Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Introducing Samvad: the speech given by Samia Vasa at the launch event of Samvad

The task of introducing Samvad stands at the intersection of various histories, ready to be invoked, tentatively perched: the history of various struggles in this university, the history of failed attempts to run lgbt groups and gender forums on this campus, the history of the feminist political movement in this region, in this country, and the personal histories of individuals who have organized this forum. In what follows, I invoke bits and pieces of all these histories, and share some ideas about what Samvad can be. Basically, lay out some ground on which we imagine Samvad to function, now, and in the future.

I know of at least one other attempt to start a Gender Forum on this campus. Three years ago, in what was my first semester on this campus, a Gender Forum had just been put together by a few students. In the first meeting, we discussed how this campus, with its exponentially growing population, needed a good and accessible sexual harassment policy. We discussed the current policy and compared it with the much more detailed and nuanced sexual harassment policy for DU. We were told how a couple of teachers and students had sat together for two years to write and bring out the DU policy. It was hoped that some of us here would also be motivated to pursue a similar exercise and come up with a policy that was attuned to the peculiarities of this campus. The group sizzled out after the third meeting, in which we discussed a sexual harassment case on the campus. While we debated the endless spirals of caste and patriarchy and sexual harassment and violence, some of us quietly walked out, and some of us never walked in after that discussion.

Some of us also tried running reading groups around Freud, LGBT Theory, LGBT fiction, but nothing really sustained itself beyond a point. The reasons for these failures were many. As reading groups, they were accessible to very few people. At the same time, the organizers did not have enough resources to be a support-cum-reading group. Practicalities aside, these reading groups did not appeal to most members of the university. There seemed to be no shared concerns. As far as the Gender Forum was concerned, I think it did not work, again, because of lack of adequate resources and also because the issues at hand were far too complex to untangle as a newly formed group.

I evoke these histories at the inception of a new Gender Forum, one that will hopefully last longer, to indicate only one of the many complexities that any organization committed to issues of gender and sexuality will have to face and deal with. Several concerns have been raised about the kind of work that Samvad will do and its role in the university. We have been asked if Samvad will deal only with the issues of women. We have been asked if we will oppose purdah. We have been asked why we need this forum on campus, when we already have so many other student organizations in an already over-crowded campus space.  A feminist organization can mean various things. What is the kind of feminism that Samvad aspires to practice and work with?

These are obviously very complex questions and they all come to us from different locations. At this stage of Samvad, we can only make some tentative remarks, that will probably gesture towards some answers.  To begin with, Samvad is not a women's group, but a gender forum. We make this distinction to emphasize that we are not working with a feminist framework that sees women as the only objects of their intervention. Instead, we want to work with the objective of destabilizing established notions of gender and sexuality. And in this sense, as bell hooks has put it, feminism is for everybody.

I see the Gender Forum as capable of playing a crucial role in naming and negotiating with the varied networks of power in our societies and in our campus. From the casual essentializing remarks that circulate within our hostels to the various kinds of sexual harassment faced by participants to the silence regarding alternative sexualities, the Gender Forum has a complex field to intervene in. This intervention can be in terms of sensitization, mobilization, debate and discussion, as well as initiating change through procedure and protest. In the face of various caste, class, regional and cultural struggles that are waged inside this university and outside of it, some of us have felt an acute need to have a feminist organization that would provide an enabling critical lens to analyse these complex and intermeshed formations of caste, gender, class, culture, identity. While Samvad will function in the space of the university, I see it as working in solidarity and even sometimes in continuity with various other struggles in the region and the country, for example, the struggle for Telengana, and especially the role of women in this struggle, Irom Sharmila's struggle against AFSPA, land struggles against corporate, capitalist forces in various parts of the country, the currently ongoing Maruti Suzuki Employees' struggle in Manesar, among many others.

