The Guidelines for Safety and Security of Girl Students drafted by the Union of PU College Principals, Bangalore, is a classic example of a policy flawed in its very conception, manifestation and therefore most likely in implementation and efficacy. Based on what I read about these guidelines in the Times of India today, the idea is to assume a “Big Brother” (of the novel 1984 fame) role in the lives of girl students.
As per these guidelines, not only will mobile phones be condemned, but inter gender relationships will have to be declared to the institution (and will most likely be frowned down upon) and girls will be expected to reach their homes within an hour of leaving college (as to how they practically intend to do this, god only knows!). The article only highlighted a special focus on girls, so I am not sure if boys are also subjected to similar scrutiny.
The Flawed Premise – Understanding why girls are targets?
In an article dated 8th of December, 2013 for the New York Times, titled “Egypt’s Problem With Women”, the author, Asa Al Sawny explained why Egypt saw an increase in sexual harassment of women (83% of women reported sexual harassment in a 2008 study) following the adoption of strict dress code for the fairer sex, in the following words
“When ultraconservative doctrine dehumanizes women, reducing them to objects, it legitimizes acts of sexual aggression against them.”
In other words, when women are seen as objects, which can be dictated to and controlled, they cease to remain human in the eyes of our men. As one consensual sexual partner of a rapist, described him, in the book “The Evil That Men Do”, by Stephen G. Michaud and Roy Hazelwood (which is a detailed discussion of violent offenders and their profiles), “His thing was control. It drove me nuts. Even when we had sex, he never lost control. He could drink all night and not get drunk. He never lost control”.
Therefore, for a sex offender, whose primary motive is power and control, a society which projects and enforces the notion of girls being controllable, becomes the ideal stage to act out his fantasy. No wonder then, that in the same book referred to above, reference is made to a study of 41 rapists by the FBI which revealed that 95% of the rapists cited gender as being the reason for choosing their target for rape.
The Guidelines of the nature formulated by the Union of PU College Principals, only validate the image of a girl as someone who can be controlled, as someone who can be told where to go, what to do, how long to take, to go home. So forget telling boys to respect women, they are being institutionally conditioned to adopt this object oriented perception of women. Therefore, if anything, girls are likely to become more vulnerable to an already existing problem of “objectification” thanks to these guidelines. Just when I was beginning to think that these guidelines are so absurd that they are probably just the product of oversight as opposed to strategy, I had a Eureka moment.
Misplaced understanding of “Women’s Safety”
Do we define “Women’s safety” as measures and systems to prevent violence against our girls? Or do we define “safety” as a consolidated societal effort to guard the woman against choices she is legitimately entitled to make, albeit in conflict with our misplaced obsession over her character and virginity? In the minds of the authors of the guidelines and the parents who validate the philosophy behind them, a teenage girl who is naturally curious about and interested in sex with a consensual partner, is a bigger threat to herself than a rapist.
Rather than educating her with skills and awareness necessary to avoid sexual exploitation and instead find a good partner that is sensitive to her, we would much rather just assume total control over her life, through a framework that involves two rulers in her life, parents and the school.
That is why the guidelines prescribe declaration of consensual inter gender relationships (which will be responded to by counselling, as per the article) and condemnation of cell phones. The intention is therefore to send a clear message that teenage girls don’t know what is good for them (explained by the tirade against cell phones, although the nexus between a victim’s use of cell phones and rape is yet to be established by evidence) and therefore need someone to control them and channel them in the right direction.
When safety becomes the instrument of social control for the unthinking and insecure, misogyny is not just a woman’s problem anymore, as much as it is an insult to human intelligence and whether we must fall in line with such schools of thought is best left for the individuals to ponder over.
Self Defence is the only Defence
Given that a sizable majority of rape cases involve a perpetrator familiar to the survivor, let us acknowledge that the police, the state and the college authorities cannot protect a teenager all the time. Let us also acknowledge that the threat is both at home and at college and the threat is also a father or a classmate. Very few of us can also afford a bodyguard.
Under the circumstance, we largely depend upon the teenager or the child to be aware of what constitutes safe and unsafe behaviour and to develop an instinct to judge people. How can a girl develop these instincts, if she is being forced to believe that only her father, husband or her school are capable of this instinct and not her?
Also this sense of false security we instil in girls, robs them of the necessity to develop these instincts. Resultantly, they end up getting into bad situations the moment the security provider disappears from the scene or becomes the perpetrator himself.
Safety, therefore, is not about close circuit television or GPS anklets to keep a track of the girl. Rather it is a perspective, a way of life, which begins with a profound and well rooted sense of self worth in our women and children. A woman or a girl who doesn’t even believe she can be responsible for herself, will certainly think of herself as inferior and worthless in a way.
If you want to teach your child to find self worth, tell them they are capable of self preservation and equip them with the skills to problem solve rather than solving it for them all the time. No else can protect them in a bad situation, the way they can protect themselves. Period!
So how do we define safety?
In the paper titled “Rape: The Dangers of Providing Confrontational Advice” by Roy Hazelwood, who is one of the foremost authorities on sex offenders. He argues in the book cited supra, that safety is about three things, location, victim’s personality and the offender’s personality. For example a rape whistle won’t do much in a desolate portion of the city’s outskirts when no one will be able to hear her, but it could work in the parking lot of a shopping mall. Secondly, the victim’s personality: is she the type to fight, or is she the type to submit.
Safety tips will have to be customised to each personality type. Lastly, the offender: Is he stalker or is he a rapist? Because safety tips around stalkers are different than that around rapists. Even among rapists, the safety measures will vary for a power assertive rapist and a sexual sadist. Therefore, safety guidelines like the ones prescribed by the Union of PU College Principals, which prescribe a “one size fit all” approach are inherently designed to fail.
Safety for teenage girls involves many things, first one being to create an atmosphere, where we recognise her autonomy and rights as a human being. Therefore guidelines for safety of girls begin with a clear preamble that acknowledges her right to bodily integrity and personal security. In the same breadth, gender sensitisation for our young boys and girls becomes a must. A healthy understanding of human sexuality, health and safety is the first step towards fighting violence against women and children.
In addition safety guidelines in institutions should focus on security on Campus through a robust system of manned and unmanned security resources (including security guards whose backgrounds are verified), creating a culture which encourages reporting of threats to seniors and institution management, appropriate follow up on complaints reported, making provision for counselors and medical staff to remain on campus or close to it, building relationships with jurisdictional law enforcement and improving teacher student, teacher parent and parent-student relationships. To what extent the guidelines mentioned above have touched upon these topics, one can only speculate.
Before concluding, I ask a simple question, is it really that hard to contemplate a more sensible approach to safety? Roy Hazelwood’s career began in the 1950’s when he asked himself the question as to why Harvey Glatman (The Lonely Hearts Killer) was who he was and behaved the way he did.
He questioned the misplaced American assumptions (which are eerily similar to our own assumptions) about why violence against women and children occurs. It was this kind of fundamental curiosity and spirit of inquiry that led the Behavioral Analysis Unit to become one of the world’s most powerful organisations in the fight against violent crime.
We are in 2014 and if our high school principals don’t reflect this spirit of inquiry, then where is there hope for the rest of us?
Read More By Ashok G.V.
Advocate and Managing Partner, CorLit Legal