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Sunday, February 16, 2020

Every Girl’s Guide to the streets of UP

A day in the life of a woman in Uttar Pradesh’s towns involves dodging stalkers and ignoring persistent harassment. Why then are most not enthused by anti-Romeo squads?

Written by Priyanka Kotamraju & Pavithra Chandrasekar | Updated: April 30, 2017 3:22:20 pm
Where no means yes: A BHU law student with her friends in Varanasi. (Photo: Pavithra Chandrasekar)

Seema Yadav, the lone mahila police officer in Jaunpur district, was away on leave in late March when the Uttar Pradesh government constituted the anti-Romeo squads. She returned a few days later, and plunged into immediate action. One of her first cases involved a couple hanging out at a popular public place in Jaunpur. They were engaged to be married, they told her. “So what?” said Yadav. “That doesn’t give an unmarried couple licence to go about town without their guardians.” She marched them to the thana and released them only after closely questioning the girl.

In the first week, anti-Romeo squads grabbed headlines for the wrong reasons. They appeared to focus on couples, shaving the heads of some men, and, in some cases, beating them up. The state government beat a hasty retreat, issuing strongly-worded orders to police officers to lay off couples. The squads were meant to curb molestation and harassment of women, not to badger lovers.

Yadav was in a fix. She says she had thought the squads were meant to police couples who hadn’t earned society’s sanction. Now that the rules of engagement were changed, “un bacchon ko chedna hai jo chinta-kasi karte hai (We have to go after those boys who harass girls)”. This has resulted in tragicomic consequences: the five-member squad has picked up boys for laughing and eating golgappas outside colleges. Yadav, in her thirties, has generously passed around her personal number to college-going girls, but she is yet to receive a single call with a complaint. Eve-teasing — a sanitised term for catcalling, molestation and sexual harassment on the streets — is rampant, she concedes, “but I haven’t heard any of these nasty comments boys make.”

Kusum Yadav, a postgraduate student, says, “Jaunpur ke har raaste me mil jaata hai koi badtameez party. Colleges ke baahar to loafer party ka kaam hi hai comment karna. (You will find these uncouth people on every street in Jaunpur. Outside colleges, especially, they always comment on us.)”

In Varanasi, the anti-Romeo squad, stationed outside schools and colleges, malls and liquor shops, has been more successful in nabbing bike thieves and chain-snatchers, rather than checking molestation. “The police have received more calls from the elderly about Romeos,” says Anurag Arya, who heads the city’s anti-Romeo squad.

Men on bikes ogle at women in Jaunpur. (Photo: Pavithra Chandrasekar)

In a pre-poll survey conducted by the BJP ahead of the assembly elections, street harassment of women cropped up again and again, says 25-year-old Nilesh Ranjan, a young BJP worker and Banaras Hindu University (BHU) student. That is how it became a part of the government’s agenda. The issue goes back even further: the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots were sparked off by an alleged incident of harassment.

But as the initial brouhaha dies down, it is evident that there are no easy solutions to harassment of women, which is endemic in the state. For some women like Ekta Singh, a second-year law student at BHU, the squads are a welcome move. “I think they named it wrong but its intentions are good.” Many others say that it does little for their mobility — especially in smaller towns of Mirzapur and Jaunpur, where the city shuts down for girls after sundown. Others say it curtails their hard-won freedoms. As a young BHU student writes on her Facebook wall, we have gone “from ‘abba nahi manenge’ (dad’s veto) to ‘sarkar nahi manegi’ (the government’s veto).” One thing most women agree on: anti-Romeo squads should not turn into anti-love squads.

Why loiter?
On April 20, at 5 pm, we are at the campus of Tilak Dhari (TD) College in Jaunpur. Students, having written their exams, file out on to the narrow street running through the campus, which houses PG and degree colleges, a sports field and the principal’s residence. Yadav’s anti-Romeo squad has just finished its evening patrol, noticing nothing amiss. Yet, men on bikes dart in and out of the street, groping and catcalling. They spare no one, including us. Also accosted are a group of Class XII students returning from coaching classes and a mother-daughter duo. In a stretch of about 500 metres, men stalk girls on foot, snatch their dupattas, and stare. Women walk quickly, purposefully, and only in groups.