Samvad intends to take up a range of issues, through various modes of intervention. We plan to have academic readings and discussions, film screenings, workshops, cultural activities like theatre, information-sharing and sensitization campaigns, each month. Alongwith all these activities, we will take up individual as well as general issues that are brought to our notice by the participants of this university. To begin with, we plan to focus on three issues:
  1. GSCASH: In spite of UGC regulations, the GSCASH is not active on this campus. In the event of sexual harassment, we have no phone numbers to contact the concerned authorities, we have no information about the sexual harassment policy. In fact, a lot of us don't even know what constitutes sexual harassment. In an already hostile environment, the absence of an active GSCASH is a matter of grave concern. We hope that Samvad can play a role in the revival as well as the sustenance of GSCASH in this university.
  2. The second issue is related to the women's hostels. The hostel that houses BA students, among many other students, closes its gate to visitors at ten. The ten o'clock rule has been enforced since August, and has been enforced only on this hostel, which is the Baichanda hostel. The other hostel for women, the Akka Mahadevi Hostel, continues with the old eleven o'clock rule. In spite of our protests in August, the Baichanda hostel operates under stricter rules, just because it houses BA students. The very characterisation of BA students that we strained against in our protest, continues to be the grounds of unilateral, administrative decisions. Regarding this issue, we do not want to simply demand the restoration of the 11 o'clock rule for the Baichanda Hostel. What we want to do is facilitate discussions among the residents of this hostel about what they think is desirable for them. As a gender forum, we do not wish to occupy any moral high ground and attempt to enlighten people about their rights and violations. Instead, at all points and levels, we wish to pay attention to the choices that men and women make, in spite of being framed within powerful structures. And that is precisely why we have decided to call this Forum, Samvad. A word that is common to several Indian languages, Samvad means dialogue, discussion, exchange, debate.
  3. Finally, we wish to emphasize the urgent need to have student elections on this campus. Not only do we need democratic processes and a legitimate platform for students, we also need to regulate the procedures and systems that sustain this university.

Among the various other issues that we have in mind, I would like to talk about one more extremely pertinent issue that Samvad intends to address in the near future. This is related to the absolute inadequacy of basic facilities for the non-teaching staff on this campus. Women workers do not even have a place to rest, in case of health problems. There aren’t adequate bathrooms, and the bathrooms that exist are often non-functional - sometimes, they are not repaired for months, and mostly, there is no running water.  We do not see these as simply administrative failures. These are also ideological decisions, and we wish to crucially challenge them at that level. What kind of a workspace is this university for the non-teaching staff? We want to take this question seriously, and work with various sections of the university to make a difference to the state of affairs.

I will end this description of Samvad with a story about its beginning. Samvad evolved out of a series of protests that happened within the women's hostels at the beginning of this semester. These protests were aimed at destabilizing the age-old custodial authority of hostel administrators over the women residents. These protests raised crucial concerns about the nature of university space, distinctions between the public and the private, and the ideological structures of laws, rules and regulations. What started out as a major change in accommodation arrangements, quickly spiralled into all sorts of confrontations with the hostel administration regarding various issues. The hostel admin was planning to have a separate research scholars’ hostel so that a stringent set of rules and regulations can be imposed on the new populations that have entered the EFL Univeristy recently: BA and MA students. The research scholars were told that these young and immature girls had no clue about their new-found freedoms and they were abusing hostel facilities by engaging in sexual and romantic activities. This was supposedly impacting their academic performance. The admin thought it fit that if BA and MA women stop associating with men in their rooms after ten at night, they'll do better academically. In the name of our academic well-being, safety and security, the hostel administration was exerting custodial authority over women students. We were also told that the cleaning staff had heard a couple kissing inside a room. My friends and I were appalled at such an infantile, essentialist and heterosexist characterization of these women students. Instead of looking into the actual problems that the residents had been facing, like access to safe drinking water, adequate bathroom facilities and the utter chaos of construction activities, our personal lives were becoming the focus of the hostel administration. Some of us were very agitated and believed that such an attitude must be actively contested and opposed. We were also of the opinion that the move of creating a separate research scholars' hostel was aimed at creating a divide within the student community.

The other big issue was that the new PhD and MPhil women scholars were made to sign an undertaking when they came for hostel admissions. Among other things, this undertaking included the following: “I will not raise objection to hostel accommodation, rooms allotment and adhere to the hostel functional formalities;” “I will not post any notices anywhere in the hostel premises except in the Notice Boards with the permission of the hostel administration, i.e., (Provost/Warden);” “I will go by the rules and regulations, menu of the mess and follow any other decisions implemented from time to time.” We were alarmed at the implications of these rules. They were a direct truncation of our democratic space and the suppression of our freedom of speech and expression. These rules were not even officially declared to the existing residents before putting them on paper, before getting them signed. Thus, while the process of forging these rules was also undemocratic and opaque, the implications were draconian and tyrannical. Not only were we denied participation in the decision-making processes, we were also rendered voiceless when it came to our problems with the unilateral decisions that are taken by the hostel administration. When some of the residents protested against these administrative decisions, we were dismissed as a handful of individuals, because we were neither an organized group, nor were we elected representatives. Our voices were suppressed; even our posters were taken off the walls in a few hours. We continue to function with these concerns. We continue to work with this beginning of sorts.

I know that the picture is still fuzzy. But I also hope that this open-endedness can be made productive. More than anything else, I hope that this tentativeness can be utilized into creating dialogic spaces on this campus.

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