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Campus Rape: Sexism Is The Biggest Problem, Not Security

19/04/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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The increase in crimes being committed against women on university campuses, ranging from sexual molestations to murder, is a cause for concern as more women are entering institutes of higher education. A particularly egregious form of this violence involves rape (which does not always involve rape of students) on campus property. And these crimes are vastly underreported either due to embarrassment, self-blame, threats or intimidation, which often takes the form of publishing compromising photos on the web.

This kind of violence on university campuses puts to rest the myth that rapes are only the result of poverty, illiteracy, migration or the breakdown of traditional families. The fact that educated young men are perpetrators of the most egregious forms of violence against their fellow students speaks to the fact that this "rape crisis" needs to be understood through a larger aperture. This in part, requires examining the attitudes that produce a climate on campus that can enables sexual violence and sexually abusive relationships. These include societal views that have been expressed by politicians, lawyers, and educationalists alike that women are the cause of rape -- either because of their dress, or because they use cell phones, or because they like to move outside or even within the campus at night, or because they drink. What does this say about those who espouse these views? Would they seriously rape or condone the rape of a woman who does not comply with their criteria of appropriate social, sexual and gendered behaviour?

"Adopting strict security measures and surveillance techniques have not been shown to have any impact on reducing campus rapes especially when many of these may go on for long periods of time under threats, fear or intimidation, amongst other reasons."

Such attitudes need to be challenged and changed in the classroom through non-sexist educational textbooks, and in the echelons of higher education on all campuses. India's growing global reputation for encouraging a "rapist culture"-- true or not, like it or not -- cannot be refuted either by hiding behind claims that this is a western conspiracy (which does not in any way exonerate the racist views that may inform such positions) or more problematic excuses that "her dress made me do it" or "biology made me do it" or that women simply lie. It is time for men in particular to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the current crisis. This responsibility includes holding colleagues, faculty members and students accountable for their behaviour as well as being accountable for their own conduct towards women faculty, administrative staff and students.

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This also requires several changes at the institutional level. Unfortunately these invariably take the form of intensifying security measures, including installing surveillance cameras, security checks and imposing ridiculous curfews on young adults. Adopting strict security measures and surveillance techniques have not been shown to have any impact on reducing campus rapes especially when many of these may go on for long periods of time under threats, fear or intimidation, amongst other reasons. The problem is not lack of security, but institutional sexism and systemic gender discrimination.

A cursory overview of the place of women in higher education reveals some startling facts. For example, there are only 13 female vice chancellors in India, six of whom are at women-only institutions. While the number of women in the higher educational system actually surpasses men in law schools and at the undergraduate levels, this has not translated into women wielding power in the top levels of the institutional hierarchy.

"[W]hile some academic advisory boards have a token female member, the overall assumption is that men are just natural leaders and decision makers."

Even those schools that flaunt their gender credentials in terms of faculty appointments continue to have a miserable record with respect to appointment of women to senior posts and leadership positions. In short, a senior management boys club exists on most university campuses that remain closed and insular, and clearly send out the message that men basically just want to work with men. The appointment of women to senior positions, coupled with an environment that acknowledges their historical and contemporary intellectual contributions, can help to break the deeply negative attitudes towards women that pervade the university space.

Even university environments reflect the gender bias. Faculty lounges, corridors and auditoriums are plastered with photos of elderly academic men, often pictured shaking hands with elderly male politicians, suggesting that the country has never produced any serious female intellectuals of repute. And while some academic advisory boards have a token female member, the overall assumption is that men are just natural leaders and decision makers. These are the attitudes that produce systemic sexism and an environment in which women are less respected, less valued, and hence also rapeable. And when the administration is called upon to address this negativity or sexism, the responses range from protectionism (and hence infantilising women) to increased campus surveillance and security, which does absolutely nothing to advance women's rights or eradicate the sexism.

Universities need to take the lead in changing attitudes about women. And this starts with treating women who demand change not as "frightening", "intimidating" or lacking maternal qualities, but as dedicated, passionate and committed to ensuring that higher education is an affirmative experience for all students, rather than a terrifying experience for even one.

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