Post-Unnao: How long will we be told what to do, stay silent? ask girls

Maulshree Seth
The video of the girl asking the question went viral, and in the days after, her nervous parents refused to send her to school. (Representational image)

It was three days after the vehicle in which the Unnao rape victim was travelling was hit by a speeding truck, leaving her battling for life. It was hours after the Supreme Court had directed transfer of all five cases registered in connection with the rape, allegedly by BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar (now suspended), from Uttar Pradesh to a court in Delhi. At an event held by police at a school in Barabanki on July 31, to raise awareness among girl students of their rights, one Class 11 student rose up and asked a police officer how they could protect them against powerful people like Sengar.

The video of the girl asking the question went viral, and in the days after, her nervous parents refused to send her to school. It s 20 days later, and her Class of 2020 have questions. Lots of them. For their teachers, parents, male counterparts, and police, in this small town, in a predominantly rural district, from where most look to migrate to nearby Lucknow and Faizabad, and where female literacy hovers near the 44 per cent mark (compared to 59 per cent for males).

Read | CBI gets two more weeks to finish accident probe into Unnao case

That day, the classmates remember, police had come to their school as part of their anti-Romeo drive to teach girl students how to protect themselves. The school, one of the oldest and most prestigious in Barabanki, is run by a trust. Recalls a 17-year-old, wearing her school uniform of grey kurta, white salwar and dupatta, First of all, we were surprised there were no boys in the room. We told police that rather than instructing just us, why don t they tell the boys too to respect our decisions? Many of us tried asking this, again and again, but they had no answer.

A police station near the school where an anti-Romeo squad is based. (Express photo)

So far listening quietly, another girl says angrily, Instead of a direct reply, we were counselled that our state and the country are purush pradhan (patriarchal) . Someone tried to make this point by explaining how mothers cook and fathers go out to work. One of our classmates replied that at her home, her father cooked and that both her parents went to work. Again, they had no answer.

What makes the teenagers angrier though are the conditions around them which necessitate a police event like the one held on July 31 and the silence expected of them since, particularly of their classmate who spoke up that day. All the girls who spoke with The Sunday Express said while they were willing to identify themselves, their parents may not be happy about it.

Gharwale bolte hain, yahan mat jao, woh mat karo (Parents tell us, don t go there, don t do that). Their concern is genuine. But is that a solution? says one Class 11 student, adding that her elder brother is even more protective and does not let her go out alone.

As others break out laughing, saying her brother goes everywhere she goes, another girl says it is not a joke. My parents feel more secure sending my 5-year-old brother with me. I may have to protect him if something happens, but the presence of a male member, even if he is 5, is supposed to make me feel secure! she bursts out angrily.

A 17-year-old asserts that the July 31 event should have also included boys. They should respect us and seminars like these should have equal representation of boys.

A classmate believes orientation should be held for parents too. As other girls nod, she says, We are taught each day to feel afraid. All our parents tell us, Sidhe jao, Sidhe aao (Go straight where you have to go, and come straight back). If someone says something, ignore it. We do not want to ignore. We too want freedom, but the news about rapes scares both us and them.
Another classmate says the only solution is for parents to be assured of their daughters security . Laws are strict but we wish they were implemented strictly as well, so that those threatening us feel afraid, not us.

Barabanki Superintendent of Police Akash Tomar admits the girls were outspoken at the event held on July 31. However, he denies any pressure from their side on that account. There was no issue of security. The girl (who asked the question) and her parents felt more harassed by the media, but after we assured them, all the girls have returned to school, and there are no issues.
Not just Unnao, the Class of Barabanki knows about the Kathua rape case as well, and its ramifications. They keep themselves informed about the worlds far away from theirs through social media but also news updates on phones. Their favourite books include The Last Lecture, by Jeffrey Zaslow and Randy Pausch (on the beauty and briefness of life), and The Lost Jewels, the short story by Rabindranath Tagore on greed. They learn foreign languages such as French and Korean on YouTube, and they are fans of K-pop.

All students of science, one of them says, I want to become the health minister, but not just like that. I will first study medicine and become a doctor, so that as minister I can solve the issues of women. Another, the school s vice-captain, wants to become a writer.

Their male classmates are hesitant in comparison, both to speak their mind as well as about their future. They confess they don t talk to the girls, afraid of being teased. We hardly interact with them. Moreover, for all us boys, the worst punishment a teacher can give is making us sit with the girls. I know it is not right but a majority feel this way, says a Class 10 student, as his friends look on in silence.

The principal of the school, who also refuses to be identified, says they are proud of their students, especially the girls. We encourage our students to ask questions. Some of the police officers told me the girls in our school are very smart.

Among the facilities at the school, the principal cites proudly, is a counsellor to guide the students through issues such as this.

A few kilometres away, the father of the girl whose video went viral, however, remains anxious, about what it means for her and his family. Sitting at the stationery shop he runs, he refuses to say much. My daughter tried to explain to me that whatever she said was right. But she is naive. I was afraid to send her to school initially but then, after police assurance, we sent her. However, she is my only child and I no longer let her come home alone on a rickshaw. I close my shop at 1.15 pm for half-an-hour every day, to pick her from school and drop her home.
At her house, surrounded by her friends who cheer her on, the 17-year-old says she understands his fear. But, she asserts, she doesn t share it.

Papa darey huey thai. Lekin mera question valid tha (Papa got scared. But my question was valid). Many saw it as directed at a particular party, but I would have said the same if someone from the Congress was involved. Me and my classmates all wanted to know the same thing: whether police could save us from criminals (such as the MLA) before harm was done to us.