Pinjra tod, or why women are refusing to compromise their freedom for ‘safety’

October 9, 2015

by Saroj Giri

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Society inhabits a big lie. It wants to protect women, provide them safety. But it does so by putting the onus on the woman. It is she who must be careful. If you are a woman, be alert – says the Delhi police campaign for ‘women’s safety’. She has to learn judo/karate, self-defence tactics, she should not talk to strangers, she should not look around too much or show interest in anyone around. She has to prove that she is not asking for it, as Sonia Deepti puts it.

Now she also has to use an app called Himmat, to alert the police in case of ’emergency’. It is another thing that at the level of fantasy the entire country relishes the story of a young girl in Highway who finds freedom only when the chains of safety and homely comforts crumble as she falls for her abductors and makes it to the mountains.

‘Safety’ here cages the woman in an array of rules, precautions, do’s and don’ts – supposedly ‘for her own good’. And in the case of university hostels and PGs they are inside high walls and barbed wires that literally cage them in as all exits and entry points are locked up after 7 or 8 in the evening (called ‘curfew’). Such hostel rules almost universally practiced in the country are sanctioned and enforced by the warden-parents-police complex, for the safety of the female residents. In a twist, the means of protection now becomes the means of caging.

There is a really sinister logic at work here which the Pinjra tod campaign is unpacking: that it is those under threat, the women, who get caged and those threatening them roam around freely as the proprietors of society. Some details are contained in this letter to Delhi Commission for Women and in the film the movement has produced.

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The dominant logic is not to transform or challenge gender relations, but just to add ‘security’ and ‘safety’ for women. So we will get more CCTV cameras, more policemen/women, more fences, barbed wires, more high walls around women’s hostels, more apps – and more pressure on women to act and behave in certain ways. Hostel safety and campus safety seem like a nexus between the warden-parents-principal complex and the CCTV-driven police-security complex. Moral policing powered by technology and ‘family values’! Police often say the cameras have ‘helped solve some rape cases’, as though it is about some kind of murder mystery or crime thriller which needs to be ‘cracked’.

‘Women’s safety’ then has a coded message: that society cannot change, it will remain the way it is – you adjust, you fit in, you capitulate, you narrow your domain, you be in a cage. By exposing this mode of patriarchal control, Pinjra tod movement effects a change of perspective. This is a major achievement.

The point however is not that women do not need safety from those out to perpetrate sexual violence against them, at least so long as there are sexual predator males around. I think they do. So the Pinjra tod movement does call for the setting up of pro-active sexual harassment complaint committees in the University and making the campus and the city safe by providing more and not less freedom to women. The early closing down of markets and shops which was done as a supposed ‘safety measure’ after the Dec 16, 2012 rape case made public spaces less and not more safe for women. Caging was more harshly enforced, leading to streets deserted and without public life and hence more dangerous.

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Hence the girls are loving this Pinjra tod intervention. They have expressed their rage and resentment at being caged, often in poetic ways: ‘we know why the caged bird sings’, ‘we need azaadi’. They could never see the night nor the night sky, as we hear in the film. They have shrunk to a hair, feeling either fictional or just without a life. Many girls now feel that they have been made to fit into a given mould and produced like bricks in factory.

But here we should keep in mind that Delhi University has been trying to redo the teaching syllabus and curriculum in a way which would just produce the right kind of students who would unquestioningly join the labour force: so the plan seems to have women who would of course join the ‘job market’ but who would be tamed.

And there is a strange relationship with keeping women active in public only during the day and shutting them up for the night. Recall this story of a woman who never saw her office in the night in her 22 years of work in a company. But she would hear her male colleagues “get that President Of The World tone when they call their wives and girlfriends to say, “I’ll be late”… But right after the call I have seen them saunter into the smoking area, send the canteen guy for an errand, debate endlessly on Sachin’s retirement, slowly sip a cup of tea — more slowly than you would in a Polish art film — and then maybe huddle on some work issue very, very, reluctantly.”

On the other hand, the same society which cages women in the night is saturated with a kind of ersatz and shady permissivity, seen in say a Honey Singh item song which invariably assumes women out in a nightclub. Or take Indians drooling over Sunny Leone, a porn star. It is not just the hypocrisy of society, but something more.

Paromita Vohra draws our attention to what Sunny Leone’s success tells us about Indian society. She sees “a labour market (for women) in which you can acquire a suitable body, which will be employable. In the nourished warren of gyms, dance classes and auditions that is Mumbai’s Oshiwara, thousands of aspirants apply themselves to this endeavour. Having a sexy body is now not a sign of your immorality, but of your professionalism and ambition. Hence, “compro” or compromise, of some sexual nature, is also looked at far more pragmatically. They have rephrased the body, from a symbol of honour and morality to an instrument of work and progress, of the entrepreneurial self.”

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What we need to understand is that patriarchy functions through regular doses of ‘pro-women measures’ and through some windows of the entrepreneurial self.

