What I learned from “The Patriarchy”: Nilanjana S. Roy

Guest post by NILANJANA S. ROY

Reading Saba Dewan’s post, on patriarchy and St Stephen’s, was a release. For years, I had struggled to make sense of two contradictory things—my years at college were some of the happiest of my life, but the institution that was held up to us as one of the best in India was also built on a flawed and deeply discriminatory set of beliefs.

(It’s hard to write about this in part because it always felt like complaining about what was, in essence, a very privileged life–those of us who went to St Stephen’s were by definition lucky, in our acquisition of English, in our officially liberal families, in our assumption of a secure place in the hierarchies of power in India.)
St Stephen’s in 1989 had many of the elements Saba Dewan describes. The chick charts had gone only slightly underground, but the unofficial college magazines were widely read and almost always singled out “loose” women for harsh, punitive treatment. The editors of Kooler Talk Spice, the unofficial Residence magazine, felt free to comment on women’s figures, attractiveness or perceived sluttiness in terms that were often viciously degrading. Women who protested were marked down as humourless and told that they couldn’t take a joke. This was as much part of the general atmosphere as was the knowledge that you would have to fend off sexual harassment if you took the bus. (NB: My thanks to Amitabh Dubey, who gently pointed out that Kooler Talk, the official college magazine, was not guilty of these crimes.)

When Barkha Dutt ran for college president, one of the more vociferous arguments against having a woman as President was a viciously circular line of reasoning: women weren’t part of the all-male Residence, the college hostel, and so a woman president wouldn’t be able to handle college issues 24/7. The fact that a woman wasn’t able to be on the college premises 24/7 because the college in question had made it impossible for her to stay on the premises was treated as irrelevant.

When several of us, including Barkha, asked Principal Hala why there was no hostel for women, we were told there was no room to build a hostel. Just a few years later, room was found, but the argument was revealing: St Stephens, which had room for some of the finest, most dedicated teachers, room for libraries and tennis courts and a shooting range, room for debate, ideas, engagement of all kinds, had, in the most literal sense, no room for women.

I don’t want to stop with the argument that my college was, in a fundamental and unexamined way, profoundly sexist—Saba has already made that point. Nor do I want to turn this into a rant about a college that in many ways I loved, then and now, even though its present principal seems to want to return to the bad old days by introducing 40 per cent reservation for men, because women are doing so much better than them that the men can’t get their coveted college seats without a little help from Principal Thampu. The fact that no Principal of the college felt the need to intervene when the gender ratios were skewed in the other direction, when the student body had over a 60-70 per cent male composition instead of a 60-70 per cent female composition, is revealing and tells its own story.

But what Stephen’s taught me about the way patriarchies work was unexpectedly valuable, and perhaps that might be worth sharing.

Institutions that are deeply, profoundly unfair often do not look the way you expect them to; it may take some time to recognize that you’re living in an unjust system. Logical corollary: an unjust system often co-opts otherwise good, kind, ethical people. Nice people are also part of a functioning patriarchy.

(This is just as true of families as it is of institutions.) Stephen’s had some wonderful teachers, inquiring students, and even its architecture—the open windows leading on to the gardens—spoke of open minds and inclusiveness. It was in many ways a fine college, with a tradition of respect for debate and discussion, and this made it harder to either see or believe the extent to which sexism was embedded into the system, to the point of refusing women in my generation an equal right to residence or to political representation in any meaningful way.

For me, in retrospect, this was useful—Stephen’s may have been the first environment in which I encountered subtle discrimination that was woven into the system rather than made obvious. Nor was this a function of the times—JNU, in exactly the same era, was far more casually equal, far less insidiously patriarchal.

Patriarchal institutions are not necessarily unequal in other respects–as a friend pointed out, you can have a boy’s club that is also staunchly not casteist or classist. But often enough the failure to address deeprooted gender bias can make it easier for an institution, even a highly respected one, to overlook other kinds of prejudice.

It shocks me in retrospect to see what we accepted as normal, part of the Delhi University way of doing things—the easy division of our classmates into the Yadavs and the Rajputs, the ‘harrys’—Biharis, with each group virtually voting in separate blocs. Given that so many members of our college were quite politically aware and capable of passionate engagement with, say, the Israel-Palestine issue or apartheid, the widespread acceptance that this was the way things worked is even more disquieting. (I was equally guilty of not examining this disconnect, being a quiet student, an armchair radical rather than any kind of real revolutionary. Coming from Calcutta, I ascribed this inexplicable set of divisions to the general barbarism of North India rather than looking more closely at what was going on under the surface.)

