By Ramya Kumar
This week’s Kuppi Talk draws on an earlier article on ragging that drew attention to the undemocratic culture that breeds violence within the university system. Shamala Kumar linked this violence to the lack of democracy in universities and in society in general.
When we talk about violence in our universities, the conversation invariably turns into a rag. Some of us also talk about other forms of violence, such as the arbitrary dismissal of a vice-chancellor or academic who does not respect the line. But the classified, gendered and ethnicized forms of daily violence that we experience within the university system remain invisible. Here, I draw on discussions with students and faculty from various state universities to illustrate how gender-based violence permeates our daily lives and perpetuates exclusion and injustice.
Our education system, whether primary, secondary or higher, teaches students to conform and not to question authority. Mavericks are penalized and alternative ways of thinking discouraged in an exam-driven system that measures performance by marks. In addition to this, school curricula reinforce social hierarchies and differences by using myths or tropes like the ancient Sinhala king, the righteous mother in sari, or the meat-loving Muslim.
When entering university, students are already grappling with various stereotypes and prejudices transmitted as authoritative knowledge through this system. Many would not have interacted with people outside of their scope of thought / knowledge. Ignorance, disinformation (conveyed by the ragged apparatus) and the unknown environment of the university create the conditions for increased polarization. An undergraduate student spoke of the oppressive environment she encountered during her first week at college:
“The seniors harassed the boys [in our batch] if we have done something “wrong” such as dressing “indecently” or behaving “improperly”. The old men chatted with our boys about the way we dress and what was wrong with usâ¦.[they were told] the girls were their responsibilityâ¦ “You see, we have our daughters in the palms of our hands, they listen to everything we say, yours too should be like that” they said. So ultimately the way we dressed, where and when we went out, and everything we did had to be dictated by a bunch of boys our age, who were strangers … we knew better, but it was very stressful. and confusing.
University authorities have not been able to tackle the ragging because the university itself is built on hierarchical systems. In fact, our universities are complicit in such acts of violence. For example, a Muslim student who wears the hijab said she felt marginalized after the Easter Sunday attacks when security personnel picked her to check her backpack, commenting that she looked like ” Zahran â, while letting the others pass.
Second-class students …
Students internalize gender and other ânormsâ with few opportunities or forums to challenge them. Their activities are often divided according to gender, although varying according to the context. When organizing an event, women tend to take on clerical and bookkeeping duties and tasks such as serving tea. In some faculties, women attend classes, conscientiously taking notes for the men, who are forced into less mundane engagements by unions (and others) during class. Those who do not conform to this “subculture” are labeled as selfish, anti-social or elitist.
In many universities, women (students) are not considered for leadership positions, as president of a union or student association, even in faculties where women outnumber men. âThe mental image of a leader is always masculineâ¦ that’s the norm,â said one undergraduate student. This ânormâ is often justified by the fact that women cannot return to their homes / homes after meetings, a strange notion for many women who travel alone. Most elections do not involve a vote because decisions are taken “unanimously” before the elections. When women find themselves in leadership roles, they are often spoken to and not heard.
Women’s clothing is strictly monitored. An undergraduate Muslim woman said she was banned from her faculty prayer room because her skirt did not reach her toes. A Tamil student who studied in the south described how her (Tamil) friends from another college had to wear salwar, a unique braid, pottu and vibhuti to maintain their “culture” in the dominant environment (Sinhala ). Likewise, Northern Sinhalese students are warned by their male counterparts not to violate so-called Tamil norms by wearing short skirts or tight clothing, in the name of safety and security.
Gender norms are also reinforced by university professors and others in positions of authority. A medical student felt disheartened when a clinician advised the women in her group to think carefully before embarking on postgraduate studies: â[The doctor] said that we would be late to get married, that we might not find a husband, and that our studies would interfere with our duties as a wife and mother. Another student spoke of a clinician who referred to female students, including herself, by the shape and size of her body, making her feel humiliated. Women face these forms of violence on a daily basis, making them feel small and unimportant, even as some confront the system head-on, struggling to redraw boundaries and disrupt the status quo.
… to second-class academics
The university hierarchy places the temporary and probationary lecturers at the bottom. One professor described the ways in which young professors, especially women, are silenced at her faculty meetings: âThey are just not taken seriouslyâ¦ their contributions are ignored or they are simply discussed. A temporary speaker spoke of being harassed by a support staff member when she started working. He was known to treat women disrespectfully, but his complaints have fallen on deaf ears. A system that promotes internal recruitment maintains the hierarchy, forcing juniors to take on additional work (uncredited) and even to renounce the first quality of author in the publication, to accompany their seniors in the race for professorship.
As academics, women are frequently excluded from decision-making processes, which usually take place in informal meetings between a “group” of (mostly) men who flock (and bow down to) the administration. This decision-making culture prevails at all levels of the university and, by its nature, excludes women and minorities, who cannot participate in “machan” speech and camaraderie, for various reasons. Those who speak out or ask questions are delegitimized as being difficult, irrational, or troublemakers. âMen who have a temper tantrum are totally okay, but when a woman does, she’s emotional,â noted a seasoned speaker. One professor said he felt smothered at Senate meetings where questions and discussions were generally discouraged: âWhen I reported a procedural violation, the VC asked me to stop raising trivial matters.
The hierarchy of the sexes is more visible at the higher levels of the university. UGC and university councils are dominated by men. Although women hold positions of authority in universities, as deans and, less frequently, vice-chancellors, the gender perspective of academic work continues. In various committees, women tend to take on a lot of coordination and paperwork, but their contributions go uncredited as they rarely share the limelight. In fact, many women are blamed for their “family commitments” and any negative traits attributed to their gender. Yet men’s (widespread) mediocrity is never attributed to gender.
At the root of it all is a pervasive sexism that objective and sexualizes women. It is common for university women to receive comments about their hairstyle or dress. One professor commented: âThere is no understanding of what is appropriate here. Even when there are serious misconduct, like sexual harassment, there is nowhere to go. “Using established university procedures to deal with sexual harassment carries risks that most women are unwilling to take,” she continued. Overall, there appears to be very little confidence in the system and in all likelihood all incidents, along with their investigative reports, can be overlooked.
What does this situation ultimately mean for universities and society? In the immediate future, it allows university administrators to function in the service of power. Second, rather than pushing the boundaries of knowledge and public discourse, at the heart of their role, our universities reinforce social hierarchies, with the exclusions and marginalizations that accompany them. Third, by discouraging critical dialogue, the system supports a disengaged academic community that remains paralyzed in the face of injustice, and supports the production of graduates who easily conform to authority. The consequences are far-reaching, as we see in the unfolding COVID-19 mess.
The clearing up of this mess must begin within our institutions. Based on the egalitarian principle of free education, we must create inclusive spaces for students and teachers to come together to dialogue on the trajectory of higher education and demand justice at this critical stage.
Kuppi is a policy and a pedagogy that takes place on the fringes of the amphitheater which simultaneously parodies, subverts and reaffirms social hierarchies.
(The author is attached to the Department of Community and Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna)