This astonishing statement came from Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi on 6 March while explaining why girls in hostels should have early curfew hours.
Speaking at an interview ahead of Women’s Day (8 March), Gandhi said that teenage girls in hostels need to be shut up by early evening in order to protect them from the hormones sloshing around in their system.
Evidently, the minister thinks that if allowed to roam free, their hormones might make them commit dirty, rotten acts such as – shock, horror – sex maybe.
What Happened to the Spirited Defender of Women’s Empowerment?
Let’s pause here and let our jaws drop. Is this the same Maneka Gandhi who was once a spirited defender of women’s empowerment? Then how is it that she sounds so much like her regressive male colleagues in the political sphere, who often say that girls need to stay home to stay safe?
How is it that she sounds like a friendly neighbourhood auntyji who shakes her head sagely and advocates strict codes of conduct for girls lest they go astray?
Will the minister next speak up in defence of not allowing girls access to mobile phones – as many khap panchayats have decreed in rural India? After all, with all those raging hormones, you can’t trust young girls with phones, can you? They could be using them to hook up with boys. And what could be worse than that?
Indeed, with this one remark Maneka Gandhi has firmly positioned herself in patriarchy’s camp, which has systematically tried to deny women agency and restrict their movement. And invariably, the argument trotted out in favour of this anti-women practice that it is to keep them safe from men who are out to prey on them.
What’s shocking is that Maneka has turned the screw on this argument by suggesting that young girls are such a helpless, quivering mass of jelly under the influence of their hormones that they need to be protected from none other than their own selves. (She did add later that boys in hostels should have the same early curfew hours. But that was clearly an afterthought.)
There’s no doubt that educational institutions and hostels must have designated curfew hours for the sake of order and discipline. The point is that administrative regulations are justified in their own right. It’s outrageous to try and justify them by citing reasons like protecting young girls from their so-called basic instincts.
Why Maneka’s Comment Is Deeply Damaging
There are three reasons why Maneka’s comment is deeply damaging to the cause of women’s empowerment.
First, it portrays female young adults as brainless creatures at the mercy of their own out-of-control impulses. Second, it buys into paternalistic society’s age-old practice of curbing women’s freedom of movement. Whether it is walls or the purdah, the burkha or the ghunghat, an endless array of barriers has traditionally been deployed to shut women in.
And third, it absolves the state of its responsibility of ensuring women’s safety.
Locking girls indoors is not the answer to keeping them out of harm’s way. The state has to take vigorous steps to make public spaces safe.
Similarly, rather than indulge the ancient paranoia about young girls running wild and bringing rack and ruin upon family and society, they (along with boys) need to be given the sex education necessary for them to make informed choices about their newfound adulthood.
Our youngsters need our guidance. What they don’t need is coercion and attempts to force them into an outdated morality, which they will reject in any case.
This is not the first time that Maneka Gandhi has made a startlingly anti-women statement. Last March she said India was not ready for a law to criminalise marital rape because Indian society considers marriage to be a sacrament. Which is really to say that since marriage is deemed a holy bond, a man cannot be punished for raping his wife.
Destroying Her Own Efforts
This morning, I got a change.Org mailer from Maneka Gandhi where she declares that her ministry has got more women to join the police force, and that it is training women sarpanches to be strong leaders.
She asks me, and countless others to whom the mail went out, to do something to help “break the barriers and stereotypes that are harmful to women.”
Such a pity that the minister, who does so much for women, also does her bit to perpetuate some of the stereotypes about them that she is urging us to break.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)