Looking back, what strikes me about the Stephen’s experience are absences—the missing women from the Residence and from key leadership roles, the missing or absent Dalits, the near-complete absence of support or understanding for the few SC or ST students. I don’t think these divisions, of caste and more rarely of class, could have taken such deep root if the gender discrimination had not also existed. This is hardly a radical observation, but it may bear repeating—many kinds of prejudice flourish once you allow one kind of discrimination to take root in any institution.

As a corollary from the previous point—patriarchy in action is every bit as damaging to men as to women, trapping men into a constant and often exhausting struggle for power, and relies on a constant erasure of its own past in order to thrive.

Though our batch had joined Stephen’s only five years after Saba Dewan’s batch, their history of protest had been wiped from the collective memory of the college by the time we joined. I often wonder how different all of our experiences of college would have been if the authorities had encouraged discussion, instead of erasing this history of dissent down the years as inconvenient.

There were two interesting lessons from the Stephens’ years—one was that joining an institution that was by definition for the privileged, in terms of language, class, opportunity, was no protection against discrimination. The other was that each generation of women, each generation of students who suffered discrimination because they were darker or came from a lower caste or were called “Chinks” because they came from the North-East, felt that they were the first to fight these battles, and so we all fought our battles from scratch, in small, personal ways. None of us built on a previous history.

There were some unexpected lessons, too. Whether we talked about it or not—mostly not, given that most discussions of ‘College’ centred around the mince at the café, the idyllic October days on the lawns—the experience seems to have changed many of my batch, in quiet ways. So many Stephanians from my generation went on to fight for equality in their own private and professional lives. Perhaps we did learn something after all, and perhaps many of us chose to reject the lessons of discrimination and to keep only the better parts of our education.

The institution may have been riddled with discrimination, and it may to this day carry the legacy of decades of patriarchy; but the institution was also made up of teachers and students. What many of the teachers at Stephen’s, from Vijay Tankha and Arjun Mahey to Nandita Narain, tried to pass onto their students went counter to the official history.

They taught us to think for ourselves, and to always speak our truth; in their own, often fierce, battles with the administration, they tried to teach us that it is worth fighting for the right thing, even if no one else around you believes that you’re right.

Perhaps what Dewan has started with her piece on Kafila will lead to a reconstruction not just of Stephens’ history, but of all of our private histories. Once you start filling in the gaps and the silences, it becomes so much easier to see your history for what it really is.

A few months ago, Gloria Steinem said in response to an interview question about the role of feminism today that perhaps the real need for all of us was just to imagine what equality would look like. It’s actually a very challenging, difficult idea; if you don’t live in a world where the genders are equal, it’s hard to imagine equality into existence.

In an ideal world, the places where we grow up—cities, families; the places where we learn—schools, colleges, playgrounds; the places where we work and live would all answer Steinem’s question. This is where Stephen’s, for all its other virtues, failed my generation of men and women: it did not allow us to imagine what true equality would feel like. Perhaps, in the twenty years that have passed since my generation was in college, things have changed enough to allow this generation to see and experience what we couldn’t.

(Nilanjana S. Roy is a writer and literary critic in Delhi. This article first appeared on her blog, Akhond of Swat.)

13 thoughts on “What I learned from “The Patriarchy”: Nilanjana S. Roy”

  1. I was in College from ’93 to ’96. We heard a lot about the summer of ’69 and how, a year later, some students embraced Naxalism and went missing. However, we did not hear a word about the events in Saba Dewan’s first-person account.


  2. A lot had changed by the time I got to Stephen’s (1999-2002). The women’s hostel was three batches old. There seemed to be an equal number of men and women – during the day. Yet Stephen’s was almost palpably patriarchal. And I sensed this the most in the women’s hostel, which I imagine had been grudgingly granted after years of lobbying. While the hostel was an empowering victory for women students, the experience of living there was not exactly liberating. At 10pm, it became a stockade into which women were corralled. Technically we weren’t supposed to leave campus after 7pm. Thankfully that rule wasn’t enforced. If we wanted a night out, we would have to inconvenience our local guardians by getting them to come all the way to college to sign a register.
    The warden – I’m sure she was specifically chosen for this task – was an embittered widow suspicious of girls who appeared to have fun lives, girls who wore tight clothes and argumentative girls. The attitude of the authorities was – We can’t take chances as far as girls are concerned. If they get into trouble, as girls are wont to do, their parents will blame us.
    I enjoyed living on campus – there was a feeling of community and there were so many activities in the evenings. But I envied the day scholars and men residents. I couldn’t easily go for film screenings that ended late or house parties. A kind friend once drove me as fast as he possibly could in a geriatric Ambassador from Green Park to north campus. The car wheezed into college on the dot of 10pm and I nearly had a stroke from the tension.
    I may be wrong but I don’t recall these issues being seriously addressed by candidates running for college president. The dominant campaign planks in my time were more tubelights in rooms and hard beds. Stephen’s has been accused of being insular when it comes to national politics. It was pretty insular when it came to internal politics too.
    It’s fantastic that Stephen’s now has two women’s hostels. It means that more women can participate in campus life, which was so much fun. It also means that girls from families to conservative to allow their daughters to rent flat will have access to Stephen’s. I don’t know if hostel rules are the same. But Stephen’s will never be truly egalitarian as long as it views women as problem children that have to be restrained for their own good, as – to use a cliche – second class citizens.


