Growing up in urban India, in an English-medium boys-only school run by Jesuits, I had access to all the English-language novels and comic-books that Indian kids do – Enid Blyton, Archies etc. Immersed in their world of boarding schools, “Riverdale High” etc, the one thing I never really got was the idea of lockers and locker-rooms, which were depicted in them in one way or another. My school did not have individual lockers for students – and I never had access to a gym or a swimming pool, so I had never seen one.
During my undergraduate studies in India, the initial student accommodation was in dormitories, so we did have individual lockers in a separate room which ought to have been called a locker-room. Only, it was not. I am not sure what we called it, but it was not referred to as a locker-room, that much I remember. And though we often assembled in the “locker-room” to chat especially when getting our stuff, we never really thought there existed a separate locker-room culture. We had our dorms, balconies, common-rooms to bond in and shoot the breeze. Was there a special, toxic masculinity that was being micro-brewed in some kind of locker-rooms somewhere on campus? I don’t know…maybe it was…for any space could potentially breed such a culture among male peers.
It was not till I had an opportunity to study “abroad” that I saw what student lockers were like and I also saw the locker-rooms as the ante-chambers to gyms and swimming pools. But since I was not part of any sports teams – soccer, rugby, American football, swimming etc – I never hung out with buddies in any locker-room.
But, I gradually became aware of the idea of a “locker room culture” as a real thing. Even elite schools were not immune to its menace. In several of the “Men and Boys” kind of groups formed to reflect and act on issues of toxic masculinity, the locker-room culture was much discussed, but mostly in respect to sports.
A few years ago, back in India, when I heard my six-year-old niece mentioning keeping her stuff in her locker in school, I think I exclaimed in a loud voice, “What! You have lockers at your school?” She was in an upscale school in one of the satellite townships to a large metropolitan city, and besides being mostly air conditioned, her school afforded its students lockers, both for their school essentials but also in their many sporting facilities.
It is hardly surprising that the ‘Bois Locker Room’ members were spread around the wealthy suburbs around Delhi. For, how else would they adopt and internalize a “foreign vocabulary” and concept with such ease, naturalness and purpose? Even if none of these students were athletes, they knew the import of what a ‘locker room culture’ connoted, beyond the confines of actual locker rooms.
Of course, this is a facile conclusion, and I admit I do not have data to back it up. But, I do have some personal experience of having attended one of the fancy, reputed, private schools in a big metropolitan area for my high school. And I can at least state that wealth and privilege did not translate to any admirable quality of moral rectitude, especially in regard to respect for women.
It was a “co-ed” school and something new for me, having come out of an all-boys, small-town, Jesuit school environment. I remember my fellow students often whispering and pointing to one of the girls in a scurrilous manner. The word was that she had been set upon by a group of boys and taken advantage of – in school. She had also been labeled as someone with “loose character.” But in her eyes I always read defiance…
I don’t remember any lists or online chat groups, because there were no cell phones back then (no public internet in India, as far as I remember) – it was more of a whisper-network. This was more than two decades ago. But, the fact that some traits considered as moral failings – the probablity to inflict sexual violence, for instance – are not the monopoly of any one class, especially one of the so-called “lower classes,” became abundantly clear.
The dominant narrative when engaging with issues of sexual violence in India is often comfortable with the image of the “lumpen” predators. As an example, here is a piece in a well-known newsmagazine commenting on the grisly incident earlier this year in Hyderabad and comparing it to the Nirbhaya case: “Both met tragic ends after being gangraped by lumpen elements working in public transport sector.” Another article from 2012, on the Nirbhaya incident, mentioned the “lumpen elements” as perpetrators but thankfully took into account “spoilt brats” as well: “On an average, two women get raped every weekday. The city’s rapists, ranging from lumpen bus drivers to spoilt brats, don’t spare anybody…”
The draw of finding someone we can naturally blame as one predisposed by various base natural traits to commit certain crimes remains very powerful. Our readiness to believe in the inherent moral inferiority of those below us in social and economic status is well illustrated in a piece titled “The Lumpen Bourgeoisie,” which explores how we are quick to pass judgements – and falsely implicate, for instance, domestic servants in cases of missing household items.
As various statistics have demonstrated, in most cases, the violence perpetrators are known to the survivor, if not belong within the same family. “One of the biggest misconceptions around rape is the ‘other-ing’ of both the criminal and the victim — that a ‘certain’ type of man rapes and a ‘certain’ type of woman gets raped (often under ‘certain’ circumstances). The overwhelming complicity of perpetrators in familial positions of power, or those who are known to victims, is grossly understated,” as one report puts it.
The class angle to the Bois Locker Room must be attended to carefully. Especially in India, where the rape of Dalit women and other bahujan women by the higher castes is a reality that is seldom spoken of. A few Indian films, like Ankur and Aakrosh have dealt with such issues of the self-justified and forceful possession of lower caste and lower class women’s bodies by those from the upper strata of society. However, this is a widespread reality, whose consequences we urbanites see only in newsreports about the rape of dalitbahujan women.
Such exercise of privilege is also common throughout the world. Some high-profile cases of sexual violence in the US, such as the ones in Stanford University, the New Hampshire prep-school, University of Montana (Missoula), show that privileged students take it as their right to assume natural rights over women’s bodies.
While locating the Bois incident at the intersection of privilege and patriarchy seems quite straightforward, there seem to be additional sites of technology and culture that one must add to the matrix underlying such behavior. The last two are not unconnected to the first two; the access to technology and the seamless participation in a certain culture are related to a certain kind of privilege and entitlements.
The perceived necessity of a smartphone for most school going children in India’s is an accepted fact, especially among the more affluent classes. They can afford the smartphones for the entire family as needed and they also seem to favor the idea of “toys” for everyone. This maybe part of a consumerist tendency, maybe a form of keeping up with the joneses – at any rate, it does seem to be a desire for exhibitionism.
The smart phones – and access to the web – allow entry into spaces which are more likely populated with male-centric content than female-centric. The internet, unfortunately, is more male-oriented than female-oriented. Most channels of social intercourse, such as chat rooms, discussion boards etc are overwhelming for male users. As a Reddit (a hugely popular social media chat and discussion forum) user quoted in an article on internet usage patterns put it, not without some exaggeration though, “On the internet, everyone is a male.”
Such an unchaperoned, unmediated access to global locker room culture via the English language (which forms part of the cultural domain these kids find themselves in) can only reinforce whatever nascent ideas of such locker-room culture the Indian school-kids have, on account of their macho and privileged upbringing.
It is thus extremely important to place the Bois incident in its proper context of class, privilege, entitlement and hyper-masculine upbringing. This should give us an idea regarding the enabling environments of these school students – their familial settings, their social location, and the coordinates of their privilege.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar demonstrated in detail in his work, Revolution and Counter-revolution, how Brahminism imposed a patriarchal regime, by pushing the status of women to the bottom of the social hierarchy. As scholar Uma Chakravarthy has noted, “Caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the organising principles of the brahmanical social order and are closely interconnected.” And American author bell hooks spoke about “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” to encapsulate the different “interlocking systems of domination that define our reality.”
Maybe we can get a better insight into “Upper Caste Capitalist Patriarchy” by understanding the larger context of socio-economic privilege undergirding incidents like the Bois Locker Room.
Ananda tries to engage with various social issues through his writing. He is inspired by the works of B.R. Ambedkar.