Outside the campus, the densely packed streets of Jaunpur are even more aggressive. A Muslim-majority district, Jaunpur voted for the BJP in the last assembly election. Over the last few months, several cases of harassment and molestation have been reported from the city and rural areas. In one instance, five primary school teachers were molested by a village pradhan. In nearby Sonbhadra district, a group of men hacked a woman’s husband to death and grievously injured her father-in-law when they protested against the harassment.

Nineteen-year-old Aradhna, a Bachelor of Arts student at the Tilak Dhari PG College (affiliated to the Poorvanchal University), says it is frightening to walk the streets of Jaunpur. “It is common for boys and men to whizz past on their bikes, grab us or say something dirty.” She says many of her female classmates simply prefer not to come to college to avoid the daily anxiety. “Forget streets, we are harassed in class, in front of teachers who can do nothing,” she says.

Groping and catcalling are routine on this 500m stretch in the TD College campus, Jaunpur. (Photo: Pavithra Chandrasekar)

Nikita, 22, an MBA student and a former TD College student, tells us about a girl who wore jeans to college one day, instead of the uniform (trousers, shirt and blazer). She was pulled up by the dean for going against bharatiya sanskar. The professor proceeded to take a photo of her on his phone and posted it on Facebook, along with a scathing post on her disrespect for Indian values.

So far, the anti-Romeo squad in Jaunpur appears to have done little other than empty popular haunts for couples in the city. In cases where Yadav has caught “Romeos”, the boys have been let off after talking to their guardians. “Ab guardians ko inko control karna hoga,” she says.

Arya, the head of the Varanasi anti-Romeo squad, paints a more optimistic picture. Over the last month, since the squad hit the streets, there has been an increase in complaints under Section 354 (assault or criminal force against women with intent to outrage modesty), he says.

Cases of stalking, rarely reported, are now being filed. “Almost 10 cases of online harassment are reported every month now,” says Arya.

But women of the state have questions: How can anyone but I discern a man’s intentions, good or bad? Who can I take my complaint to where I won’t be victimised? Why is a system created for my protection taking away my independence?

Here, There, and (Harassment) Everywhere
What are the safe spaces for women in Varanasi? “None,” comes Rizwana’s reply. As a graduate student at Sanjay Memorial Women’s College, just two-three kilometres from her home in the neighbourhood of Lohta, the 23-year-old was stalked for three months. “I didn’t know who I could complain to. Finally, out of frustration, I turned to my teacher.”

As a working woman in Varanasi now, she has a list of dos and don’ts: Don’t talk on the phone in autos or while walking, people may think you have a boyfriend; don’t wear white, men will call you a widow; don’t wear anything revealing (no sleeveless, low neck, short tops or skirts), you’re asking for it; don’t hang around anywhere, even if they are public places; don’t text, WhatsApp or Facebook a man too much, you’re giving hints; don’t be seen at notorious places like Ravidas Park in Varanasi, you’ll get a reputation; and don’t hold hands in public. Replace Varanasi with Mirzapur or Jaunpur and you’ve got a rough guide that every girl in UP swears by.

A couple at Varanasi’s ghats. (Photo: Pavithra Chandrasekar)

Meeting her boyfriend now, says Rizwana, has become more difficult. Avoiding the prying eyes of family, neighbours and now anti-Romeo squads takes a toll. “When he came to see me off at the railway station last month before I left for Delhi, we were scared to even hold hands. Not just the police, but vigilantes clad in saffron scarves were everywhere. To not be able to embrace the person you love most, to be scared of that is a sad thing,” she says.

In early April, a group of men, calling themselves the anti-Romeo squad, stopped two young men and a woman when they were returning to the BHU-IIT campus at 11 in the night. The men were beaten up, one of whom sustained severe injuries to the head. In Allahabad, too, students have reported instances of vigilante groups harassing couples and groups. The state has asked police squads to back off couples, but can self-appointed custodians of morality be controlled?

Twenty-five year-old Jyoti Maurya, a student of Arya Mahila Degree College in Varanasi, has seen harassment just outside her home in Bhelupur, on the streets and on campus. “It is so bad outside my home that we are considering moving,” she says. “In college, I never exit from the front gate, it is not for me. In the city, we have been told repeatedly to avoid certain streets.”

We are meeting Maurya at Madhuvan Park inside the BHU campus, which is notorious for being Harassment Central. Reserved and mild-mannered, Maurya slowly opens up about the endless strategising involved in daily life. She follows rules, dresses conservatively and minds her business. “I am okay with restrictions, but even the little space I have in the city, they’ve taken it away,” she says.

“Parents are also in a predicament,” says 50-year-old Meera, a Chitrakoot-based journalist and mother to five girls, three of whom study and work in various parts of UP. “They are scared of letting male members of the family accompany girls. If they’re caught, badnaami hogi. This leads them to curtail the movement of girls.”

If the streets or public places are not safe, are campuses, at least, safer? “It is our college administration that is doing the job of the anti-Romeo squads,” says a student of Vasanta College for Women, which is affiliated to the BHU. “The administration asks family members and friends who come to visit or pick up their wards to prove their identities. Even police squads don’t.”

Mineshi Mishra, a student at BHU. (Photo: Pavithra Chandrasekar)

The approach of the university administration, at BHU especially, says Mineshi Mishra, a second-year student at the central university, is to restrict the freedom of women. Girls’ hostels on campus are governed by a strict set of written and unwritten rules, she says. Girls are not allowed to talk on phones after 10.30 pm; they have to be back in their hostels by 7 pm; until recently, they didn’t have access to the university’s 24×7 library; they are required to give an undertaking that they will not participate in protests. Violations of any of these rules invite harsh punishments, which includes publicly naming and shaming or branding them as ashleel (obscene) women.

“They (university administration) will say ‘you shouldn’t be touched’, they will never say to the harasser that ‘you shouldn’t touch her’. When I complain of harassment, they turn a deaf ear. We don’t need anti-Romeo squads that have no gender sensitivity training. What we need is a functional grievance cell. The entire security system created for women wants to box us into a type. No girl is one type. The university, the society and the police want to discipline women, our bodies, minds and souls,” says Mishra.

The university campus — be it BHU or Poorvanchal University or Kashi Vidyapeeth or any of their affiliated colleges — is rife with tales of harassment of women. Over the last few years, BHU has seen a spate of serious charges of sexual violence filed by women on campus, which have often been met with shoddy investigations. According to a University Grants Commission report submitted in Lok Sabha, BHU registered 15 cases of sexual violence against women in 2014-15, second to Jawaharlal Nehru University (25 cases). “The university is just not equipped to handle these cases. And now the anti-Romeo squad is just window dressing,” says professor Anita Singh of the English department.

Places within the BHU campus, such as the Birla Hostel (for boys) or Madhuvan Park, are infamous for harassment — there are hashtags and jokes dedicated to them. But if a complaint is made, as was the case last year when girl students complained of harassment by boys of the Birla Hostel, the administration turns the tables on the complainants, asking them to explain their presence outside these places. “The university has the attitude of UP’s former patriarch in-chief Mulayam Yadav,” says Singh. “Boys will be boys, women should be careful.”

A man is detained by an anti-Romeo squad in Lucknow. (Photo: Pavithra Chandrasekar)

The birth of a movement
In the last few months, however, BHU has seen a mutiny by women unafraid to articulate their demands. They have sat in protest on campus, and bared their souls online. They have appeared on news channels, and told the world that this is no country for women. “My professor told me she was ashamed of teaching me,” Mishra says. They see the anti-Romeo squad and its unofficial offshoots as the newest instruments of a system that seeks to curb their freedom by “building a fortress of security around them”.

This is echoed by women outside the university too, in Varanasi, and in districts like Mirzapur and Jaunpur. They seek protection, not from Romeos, but from the moral policing that comes with patriarchy, and the perception that they are weak. Aparna Tripathi, a first-year postgraduate student from Mirzapur, says, “UP mein to chedkhani ki bahut problem hai. Lekin ab ladkiyan sher ban chuki hai. Koi ladka dekhta hai to ruk kar wapas puchhti hai, bataiye kya baat hai? (This is a big problem in UP. But we have become bold, like tigers. When a man stares, we stop and ask: what are you looking at?)”

Some names have been changed on request.

Kotamraju and Chandrasekar are independent journalists who write on rural development and gender.

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