    1. On the other hand, at one of the much maligned IITs (to one of which I went), the rules were much more sensible. You could go out of the hostel at any time you wanted (no gender differences there), but girls were not allowed in boys’ hostels between 12-AM, and vice-versa. This was sort of a weird rule, but I learnt later that it was a recent addendum (probably at the urgings of some parents). On the other hand, apart from this gender symmetric restriction, there were no other restrictions on movement across the campus .

      Actually, I heard the rumor that there was one more: in one of the two girls’ hostels, boys were not allowed in shorts (I never tried this, so I don’t know). But if this restriction was there (and it is so stupid I can’t imagine it not being a joke), it had been instituted by the “hostel committee” of that hostel (which would consist of elected members of the hostel, and a warden, who, in the case of a girls’ hostel was always a woman faculty member).

      I get a felling, reading this article, that in spite of our alarmingly bad gender ratio (~30/500 in the UG class when I was there, but much better in the post graduate classes), we at IIT were much more gender equal and sensitive than such hallowed places as St Stephens.


      1. No no, we were quite horrible, but it was only in the abstract, because there weren’t any real women around. We wouldn’t dream of tormenting any real women, but we were quite good at trash-talking.

        It isn’t ‘boys will be boys’. It is more like ‘kids will be kids’. Kids the world over tend to be insensitive and immature. Many grow up to be decent human beings.

        I feel the misogyny etc is over-stated. In my time, many boys at that age were uncouth in general. It wasn’t directed at any particular group.


  3. I did not go to Stephens, but to the another bastion of patriarchy, the IIT. There were 5 girls in our batch of 350 students. We were all against patriarchy and were very enthusiastic about proposals to reserve seats for girls. Kudos!


  4. Your otherwise excellent article contains a factual error: when you refer to to the editors of Kooler Talk I suspect you mean the editors of Spice, the college residence publication. I recall no misogyny on the pages of Kooler Talk when I was editor, and nor I am sure does Vijay Tankha who was closely involved with its publication.


  5. Dear Amitabh–you’re right, entirely my error. Will ask Kafila to make the correction, and thanks for pointing it out–it was Spice, not KT, that wore its chauvinism on its sleeve.

    Thanks, Nilanjana


  6. The late evening campus life at Stephen’s, especially after 10 pm, has become extremely dull.Residents are either busy cramming or sleeping. The fact that 50% of the residents (meaning women) are locked in after 10 means that residence life becomes even duller. In any event, life in residence has become prosaic and insipid after the Thampu-takeover. Residence now looks and sounds more like a seminary in Kerala than a place where vigorous and bubbling young men and women live. Looks like Thampu makes every resident undergo a kind of mental lobotomy. A ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ situation. Only more Nurse Ratcheds and no McMurphys around. Sad.


  7. Wow, Sarabhjeet Singh – perfect way to patronize, trivialize, and dismiss the issues raised by the writer. So, “kids will be kids” huh? It’s obvious to anyone who doesn’t have a time machine that allows one to remould one’s childhood, adolescence, and youth, that the precious time you spend picking up and espousing certain attitudes are lifelong habits that stay with you and perhaps only grow stronger with time. Unless, you learn also to craft for yourself an ethical arc which allows you to test the things you hear, the lessons you are passed on, the values you are born into and imbibe.

    And if students in IIT are “kids,” then I guess, schoolgoers – from classes 12 and 11 all the way back to primary – are regressively zygotes, single-celled organisms, and poof – a speck of dust!


    1. “It’s obvious to anyone who doesn’t have a time machine that allows one to remould one’s childhood, adolescence, and youth, that the precious time you spend picking up and espousing certain attitudes are lifelong habits that stay with you and perhaps only grow stronger with time.”

      And this is exactly what Sarabjeet said, didn’t he? That the “kids” at IIT (who, you would notice, at least on the evidence of this thread, seem to be much more sensitive to gender inequality that the enlightened scholars at Stephens) like other “kids” elsewhere, “tend to be insensitive and immature.. (but)… grow up to be decent human beings.”


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