banenge!” (We’ll not succumb to your logic of Bharat Mata)!

Streets as Women’s Court

It is this very embodiment of the nation’s honor on the bodies of women that lets the courts, police and religious institutions – basically everyone other than women themselves – decide the fate of women. Now it is the other way round in Pinjra Tod. The nation, police, priests, and family stand in the women’s court of justice.

Pinjra Tod is the realization of what poet Vidrohi had famously said – “ek din main police aur purohit dono ko ek saath aurato ke adaalat meh khada karunga aur beech ke saare deewaroko mansoobh kardunga”. Pinjra tod protests are no less than women’s courts – the streets and the ordinary people are the audiences.

They had organized a “Jan Sunwai” (public hearing) at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi last year. It is a telling story of “public hearing” on patriarchy in the women’s court where the crimes against women would be heard and the priests and police will be put on trial. Even the heads of the family, neither husbands nor partners will be excused. The very allegorical use of these forms of protest is the punch line as it fundamentally undermines patriarchy.

Pinjra Tod is a unique experiment as it not only raises particular issues of gender discrimination but through these public hearings they assert women’s autonomy and their right to public spaces. They also fundamentally challenge the authoritarian administrative structures of university system and their heads at the helm of power who swear by the rule books for exit routes from addressing genuine issues of the students.

It is an important movement in so much as it is also highlighting the need to rethink the very idea of higher education system. Their agenda holds true as the very premises of higher education are build on authoritarian lines. Gender bias is one aspect but instead of promoting the universal idea of creating critically thinking beings, the general tone of universities is to produce unthinking and docile “human resources”. “Make in India” is the glossy latest update.

Now very interestingly pinjra tod has effectively succeeded in putting to trial the traditional idea of the university. This is reflective in their creative posters in the very premises of colleges and academic complexes. They put up posters in the premises of even those universities which do not promote any democratic culture of debate on its walls.

They defy all those rules of the university authority which restricts and suppresses this form of democratic spirit. It is a direct political call for rethinking and democratization of university and higher education.

Interestingly what has emerged is that Pinjra Tod has not limited themselves to institutional changes. Institutional change is important as they have persuaded and finally compelled UGC and Women’s Commission to acknowledge that there are discriminatory rules and issuing circulars instructing the hostels and PGs to reconsider the curfew timings. But what stands clear is in their emphasis on barricade politics.

The barricade politics they have brought to fore is the imagination of change not from above, i.e. initiated and procured from institutions. Their emphasis lies on the fact of change from the below, from the grassroots. ‘Reclaiming the night’ is an example of this idea, that women will themselves partake in the process of change and no external agency will “liberate” them, neither CCTV cameras, “Himmat App” of Delhi police, nor body guards.

Women themselves are the agency of liberation! On this note, for Pinjra tod, sky is the limit!

New form of Protest Culture

At this point it is very important to take note of the creative impulses and imaginative forms used by Pinjra Tod in its various programs. They use simple objects and materials like hand written chart papers with powerful slogans, poems, images; no sophisticated language is used.

All the posters and banners are written both in Hindi and English directly appealing to the “masses”. The nature of slogans is such that it hits at the heart of the problem in a very straight fashion. The creative approach in their politics is also reflective of the genuineness and urgency to protest as they are directly affected and the ones who are in the receiving end of oppression. Here they are close to the Ambedkarite tradition which too has had a long history of creative protest culture.

These sharp, clear yet simple ways of expression are far from abstract and wishful thinking of the right-wing like that of “Bharat Mata” and “Gau mata”. Pinjra tod has thrown the new possibilities for resistance politics with creativity and wit. They have initiated a new age of creative protest culture.

The left lacks this virtue and failed to recognize this but here it has something to learn from. This is also one of the reasons why Pinjra Tod is developing into a mass movement throughout the country, an important mass movement indeed! The left parties of all shades, radical ones included, has remained trapped in traditional dogmatism and internalized the very brahmanical morality of controlling women.

The left parties’ failure to understand and creatively raise these issues has made movements like Pinjra Tod important.

Now it will be interesting to see how the left will take movements like Pinjra tod. This is also important because it is not a grand initiative of big political organization or party backed by all kinds of resources and power networks.

It is on the contrary, an initiative of some young women with limited resources who have been able to build such a phenomenal mass movement which established left parties with their students’ and women’s wings haven’t been able to.

If left-politics is at all about “from the masses” than just to the masses then here is a movement which is being thrown up by the masses. The litmus test to this is that the right-wing ABVP feels threatened by and attacks and maligns Pinjra Tod.

In the age of this fascist assault where every dissent is being suppressed and silenced, where violence has been normalized and legitimized in our society, Pinjra Tod is the battle cry against the blatant and subtle forms of violence and subjugation faced by women. It is a battle cry of those witches who they couldn’t burn yesterday.