THE SUNDAY STORY
The presence of three policemen at a junction on Chennai’s busiest road, Anna Salai, is a source of relief to Sreelekha and Kausar, two history students of a government college for women, as they walk to the bus stop every evening.
“They have been here for the past six months, thanks to the Metro Rail work. Now, we approach them whenever we spot those men,” said Sreelekha, referring to three strangers who come to the bus stop every evening. “They run with us to catch the bus and then get down at the next stop and come back again. They keep staring or laughing at us and even try speaking to us.”
“It took us a while to understand the men were not waiting for any bus. It is good that a policewoman is here often,” she added.
Chennai is known as one of the safest cities for women. For students though, cases of everyday harassment abound though most say they have learned to live with it. Meanwhile, colleges have been reinforcing the stringent rules such as dress codes and restrictions on visitors. The bus stop frequented by these men is a crowded one as students from almost five colleges board buses there.
Incidentally, one of them is Ethiraj College for Women. On July 18, 1998, Sarika Shah, a second-year student of the college, and her friend were proceeding to a juice shop nearby, when a group of persons came in an auto-rickshaw and harassed them. One of them poured water on girls and later jumped at Sarika as a result of which she fell down, sustained a head injury and later died.
A lot of changes occurred after the incident. Stella Maris, Women’s Christian College and M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women have installed CCTVs and made security arrangements. “Not even a single man can enter the campus without permission. We know that once the girls leave the campus, there are many hurdles they face, on the streets, buses and trains. But we make sure they are safe on the campus,” said Nirmala Prasad, principal, M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women.
The world outside is more challenging though.
“The Anna University campus is very safe, but try walking down the Kotturpuram stretch after 8 p.m., you will encounter at least four men who will whistle or catcall,” said G. Kanaka, who studies chemical engineering. “Often, there are no lights and no policeman in sight.”
Ironically, awareness of the nature of the problem often leads to disconcerting solutions. Shakti Prasad, a diploma student at a polytechnic college in Taramani said: “There are four colleges in the vicinity. We are just about 15 girls in the evening shift and we counter hoots, whistles and abuses often. Some sort of police patrolling could do good here, but instead, we have been asked to come to college only thrice a week to avoid problems.”
In Loyola College, a fresh dress code, which was introduced last year, banned the girls from wearing leggings. “Try not to attract attention. You come to study here,” was what we were told by teachers,” said a student of visual communication. An extreme version of this attitude prevails in the more than 70 engineering colleges on the outskirts of the city. A section of them have separate staircases for men and women; often, there are signboards in meeting halls that say: ‘Boys are strictly forbidden to look at girls.’
“We are made to believe that everything is for our safety. But on days when we miss our college bus and have to come to college using public transport, we realise that our world here on campus is fake and we are not prepared to face challenges,” said a student of Jeppiar Institute of Technology.
Her words were echoed by many students who feel that this idea of enforcing safety has led to their being denied access to facilities.
“Remedial classes, farewell parties, cultural nights — we are excluded from most of them because the college does not want to take the responsibility of dropping us back,” said a student of Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College.
Many of these colleges have anti-ragging cells but none have a forum to address sexual harassment. “Senior students are strictly forbidden to talk to juniors but there are instances of harassment outside the college campus and hostel. It is better to complain under ragging because it is taken seriously,” said A. Meenakshi, a first-year electrical engineering student.
And, sometimes, it all boils down to the essentials that have never been delivered. As Kannagi Velan, a student of Bharathi Women’s College, put it: “We have to use the only functional toilet, outside the college. It is very uncomfortable as men crowd nearby. The government must understand that safety starts with basic facilities.”