Moral policing refers to the act of enforcing certain kinds of moral values, often based on religious, social, or cultural norms. It is often intrusive and coercive, and can take the forms of public shaming, harassment, and discrimination. It generally stems from a few individuals’ need to impose their beliefs on the whole of society. One would think that an evidently outdated practice such as moral policing would be obsolete or at least be controlled and confined to a few pockets. However, in today’s society, moral policing is alive and kicking, even in so-called ‘progressive’ spaces like the IIT-M campus.
Moral Policing on the Campus
There have been several incidents of moral policing on campus. In recent years, two such incidents and the authorities’ responses to them have shocked and appalled the student community and engendered significant outrage.
Staff Member Caught Clicking Pictures (2018)
A staff member was caught clicking pictures and videos of a male and female student hugging. When confronted by the students, he denied any wrongdoing on his part, and refused to delete the pictures. He further told the students that their behavior was ‘immoral’.
The extent of the authority’s reaction to this incident was to confiscate his phone and delete the pictures and videos. He was let off without any serious consequences and the girl, when she demanded action from the authorities, was told to concentrate on her studies and dress ‘properly’. Subsequently, students organised ‘Hug Day’ in protest against the rising incidents of moral policing and harassment. They urged the Dean to address and resolve the issue.
Sexual Harassment (2022)
The student community was made aware of an incident of sexual harassment through smail around midnight on 26th July 2022. A girl was ambushed on her way back to the hostel at night and had to fight off the assailant, sustaining physical and mental trauma.
This was followed by a spate of emails from concerned students, condemning the administration for letting such incidents occur and entreating them to implement measures to prevent this from happening again. The authorities, following previous patterns, responded with thinly veiled victim blaming and ‘security measures’ that restricted the mobility and freedom of female students. The result was blatant moral policing.
In one particular incident, a girl out with male friends near the Gajendra Circle bus stop, was told to return to her hostel as it ‘wasn’t safe for girls to be out late at night’. When questioned, they said that it was ‘for her own good’ as there were dangerous people wandering about at night. They didn’t have an answer for why they weren’t directing their efforts towards apprehending these offenders instead of moral policing.
This tendency of the administration to pick the ‘easier’ way out at the cost of student’s freedom and independence only results in the institutionalisation of misogyny and the propagation of authoritarian culture. There is no notable reduction in the occurrence of untoward incidents.
The Present Situation
Despite the repeated appeals from the student community to the administration, the phenomenon of moral policing shows no signs of stopping. In the name of vigilance, officials randomly barge into students’ rooms, go through their things, and confiscate objects that don’t fit with their moral code. This can include substances or, God forbid, anything to do with sex, including contraceptives. This flagrant and unapologetic violation of the only relatively private space we have on campus is aggravated by the shaming, sometimes public, that accompanies it. The situation worsens when women visit men’s hostels. Students are made to feel guilty and harassed for no fault of theirs, just because some officer decided to assume a moral high ground.
This is a clear manifestation of the stigma surrounding sexuality and alcohol consumption in the larger Indian society, based on deep-rooted values and beliefs. Instead of spreading education and awareness about safe sexual practices and responsible drinking, society humiliates people, especially the younger generation, for this. The laws prohibiting consumption stem from the same stigma. Women are deemed to be able to marry and raise a family at 18, but, in the eyes of law, they can’t handle some alcohol. Moreover, women’s sexual freedom and pleasure are severely condemned and restricted in the name of morals. Under the guise of preserving morality, the patriarchal system forbids women from exploring, expressing, and enjoying their sexuality without fear or shame. In addition, students’ movements inside and outside the campus are closely monitored through the many registers that we sign every day. Women, in particular, have to note down the times and purposes of their movements outside the hostel after 10 PM. This seems to serve no purpose other than ensure that the students know that they are never out of sight of the administration.
In correspondence with T5E regarding this issue, a guard posted at one of the girls’ hostels stated that the registers allow them to ensure security by letting them know if everyone has returned to the hostel safely. This might seem like a reasonable justification if it was actually enacted. The registers aren’t checked for the closing entry until morning, if they are checked at all. Hence, the effectiveness of the ‘security measure’ is indeed questionable. It certainly couldn’t prevent the recent break-in the residents of Sabarmati Hostel were subjected to. Moreover, there is the fact that this rule is not strictly enforced in the boys’ hostels. Aren’t security measures supposed to be equally enforced, irrespective of gender?
The moral police come down especially hard on female students out at night with male friends. According to statements collected from students, there have been instances of security guards not allowing them to sit together and stopping them at Gajendra Circle when they attempted to walk along one of the roads leading to the main gate.
More concerning are the incidents where men not in uniform, nothing connecting them to the institute, in fact, take it upon themselves to ‘discipline’ students within the campus, claiming to be security guards. On one occasion, late at night, a guy on a motorcycle, came upon a male and female student minding their own business and proceeded to subject them to an ostentatious display of moral superiority, wherein he forced them to show identification (while he had none whatsoever), go back to their hostels, and even went so far as to tell one of the students to cut his hair.
Another time, a girl hugging her guy friend became the target of two vigilantes, who self-righteously descended on her, lecturing her about public displays of affection and told her ‘The Zomato people will see’. It was clearly a baseless and flimsy explanation, proving that no excuse is too petty for the moral police if it furthers their agenda, which seems to be shaming people for living their lives.
If these men are indeed security guards of the institute, then they should be told to refrain from moral policing. If they are outsiders, then it is testament to what happens when the security detail is more focused on enforcing moral codes rather than keeping the campus safe from intruders.
Those who engage in moral policing are generally motivated by delusions of enacting some noble purpose, soldiering tirelessly for the well-being of society. Instead, moral policing should be seen for what it is, that is, an infringement of individual rights, freedom, and privacy, and harassment. The ethical codes of a few shouldn’t be forced on the many. Those who partake in moral policing need to understand that culture evolves, and traditions change, instead of stubbornly clinging to the last vestiges of archaic beliefs and morals that lend them power and authority.
Edited by Aditi Rathore