Gender programme gone wrong at Tandong University
Representational image

On July 22, The Sikkim Commission For Women in Gangtok organised a one-day legal awareness programme on gender issues at  Nar Bahadur Bhandari Government College (NBBGC), Tadong. The event ended on a note, “Look at the mirror before you head out of your house and ask yourselves, are you looking decent or vulgar.” Chung Chung Bhutia (Chairperson, Sikkim Khadi and Village Industries Board), the chief guest of the programme, was greeted with a big round of applause by students and faculty members for a statement which is the epitome of the gender issue.

The awareness programme started with lectures on POCSO, sexual assault, abortion, elopement and gender stigmas. Dr Sangila Dorjee, Clinical Psychologist at STNM Hospital, spoke about mental health and its importance, narrating fables and giving instances of young teenage girls going through mental health issues. Nirmal Manger, a Senior Journalist of Sikkim Chronicle, gave an introduction on gender and tried to debunk gender stigmas interacting with college students. POCSO act and other laws related to sexual assault were discussed by Dhan Maya Subba (Superintendent of Police, Anti Human Trafficking Unit). The programme was educational in terms of knowing the laws on sexual assault, but the problem lay with the type of ideologies put forward by Dhan Maya Subba and Chung Chung Bhutia.

The very fact that these awareness programs emphasised ‘precautions against sexual assault’ is the biggest problem of the system. Many girls’ schools offer self-defence classes in the name of women empowerment and ‘gender issues’. But women empowerment is more than just taking precautions, fighting off rapists and landing kicks on the victims’ crotch area. While girls are forced to take classes like self-defence, education on consent and toxic masculinity remain rare in boys’ schools.

The gender issue is not about taking precautions. It is about debunking the stigmas of gender and tackling the problems created by the stereotypes around it. When Dhan Maya Subba said, “Don’t play the victim card just because you’re a woman”, when I told her that I was once groped in Darjeeling, my mother blamed it on me. I have made peace with my mother because I have realised that she too was nurtured in a patriarchal society, Subba’s first question was: “What did you do after that?”, calling the entire episode “Pathetic”. 

Subba should understand that what I did after that is my business, but why it happened should be of prime importance. Women face sexual harassment on a day-to-day basis and one should not view gender issues from a privileged lens. 99% of women get harassed at some point in time and Subba is lucky to have not experienced such an ordeal. When I told her that women and transgender are the minorities and the vulnerable in the gender hierarchy, she took it as an offence and said, “How can you say that women are weak? I had never seen a woman claiming to be the weaker section of the society”. Firstly, minorities are not weak. They are the strongest who resist and fight against the system that has been built in such a way as to always drag them down. Secondly, calling a survivor’s story “pathetic” is insensitive, disrespectful and insolent.

Dhan Maya Subba spoke about the stereotypes and stigmas attached to being a lady. Later in her speech, she added, “Men also work in the kitchen.” “Keta bhayera parai kitchen ma kaam garcha”(He works in the kitchen despite being a man) is the most common trope in the hills. Why is it a big deal when men cook? Women have spent ages serving their families, getting underpaid their whole lives. Subba assured that she was not glorifying men for working in the kitchen but unknowingly, having lived through misogyny, she was putting men on a pedestal by making such remarks.

The seminar hall echoed with blatant laughs at Chung Chung Bhutia’s so-called humorous statement on domestic violence. “If wives at home choose to stay submissive and pity themselves, then your husbands will obviously continue to kick you”, said Bhutia, guffawing and mimicking husbands kicking and wives getting abused on stage. “Be strong!”, she added pointing her finger at me and the other women present there. Whether a lady is soft, bold or aggressive, Bhutai and Subba are no one to ask women to toughen up. Nobody is entitled to do so. People have distinct personalities with different upbringings and past experiences and associating sexual assault with victims’ disposition is illogical.

“You children have to contribute to society by doing good work. Concentrate on your studies, respect your teachers and love your brothers. You have the power to solve your parents’ issues at home. Returning home on time and dressing up properly are very important. Your hair will get damaged if you colour them often my girls, and to say it bluntly, it does not look nice”, said Bhutia, later adding that all of this applies to boys as well. 

The awareness on Gender issues programme was never supposed to be about dress code or asking women to toughen up. The major problems of gender issues were blindsided and unaddressed.

The author is pursuing Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism at the Amity School of Communication, Noida.

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