But how can we forget the most dramatic of these pro-women measures: ‘hanging the rapist’. By hysterically sanctioning this highest and most extreme form of punishment, it is as though society can then exonerate itself from the everyday forms of gender asymmetry and patriarchal order, as though these can now continue unchallenged and unquestioned.

It is clear: to keep it going as it is, this society must constantly invest in ‘pro-women’ safety measures. The most patriarchal, repressive order might be seen launching scores of these measures, as with the present Modi government. The Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana and Jeeven Jyoti Bima Yojana come to mind. This is not simple flat archaic patriarchy, but a modern dynamic one.

Pinjra tod therefore questions the rationale of the ‘pro-women measures’. It does not want to ‘challenge’ patriarchy by being the victim and demanding supplication, lobbying or pressuring the authorities to act for your safety. It fights against what it calls the infantilisation of women. As one report stated, ‘women rage against infatalizing 7.30 pm curfews’.

Pinjra tod is not funded. It is not an NGO nor part of a company’s CSR. It collects donations, but, given its good old face-to-face method of collecting, is not a crowd-funded ‘platform’. Very laudably, it ‘is an autonomous collective effort to ensure secure, affordable and not gender-discriminatory accommodation for women students across Delhi’. It does graffiti on walls which is a welcome relief from the oppressive billboards across Delhi that tout celebrity, money or governmental power. Its members sit and make their own posters in a public place where anyone interested can join in and they paste it not through hired labour but with their own hands.

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But we must pose a question to pinjra tod: How does one know that your ability to challenge infantalisation is not powered by your class or caste privilege, so that for you patriarchy is only something which comes in the way of the full enjoyment of your privilege – patriarchy as, say, ‘merely’ a party-spoiler? Deepika Padukone’s My choice, for example, is clearly powered by such privilege, Vogue Empower’s funding of the film being only the tip of the iceberg.

The ‘my choice’ woman is successful and powerful but on gender questions she is still pinned down by patriarchy. Her fight against this is a valid fight. But such opposition to patriarchy is often only retroactively activated from her position as a successful woman. It is only once ‘my choice’ is powered by money and fame, that patriarchy gets challenged. Those whose ‘my choice’ is not so powered can slog it out and suffer patriarchy. In it, women’s freedom sounds like the feminine equivalent of the freedom of the brattish rich boy in his BMW!

But this kind of corporate-propelled ‘my choice’ must be distinguished from this other kind of agency as seen in Connected Hum Tum. These women often from small towns “had no real connections, training, or frankly, talent. But, they were bursting with a kind of un-channelled assertiveness, a strong need to ‘show the world what I am’.”

It is just that we inhabit a social order marked by a hierarchy within women, depending on who is caged where in the chain of global capitalism. Women caged in factories produce Zara or Mango dresses for women caged in hostels in Delhi University. One set of women live off another set of women, sharing the privileges of the patriarchal order, even as they are all caged, albeit differentially. It is a slippery terrain, one where feminism can end up being the handmaiden of capitalism.

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This means, for our purposes here, one set of women might consider safety not that infantalising – think of Dalit women who are paraded naked and raped in public. Basic safety from direct physical aggression would be valuable for them. Many girls facing harassment within the family or honour killing from a khap would find the hostel as most liberating. Many women could never reach university and they feel deprived. Or just being away from family and society’s peering eyes and being together with other young girls in a hostel would be good enough for many.

Finding a seat in a Delhi university hostel would be freedom for them. Safety or security of life trumps over freedom. ‘Hostel rules’ and wardens checking on you would mean not a sinister surveillance but that those in the system register your presence, hail you, provide you ‘recognition’ and protect you from the brutal violence many women face in the country. What is infantalising for one can be empowering for another. How does one then constitute the ‘collective’? Or does one give up the idea of a genuine collective and only think of the collective as restricted to women from only particular backgrounds? There has already been a critique of ‘the kiss of love’ movement from Dalit radicals.

 PInjra tod’s premise seems to be that these differences are not that sharp and all women identify with the basic repressive character of hostel rules. Should the fight be against certain hostel rules or for more hostels? Pinjra tod’s premise is that the same infantilizing patriarchal attitude which frames these rules is also responsible for fewer hostels for women. The two struggles, the one against repressive hostel rules and one for more hostels can converge. But how exactly this convergence can be worked out is perhaps a work in progress.

A positive start has been made already, since pinjra tod calls for ‘accomodation for all outstation students in Delhi’. Maybe, their jan sunwai at Jantar Mantar on the 10th Oct 2015, with women from other backgrounds and occupations, will lead to further expansion of the collective.

The challenge for Pinjra tod is to make the two, safety and freedom, converge. Liberation does not take place in stages. It is not that the Dalit women must first fight for safety, in the meantime lose their freedom, and then, only after that, fight for freedom. Alexandra Kollantai’s call, ‘Make way for winged Eros’, can here remain the privilege of a few elite savarna feminists but it can also, through a collective struggle, belong to all, including Dalit and poor women. At the end of the day, one set of women cannot be free if another set are not.

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