(Note: This blog doesn’t do autobiographical posts as a rule, but perhaps this post could be considered a response to an ongoing conversation, the one started by Saba Dewan on Kafila.)
Reading Saba Dewan’s post, on patriarchy and St Stephen’s, was a release. For years, I had struggled to make sense of two contradictory things—my years at college were some of the happiest of my life, but the institution that was held up to us as one of the best in India was also built on a flawed and deeply discriminatory set of beliefs.
(It’s hard to write about this in part because it always felt like complaining about what was, in essence, a very privileged life–those of us who went to St Stephen’s were by definition lucky, in our acquisition of English, in our officially liberal families, in our assumption of a secure place in the hierarchies of power in India.)
St Stephen’s in 1989 had many of the elements Saba Dewan describes. The chick charts had gone only slightly underground, but the unofficial college magazines were widely read and almost always singled out “loose” women for harsh, punitive treatment. The editors of
Kooler Talk Spice, the unofficial Residence magazine, felt free to comment on women’s figures, attractiveness or perceived sluttiness in terms that were often viciously degrading. Women who protested were marked down as humourless and told that they couldn’t take a joke. This was as much part of the general atmosphere as was the knowledge that you would have to fend off sexual harassment if you took the bus. (NB: My thanks to Amitabh Dubey, who gently pointed out that Kooler Talk, the official college magazine, was not guilty of these crimes.)
When Barkha Dutt ran for college president, one of the more vociferous arguments against having a woman as President was a viciously circular line of reasoning: women weren’t part of the all-male Residence, the college hostel, and so a woman president wouldn’t be able to handle college issues 24/7. The fact that a woman wasn’t able to be on the college premises 24/7 because the college in question had made it impossible for her to stay on the premises was treated as irrelevant.
When several of us, including Barkha, asked Principal Hala why there was no hostel for women, we were told there was no room to build a hostel. Just a few years later, room was found, but the argument was revealing: St Stephens, which had room for some of the finest, most dedicated teachers, room for libraries and tennis courts and a shooting range, room for debate, ideas, engagement of all kinds, had, in the most literal sense, no room for women.
I don’t want to stop with the argument that my college was, in a fundamental and unexamined way, profoundly sexist—Saba has already made that point. Nor do I want to turn this into a rant about a college that in many ways I loved, then and now, even though its present principal seems to want to return to the bad old days by introducing 40 per cent reservation for men, because women are doing so much better than them that the men can’t get their coveted college seats without a little help from Principal Thampu. The fact that no Principal of the college felt the need to intervene when the gender ratios were skewed in the other direction, when the student body had over a 60-70 per cent male composition instead of a 60-70 per cent female composition, is revealing and tells its own story.
But what Stephen’s taught me about the way patriarchies work was unexpectedly valuable, and perhaps that might be worth sharing.
Institutions that are deeply, profoundly unfair often do not look the way you expect them to; it may take some time to recognize that you’re living in an unjust system. Logical corollary: an unjust system often co-opts otherwise good, kind, ethical people. Nice people are also part of a functioning patriarchy.
(This is just as true of families as it is of institutions.) Stephen’s had some wonderful teachers, inquiring students, and even its architecture—the open windows leading on to the gardens—spoke of open minds and inclusiveness. It was in many ways a fine college, with a tradition of respect for debate and discussion, and this made it harder to either see or believe the extent to which sexism was embedded into the system, to the point of refusing women in my generation an equal right to residence or to political representation in any meaningful way.
For me, in retrospect, this was useful—Stephen’s may have been the first environment in which I encountered subtle discrimination that was woven into the system rather than made obvious. Nor was this a function of the times—JNU, in exactly the same era, was far more casually equal, far less insidiously patriarchal.
Patriarchal institutions are not necessarily unequal in other respects–as a friend pointed out, you can have a boy’s club that is also staunchly not casteist or classist. But often enough the failure to address deeprooted gender bias can make it easier for an institution, even a highly respected one, to overlook other kinds of prejudice.
It shocks me in retrospect to see what we accepted as normal, part of the Delhi University way of doing things—the easy division of our classmates into the Yadavs and the Rajputs, the ‘harrys’—Biharis, with each group virtually voting in separate blocs. Given that so many members of our college were quite politically aware and capable of passionate engagement with, say, the Israel-Palestine issue or apartheid, the widespread acceptance that this was the way things worked is even more disquieting. (I was equally guilty of not examining this disconnect, being a quiet student, an armchair radical rather than any kind of real revolutionary. Coming from Calcutta, I ascribed this inexplicable set of divisions to the general barbarism of North India rather than looking more closely at what was going on under the surface.)
Looking back, what strikes me about the Stephen’s experience are absences—the missing women from the Residence and from key leadership roles, the missing or absent Dalits, the near-complete absence of support or understanding for the few SC or ST students. I don’t think these divisions, of caste and more rarely of class, could have taken such deep root if the gender discrimination had not also existed. This is hardly a radical observation, but it may bear repeating—many kinds of prejudice flourish once you allow one kind of discrimination to take root in any institution.
As a corollary from the previous point—patriarchy in action is every bit as damaging to men as to women, trapping men into a constant and often exhausting struggle for power, and relies on a constant erasure of its own past in order to thrive.
Though our batch had joined Stephen’s only five years after Saba Dewan’s batch, their history of protest had been wiped from the collective memory of the college by the time we joined. I often wonder how different all of our experiences of college would have been if the authorities had encouraged discussion, instead of erasing this history of dissent down the years as inconvenient.
There were two interesting lessons from the Stephens’ years—one was that joining an institution that was by definition for the privileged, in terms of language, class, opportunity, was no protection against discrimination. The other was that each generation of women, each generation of students who suffered discrimination because they were darker or came from a lower caste or were called “Chinks” because they came from the North-East, felt that they were the first to fight these battles, and so we all fought our battles from scratch, in small, personal ways. None of us built on a previous history.
There were some unexpected lessons, too. Whether we talked about it or not—mostly not, given that most discussions of ‘College’ centred around the mince at the café, the idyllic October days on the lawns—the experience seems to have changed many of my batch, in quiet ways. So many Stephanians from my generation went on to fight for equality in their own private and professional lives. Perhaps we did learn something after all, and perhaps many of us chose to reject the lessons of discrimination and to keep only the better parts of our education.
The institution may have been riddled with discrimination, and it may to this day carry the legacy of decades of patriarchy; but the institution was also made up of teachers and students. What many of the teachers at Stephen’s, from Vijay Tankha and Arjun Mahey to Nandita Narain, tried to pass onto their students went counter to the official history.
They taught us to think for ourselves, and to always speak our truth; in their own, often fierce, battles with the administration, they tried to teach us that it is worth fighting for the right thing, even if no one else around you believes that you’re right.
Perhaps what Dewan has started with her piece on Kafila will lead to a reconstruction not just of Stephens’ history, but of all of our private histories. Once you start filling in the gaps and the silences, it becomes so much easier to see your history for what it really is.
A few months ago, Gloria Steinem said in response to an interview question about the role of feminism today that perhaps the real need for all of us was just to imagine what equality would look like. It’s actually a very challenging, difficult idea; if you don’t live in a world where the genders are equal, it’s hard to imagine equality into existence.
In an ideal world, the places where we grow up—cities, families; the places where we learn—schools, colleges, playgrounds; the places where we work and live would all answer Steinem’s question. This is where Stephen’s, for all its other virtues, failed my generation of men and women: it did not allow us to imagine what true equality would feel like. Perhaps, in the twenty years that have passed since my generation was in college, things have changed enough to allow this generation to see and experience what we couldn’t.
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