Photo : Facebook / Pinjra Tod
Photo : Facebook / Pinjra Tod

Sex, the city and the university

On pleasure, freedom and safety for women in urban spaces and institutions

Brinda Bose teaches English Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

(This article is a part of the web-exclusive series from our latest issue 'The Marriage Issue'. More from the print quarterly here.)

The rhetoric and practice of safety for women in Indian cities exerts a new strategy of control. Rooted in a sexual morality that seems a little more conservative every day, women are either imprisoned for 'their own protection', or when in 'couples' in public, semi-public or even private spaces, they are targeted, policed and punished for their sexual temerity. There appears to be a strange disorder in how questions of pleasure, freedom and safety for women are looked at in India now, perhaps because the country finds itself in an increasingly regressive social-political environment.

There is hardly any clarity about what constitutes 'safety', especially for women, since being in any kind of company, consensually or chaperoned, does not seem to exempt them from surveillance and punishment. The focus appears to be set entirely on the strict moral policing of sexual behaviour (all of it apparently prohibited outside the conjugal bedroom in the home), disguised thinly under a cloak of concern for women's safety. Unfortunately, every media-reported case of rape in the country produces more rabid fear-mongering, which instigates more unnecessary vigilantism over consensual sexual activity among adults, and deflection from identifying the very serious problems around rape. The state and other institutions need to ensure public spaces are as safe for women to roam in as men, instead of shrugging off this responsibility and dumping it on the women themselves by imposing curfews on their movements.

Why has moral policing become the prerogative of all institutions, starting from the family to schools and universities to workplaces to places of worship, leisure, exercise and entertainment?

A recent chain of events in Indian cities may help us think afresh about sex in the city and on university campuses where questions of risk and danger, safety and freedom are focused on women of all age groups and statuses – single, married or partnered. We need to think of ways in which the right to sexual freedom and safety are available in equal measure to all women, so that any authority cannot simply assume the power to police or punish them at whim. Such willful moral control stems not from a concern about women's safety but from a manic desire to control women's sexuality and deny them possibilities of sexual pleasure.

How, then, has the space for sexual freedom shrunk in Indian cities? Why has moral policing become the prerogative of all institutions, starting from the family to schools and universities to workplaces to places of worship, leisure, exercise and entertainment? Why has the CCTV – the hidden (or not so hidden) camera for spying upon all spaces (the more private the better) – become the signifier of contemporary existence in urban India? Is this expansion of stalking, threatening and policing indicative of a changing social landscape? In this landscape, does risk expand to include not just places where perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence roam but those people, institutions and spaces where, and with whom, we would expect not to feel threatened? If so, we need to redefine the scope of some of the questions that we have assumed to be central to the security of women in urban spaces.


Some recent instances that may explain this predicament are not isolated events but appear to be symptomatic of broader shifts across the country. While they are varied in the profiles of their chief protagonists, they are similar in always coming in the garb of aggressive moral (and physical) policing, most often by those who ought to be guaranteeing both freedom and safety for women in the city. I identify here three examples, among many others available. The first targets young heterosexual couples in public and semi-public spaces, from streets and buses to university campuses. The second targets heterosexual couples in private spaces like hotel rooms which they have paid to occupy. The third targets young women who live in college and university hostels. In all cases, women's basic right to freedom, privacy, independence as well as a safety that does not compromise any of the rest, is violated, either by unknown aggressors or by known figures of authority and administration.

The best known, and most rehearsed, case of sexual violence on the streets is of course that of the gang-rape of the physiotherapy student, Jyoti Singh, when she got on to a bus with a male companion in New Delhi in December 2012, which resulted in her death and was followed by a whole slew of analyses and arguments around violence and safety in the city. Many of those debates were necessary and useful. What has been an unfortunate fallout of the alarm that was rightly raised across the country has been an exponential increase in mechanisms of intrusion, surveillance and control on female bodies exerted by immediate family to institutional heads to the police. Almost as a knee-jerk response to the horror that played out across the media and social media for more than two weeks while the 23-year-old Jyoti Singh fought to survive, and also because of the spontaneous public outrage that erupted in protest against the callousness of the government about the safety of women in public spaces, a number of measures for redressal were sought to be put in place. But instead of focusing on potential sexual harassers and rapists roaming the streets, however, the state found it wiser to step up its efficiency in policing the potential victim on the one hand and harassing and shaming couples caught in consensual sexual intimacies on the other.

