Sexism and the City

It’s no secret that this big bad world is biased towards the people with both the X and Y chromosomes, thanks to the patriarchy that has upheld the ideas of male superiority. These biases further suggest that women are inferior because of their sex. Thus, any expression upholding these biases can be termed as — ‘sexist.’

Sexism can affect anyone, however, there have been few men on the receiving end. It affects men and boys when they don’t conform to gender roles.

For this article, we will restrict the ambit of our discussion to only the University level in India. Sexist attitudes are not just limited to boys rating girls on a scale of 0-10 based on their physical appearances. It has transcended into limiting the opportunities for women, imposing draconian rules and observing traditions that are misogynistic and chauvinist.

We often consider academia as the citadel of everything fair and progressive. However, we don’t live in a utopian world. Just like other institutions that have these notions of male superiority deep-rooted in their practices and norms, so does education. Many people benefit from these power dynamics in the status quo, and thus, have no incentive to change it.

There is a stark imbalance in the male to female ratio in many courses such as law, management, and STEM disciplines. Considered the holy grail of education and achievement, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), suffer from the worst gender imbalance with only 9.3% of females. This gap further increases with progression in these careers, with an utter lack of women in leadership positions.

We can see this trend across central universities in India. Out of 46 central universities, only 5 have women placed as the heads of the institutions. Even in India’s most liberal universities, like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), no women has ever been the head of the institute. The selection committees are dominated by men, who give little weightage to women candidates as many view women as someone who has stolen a job a man was entitled to do. This perception has risen from the cultural view that men are the bread-earners of the family while women are the homemakers.

In colleges with extreme gender disproportion, the environment becomes testosterone-driven, leading to women students being subjected to sexual innuendos and sexist remarks. Language and communication make people recognise or demean their contribution to society. Our language shapes our thoughts, and the way we think influences our actions. Gender-discriminatory language reinforces sexist attitudes and behaviours. Thus, female students become conditioned to accept subtle sexism and lewd remarks as the norm.

Sexism in Indian universities isn’t just limited to leadership positions but encompasses norms that affect the day-to-day lives of many.

In many colleges across India, dress codes are imposed on women. For example, The Government Medical College, Kerala issued a dress code for its female students instructing them not to wear jeans, leggings, short tops or noisy ornaments. Many girls’ hostels also follow curfews, thus increasing the red tape for them to step out. Many institutions like Jamia Milia University, IITs and the University of Delhi have come under the light in the past for such rules.

Such draconian measures show how expecting equality remains a far-off dream for girls. These rules concretise the notion that the price for the safety of women is curbing their freedom rather than bringing a systemic change in the attitude of men.

Symbiosis Center for Media and Communication (SCMC) Pune is widely recognised for its option of ‘film and television’ specialisation as a part of its three-year undergraduate program. In her article for The Print, Vaishnavi Suresh, an SCMC alumnus highlights the rampant sexism in the coveted institution. Being a media college, the students spend a large amount of time in classes watching films. Vaishnavi, however, notes how the students barely had any female filmmakers as role models. In an incident where some people from her class suggested they study a female filmmaker, the professor shot down their requests and instead taught them about another male filmmaker. She also noted how by the time they came to their 3rd year, only 2 women out of her batch were still invested in the camera by practising photography or videography. She cites the reason for this to be the “reality of the industry drilled into them constantly.”

A college that prides itself on being liberal lacks showing its students that women could be role models too. Having female role models is important for breaking the stereotype of men being better than women to propagate for a more inclusive world.

In 2016, while the #MeToo movement was still in its nascent stage, the students of Women Centred Practices at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai organised a ‘Gender Sensitisation Week’ in their campus. Amidst the gender sensitisation week, a signed comment was noticed on a banner that was put up for people to anonymously share accounts of sexist instances on campus. It read, “Sexism is an accusation, sluts level against dissenting voices for recognising that a slut is a slut.” Instances like these make one realise that the notion of some campuses being ‘more sensitive and liberal than the rest of the world’, is nothing but a facade. People still trivialise sexual harassment, use the word ‘slut’ as a derogatory term and push aside voices of dissent.

In May 2019, a few pre-university colleges in Bengaluru set higher cut-off marks for girls for admission into the courses. On inquiring about the reason behind this move, the Vice-Chancellor of Christ PU College, Fr Abraham VM, commented - “Girls are smart, and this is not a new trend. If there is no higher cut-off, the college will have only girls. The higher cut-off is to bring in gender balance.” Subsequently, the cut-off for science stream in Christ college was fixed at 93.92% for girls and 91.04% for boys. This move begs the question that in a society where historically almost every classroom has been dominated by men, why do we fear if women step into those shoes. It seems like a move to punish women for breaking the glass ceiling despite being on the worse off end of the access to opportunities.

However, the most famous sexist tradition would be the regressive Virgin Tree ‘Pooja’ on Valentine’s Day at Hindu College (University of Delhi). The Pooja is a customary tradition wherein the boys’ hostel decorates a ‘virgin tree’ on campus with condoms and posters of an actress naming her the Damdami Mai. This actress, seen as a sex symbol, is ‘worshipped’ on Valentine’s Day and according to legend, the people partaking in this practice lose their virginity in the coming six months or at least get into a relationship. In a university space, where we regard sexuality-related conversations as a taboo, they often term such a celebration as ‘liberatory.’

The V-Day pooja, which has been taking place since 1953, is ridden in a Brahmanical and casteist notion of prayer and reward. Highly offensive and misogynistic, the pooja follows a hollow notion of ‘sex-positivity’ while overlooking homosexual relationships. The celebration reinforces the existing patriarchal structures which have ingrained insecurity in the minds of young women by reducing their value to just the pleasure of and determined by an external male gaze.

College is the first encounter of the young adults with reality by giving them a peek into the larger world out there. It introduces us to the workings of the ‘real world’ and underpins many of our perspectives and expectations in a social context.

The sexist practices create a climate of fear and insecurity by producing feelings of worthlessness, self-censorship, and changes in behaviour. This further leads to the deterioration of people’s mental health and makes them acceptable to violence, as they now think they deserve it.

When students are exposed to these ideas in college, it either normalises these ideas for many by ingraining notions of male superiority. Or it makes people recognise and fight the problem. The wave of social consciousness and woke culture have made the youth today more liberal than their predecessors, leading to more inclusive spaces for women and homosexuals in institutions. They, however, remain a minority faction and their wokeness hasn’t led to a ripple effect big enough to shake down sexism on a bigger level. The boy’s hostel at Hindu College plans to host the Virgin Tree Pooja in 2021, many girls’ hostels continue to follow the archaic dress codes and curfews, and conversations among men will continue to be casually sexist.

All over the world, people have celebrated 46 International Women’s Days and 6 Zero Discrimination Days and will celebrate many more, but until we abolish all discriminatory and sexist practices, we won’t be celebrating these days in their true essence.


Devyani Arora

I am a nineteen-year-old student in Delhi University, pursuing bachelor's in commerce. You will find me having an existential crisis almost every two days and listening to The Local Train on loop.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.