It is a given now, anywhere in the country, that sexual behavior of almost any kind is taboo. One doesn't have to go too far to imagine a dystopia in which a state-sponsored CCTV and electronic calendar in the marital bedroom ensures that there is sex for procreation alone and not for pleasure. In the now-notorious Mumbai hotel raid case in August 2015, in which a posse of policemen descended on hotels in the Madh Island and Aksa Beach areas, dragged 13 consenting couples out from their rooms and proceeded to humiliate, harass and slap them, it becomes evident that there is more at stake than a cheap stint to make some quick money through semi-formalised blackmail. There were threats to young women that their families would be intimated of their indecent behaviour, and many couples were asked to produce proof of marriage (after all, sex between two consenting adults is not a defence in itself). They were booked and fined under Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act for 'public indecency' though they were in private hotel rooms that they had paid for.

Public outrage on social media after the news broke forced the police to finally admit that they had no reason for this bizarre action other than self-appointed vigilantism to monitor and control adult citizens’ sexual activities. Ironically enough, the misdeeds of the local policemen were caught on the same instrument that has become the most lethal weapon in the hands of the state moral police, the CCTV. That is perhaps one’s only consolation in this entire mess that destroyed so many equilibriums one hot August afternoon in Mumbai. The scars were not momentary, though: one 19-year-old female victim said later to a news magazine, “I am literally contemplating ending my life because of the trauma and the stigma from the raid. I haven’t been able to step out of the house and my parents have also not spoken a single word to me since this morning.”

This young woman’s plight is symptomatic of the perpetual state of confusion and unhappiness that we exist in vis-a-vis women’s sexual freedom in our cities. She has neither the understanding and support of her family in pursuing her adult sexual desires without shame and in safety in legitimate spaces where couples may choose to spend time together, nor the guarantee of a modicum of respect for her adult choices by the machinery of the state. It is likely that this young woman – or many like her – is a student at university. And the university in India is metamorphosing daily into a monstrous instrument of surveillance and censorship in young adult lives.


The University Grants Commission (UGC), a national body that was set up to administer funds for all programmes in higher educational institutions, has long been known for overstepping its brief and intruding into various policy decisions about the administration, even of ancillary sites like student hostels. In April 2015, the UGC issued a four-page set of guidelines for the safety of students on campuses, which begins by advocating the building of tall boundary walls topped with barbed wire around all hostels, biometric systems to track student whereabouts, police stations on campus, quarterly parent-teacher meetings, and letters of consent from parents for all educational excursions. What it does not spell out is already maintained by most women’s hostels across the country – strict curfew hours (at variance with those of the men’s hostels) after which the gates of the hostel are locked, a few night outs which must be approved by guardians, CCTV and other intrusive surveillance in many parts of the residences, in private institutes often including rooms and sometimes coming with the offer of footage being beamed directly to parents for an additional fee. What, we might ask, do our educational policy makers and administrators think that a university is meant to be? Why are parents falling into the trap of promises of safety for their daughters, not recognising how their minds are being stunted by being locked into their rooms every night after sundown – as if there will be a way of spending their lives in such cocoons instead of training themselves to take risks, to seek pleasures in freedom, to learn to cope with threats and aggression in the real world outside?

The good news, however, is that young women are resisting the grim reality of this infantalised and gender-discriminatory existence with an enraged sense of their own rights as adults in the world. The ‘Pinjra Tod’ (Break the Cage!) movement started by students at Delhi University and Jamia Milia Islamia has now spread like wildfire across colleges and universities in the country, where women in hostels along with their friends of all genders are rising in protest against the vigilantism of university authorities.

Meanwhile the state is determined to kill its women with ‘kindness’ – with a protectionism that will curb all freedom for them and wring safety from the rafters. The Pinjra Tod campaign tells us that the battle is at our doorstep and we all need to join it. It is not enough that the good and difficult fight is being fought entirely by the students (supported by their friends on and off campus) who are directly affected by the policing. It is surprising that their demands have not been taken up by faculty and administrative staff at colleges and universities at all, except for a few lone voices – surely many more understand, and empathise with, the plight of the students, and believe that education cannot come when in fetters?

Until parents are able to assure their adult children that they will stand by them when the police round them up in private hotels and threaten to call their guardians to report their ‘indecent’ activities, patriarchy will continue to flourish through the inculcation of fear and shame in young women.

Apparently, not so; it is in fact rather shocking that many teachers, administrators and students who are otherwise voluble on gender issues are seen siding with brazenly patriarchal administrations in their institutions when it comes to controlling student movement and behaviour on campuses. This betrays an unhappy lack of critical thinking of gender politics on the ground, belying what universities apparently teach. Something is then gravely wrong in our thinking about, and acting on, feminisms in our institutions of higher learning. The larger women’s movement in India perhaps needs to think about how it will continue to lead the fight for women’s rights in the future if it is uncomfortable about the question of women’s sexual freedom – which must be seen in tandem with every other freedom the movement espouses. Veteran women activists have said about Pinjra Tod that they support the lifting of curfews on women’s hostels because the freedom that young women have the right to is ‘not merely sexual freedom’ – that female students may and do wish to attend plays and concerts, and study in distant libraries, and must be allowed these rights along with their male counterparts.

While this is a worthy argument – indeed women will not be copulating in droves in the streets outside the hostels the minute their curfews are lifted but will be doing many other things in enjoyment of their regular lives beyond sunset, given this chance – we are playing deliberately safe and, therefore, into the hands of the authorities, when we choose to ignore the fact that the reason for the curfew in the first place is always and simply moral policing of (expected) sexual activity of adult female students. If we support the student movement without acknowledging the reason for this illegitimate policing, then we are obfuscating the real problem and doing it more harm than good. Surely it is only when we grant full recognition to their sexual freedoms along with their cultural, intellectual and social rights that we will be giving our adult students the respect they deserve. This extends to parents as well. Advocating ‘feminist parenting’ following the Mumbai hotels raid case, Shilpa Phadke of the energetic and inspired ‘Why Loiter?’ campaign has said, until parents are able to assure their adult children that they will stand by them when the police round them up in private hotels and threaten to call their guardians to report their ‘indecent’ activities, patriarchy will continue to flourish through the inculcation of fear and shame in young women.

Until we are loud and proud and united in decrying such assault on all women’s freedoms, there will be no letting up from any of the authorities, be they women’s hostel administrators or police raiding hotels. The easy target remains women’s sexuality, the fear of it, the control of it and the taming of it – so let us not drown it in gentility and discretion and respectability. Let not women’s groups especially, guilelessly collude in this oppression by tap-dancing around the subject of women’s sexual freedoms and pleasures, chary of its riskiness. Let it not be fig-leafed with talk of other (‘respectable’) freedoms that everyone is comfortable about supporting. Let the fight for women’s sexual freedoms become louder instead, a brave and risky fight in this age of CCTVs for moral policing. And let us demand that the state and its institutions provide for safety in equal measure to all its citizens without further victimising the potential victims of sexual assault, the women.

Till then, more power to all the women everywhere who are relentlessly opposing gendered oppression at home, on campus, at work and at play, may they break the back of patriarchy as they raise their voices through the bars of their prisons: “The caged bird sings/with a fearful trill”, as Maya Angelou wrote lyrically, “of things unknown but longed for still/and his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/sings of freedom.” In our cities and our universities this new year, may their struggle for some of the more discomfiting, disquieting freedoms for women witness new victories, so that fresh songs may sound under more open skies.

~Brinda Bose teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is co-founder of MargHumanities.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian