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Of gendered spaces and absolute equality.

An interview of The SUS President for the year, Aina Singh.

The interview team comprises Rishi Bryan (IInd English), Urvi Khaitan (IInd History), Havisha Khurana (IInd Maths), Noel Corera (Ist B.A.P), Benjamin Harry Clarance (Ist English) and Ishita Blest (Ist English). This interview was conducted on the 11th of September. Yes, that’s right. 9/11.

Rishi Bryan: So, Aina, how does it feel to be the second female president of the SUS, ever, in the history of the SUS?

Aina Singh: It feels strange, that I’m the second president. I didn’t know this before I became president. I just thought that a girl hasn’t been made president in a while, but, now that I know this, its very disturbing, And I’ve been talking to a few teachers, I’ve actually talked to the girl herself recently, she’s teaching history now. She has horror stories, and it’s just sad. I don’t know why this is happening, is it specifically in the college or society in general, but instead of being happy I’m just sad that I’m the only other person who became president and that also not by elections, so if there were elections I would not have won and there would have been only one female president in the history of St. Stephen’s college SUS elections.

“Maybe this place needs this, needs somebody they hate, to do stuff they hate, because there are some things that I think are actually good for the people here, that a lot of people don’t agree with.”

Rishi: So you’re sad about being the president rather than being excited about being president?

Aina: I’m excited about being female president, but I’m sad about being the second female president ever.

Rishi: That’s a good way to put it! So tell us about that fateful day when the whole of college woke up to that notice put up on the board announcing the results and what was your initial reaction to it?

Aina: So, there is this friend of mine who is a part of the whatsapp group for the Wodehouse Society, I’m not. So, I didn’t have a campaign and I didn’t really have a support group. I tried to build one but because of certain issues of my own I hadn’t have any time to do this so I decided a week before the last day for nominations that I wanted to be nominated, so I told my friends that I’ll go to open court and talk about a few things and that will essentially be my aim. My aim is not to get anything more than that out of this because I know I won’t get it.

Rishi: So wait, a very frank question to ask right now would be, did you expect to, or did you even want to become president?

Aina: I wanted to from the first year, but I did not expect to, because I knew I would never have the support base, also because, let’s be honest, you don’t get a support base because you’ll become a good president, I think you get support base because you please people in some way or the other and I don’t think it’s specific to this college, I mean look at the DUSU elections, it happens everywhere. So my friends told me that Wodehouse is planning to have a mock candidate and maybe you can be that candidate.

Rishi: People were talking about how your actual aim was to go into open court and talk about things that you thought had to be talked about.

Aina: Yes, that was my aim. So, when this thing came out about the notice and a bunch of people started calling me up (and yes I took all those calls), and on facebook also, people started messaging me saying that you have become president, and I said no it’s a Wodehouse prank. Wodehouse has been planning a prank and since they could not find a mock candidate, they have come out with the notice and people said “but there is Ayde Sir’s sign on it”, but Ayde Sir is a jolly fellow, he might as well just be in on the prank. But then I went out and everybody was standing there and the principal came out twice and said that Aina Singh is now the president. So then I was like “okay”.

Rishi: What exactly did you feel at that moment when you realized that you were president?

Aina: My first reaction was “I can’t be president, I’m resigning, and I can’t handle this, I don’t have a union. I have a manifesto, but it’s not been made like people make it for campaigning. It’s just a paragraph or two of what I think about the world. So my first reaction was I can’t do this, and secondly I thought that the president needs to be in campus a lot and I live in South Delhi, in Saket. So, my first reaction was “I cant do this”.

Rishi: What made you think otherwise?

Aina: So, I came out into the crowd and this person who I cannot name came up to me and said “you are shaking”. I replied saying “Yes, I’m nervous”, and he replied saying “Why don’t you resign?”, and that was when I knew maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe this place needs this, needs somebody they hate, to do stuff they hate, because there are some things that I think are actually good for the people here, that a lot of people don’t agree with, not because it’s not good for them but because it doesn’t affect them directly. So, they are looking at their own self interests. I felt this place needs someone like me. I know it’s a bit narcissistic to say, but given the circumstances, it felt like the right thing to do at that moment.

Ishita Blest: So, the very first thing that I noticed about your manifesto was its name, “S.C.U.M.”. I would want to know what exactly SCUM stands for?

Aina: Firstly, SCUM stands for nothing. It’s a word. All these theories about how it stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men” are not true. So, where did you get that manifesto from?

Ishita: (unsure) We were given the manifesto, I think.

Aina: By whom?

Havisha: By me.

Aina: And where did she get it? I mailed it to her right? So it wasn’t a public manifesto right? I mailed it to my friends and members of my proposed cabinet, and with people whom I wanted to know the manifesto and give me feedback and join my union if they wanted to. It was not a public manifesto. My final manifesto, which is just the same thing except in more polite language, he (Mr. Ayde) has it and he said he will put it up, but I don’t know, there was some rule because of which you can’t put up the manifesto. So, whatever, he has my final manifesto which is essentially the same thing, just in more formal language. So, if I’m giving out my manifesto to my friends and cracking a joke, must the entire college take that joke so seriously? So the joke that was going around, rather the rumour that was doing rounds was that I was married and I’m some man – hating, baby – eating feminist, and then simultaneously this book called “Scum”, and I’ve read it and I’m really inspired by it, not by the radical notions of it, but by the problems she describes. So it was a joke I was cracking with my own friends saying that it was the scum manifesto, except that the whole college took it so seriously, that it became even funnier. The fact that you are still asking me this question is just funny. It was a joke.

Noel Corera: How do you intend on conducting speedy and fast survey monkey (a website which provides data gathering services) polls? As, in my opinion, it will be a long and cumbersome process, because I, for myself saw for how long the student union council elections were held. So, how do you intend on conducting speedy elections every time an important decision pertaining to us students needs to be taken?

Aina: When I said survey monkey polls, I meant whatever is speediest. Even if it’s a google doc, like whatever is fastest. Even if it is issues happening about the evening tea and whether people want to volunteer for making it or not, So I’m holding a meeting today at 5 in the SCR lawns, so I’ll do whatever is fastest for the main discussions that affect the student body directly. There are some things that I can argue for with the college directly, but if there are some things that I feel it’s not my place to make any value judgement about, then I’ll follow whatever is the fastest way, whether it’s the survey monkey polls, or meeting them directly. We are building an email database, but not a lot of people are co-operating, so it’s happening.

Rishi:  May we know who your camp is and who the people you’re working with are?

Aina: I don’t have a camp, I have a cabinet. There were 34 people but I think 2 left, but the list is up. So, there is Suchishmita Panda, Aditya Chaturvedi, Annalisa, Lina among the third years. Among the second years there is Raghav Pangasa, who is treasurer, Apratim and a number of people. We don’t have any first years. I don’t think that’s even a good idea. We will be taking first year volunteers though.

Rishi: So, just by the names you were mentioning, I noticed that there are many more women in the cabinet than men?

Aina: (firmly) Would you ask me this question if there were many more men? So, this is a thing right, if you produce a play with all men people just think, ‘oh! it was the requirement of the script’; if you have a council of most men people just think, ‘oh more men turned up’; if you have anything with more women, they ask you why?

Rishi: But is it a stance or…?

Aina: No, I just have more females friends, men tend to not like me too much! So, I just asked my own friends to join. So, let me make a larger point while trying to not sound too pretentious about it: people who have lesser privilege in terms of anything (gender, caste, economics, etc.) tend to have more sympathy for equality. And I am really big on the whole inclusivity (sic) thing so I will obviously take more people who have, if not the exact same opinions (as me), are at least as sensitive as I want them to be and more of such people just happen to be women. I don’t think it’s anything I should be ashamed of or explain.

Rishi: No, we didn’t mean…

Aina: I am not saying you are saying it.

Urvi Khaitan: One of the points you raised with regards to the improvement of the mess facilities mentioned an ‘economic privilege based’ increase in fees. So, what exactly did you mean by this?

Aina: See, firstly I’m not sure if it is my place to even say this. So this manifesto, again, was not the final one. I have not included this in the final one because this was just what I was circulating amongst my friends and it also kept growing everyday, this was really not final. And you can have a manifesto before the elections but after the elections you really can’t have a blueprint where you say that I will do this- nothing more and nothing less. Now, to answer your question, we have already had the mess committee meeting and the question keeps coming up- oh! you want better food and all but we don’t have the money- because they are functioning on a Rs. 99 per person per day budget. So, I also feel that this was a little unless for me to suggest because anyway the food is subsidised. If there are people who can’t afford a Rs. 99 per day, other people are paying a little more for them that they don’t have a choice of… the college decides this, India is also working on a subsidised system with progressive taxation. So, I don’t even think that there was a point of me mentioning this. I just mentioned this because way too many people were asking me- oh! you know, some people can’t afford it, so what will you do? So then I said obviously, it will be raised for people who can.

Noel: The library is a silent place, so don’t you think installing a photocopy machine would violate that?

Aina: Not all photocopy machines are loud.

Noel: How will you conjure up the funds required for the same?

Aina: Funds is a problem with everything but, a lot of people are willing to give sponsorship. It just needs to fall within the ambit of what the college wants from its sponsors because the college also has certain rules. So, it is a tricky question- funds is a tricky question. But, it’s not that expensive if we can get the funds and the college gives the permission, we can totally have a photocopy machine. Also, there are a number of rooms at the bottom where you can keep the machine. You don’t have to keep it bang in the middle where it will disturb everybody. Plus, the point of taking the book out, photocopying it, and getting it back, you also have to issue it. And this is there in so many libraries across the world. You just photocopy the book in the library itself. I don’t think that’s really a valid point that it will be noisy.

Rishi: The GCR (the Gentlemen’s Common Room), why do you want to come up with something like that?

Aina: Okay, so side note: the union room is no longer there with us. We are sharing a room with people so I’m not sure how we are going to do this.

Rishi: what was your intent?

Aina: My intent was to… So I was talking about gender equality and I was talking about it in a number of ways. So, every time a woman talks about gender equality or at least most of the times, she says that women should have this and that. Men, then, come up and say, ‘oh! there are certain privileges women have. Why don’t men have those privileges? One of the things that was talked about was microwaves- the only privilege that Rud North has and Mukh East doesn’t is a microwave. You want that, take the curfew and the night outs ban as well. You only want the microwave. So, in that same conversation, this thing of saying, ‘oh! you have an LCR we don’t have a GCR. So, here, have a GCR but do you realise that you don’t need it. It’s a privilege to not need a place to change. So, this was just symbolic.

Rishi: Is this your way of being politically correct than absolutely…

Aina: The term ‘politically correct’- it’s so debatable. Does it mean that you are being fair to everybody or does it mean you are being diplomatic? I try to be fair and not diplomatic so if you call that politically correct then-

Rishi: It’s not really a necessity for the men. Do you think that men would go sit in a place where-

Aina: Probably not! At the same time, somebody like me would also not go to the LCR if I had any other place to like sleep or whatever. There are a number of women who don’t want a place like that but, it’s not about what you want, it’s about the culture of hiding and enclosing and having a separate space that is problematic. Spaces are very gendered- since,we are having gender conversations- if you are looking at equality why aren’t you looking at either de-gendering spaces or, if you have to have gendered spaces, why not have both? Whether they get used or not is, obviously, different but, it’s more symbolic than being literally there. Nobody might use it but it’s something to think about. We don’t have the union rooms, so I am not sure how we going to do this but, we will find a way.

Urvi: One of the reasons that the LCR exists is because a lot of the day scholars are not allowed to enter girls’ residence. So, is there anyway we can depoliticise this entire concept of residence and make it more transparent. Will you be able to establish dialogue with the college for that?

Aina: Not yet, I have not yet been able to establish a dialogue. I have given them a letter asking for microwaves saying that the resident girls will pay Rs.100 each which will get them a microwave if the college cannot get the funds. (Update: The girls’ blocks got new microwave ovens after this interview was taken). I haven’t received it back yet but I know that it is being forwarded, so it’s being talked upon. The dean has forwarded it to the principal. So I am trying to have that conversation, let’s see how far I get.

Ishita: How do you plan on making ‘unicolor’ more vibrant? Why do plan to invite eminent guests only from the North East?

Aina: So I was thinking of the cultural separatism that’s happening in the college, like Haryana day, which should not happen and so, the Union will not organize it. If anybody wants to organize it, they can. There are certain cultures which are being oppressed and some of them are privileged. Now I want to make changes in my own ambit so things get better in Stephens. I realize that north eastern people do not have any problems. I was trying to work on some ideas but was not sure. There was a function called ‘Unicolor’ showcasing the culture of north east, organized by Spic Macay, last year. The politics of it was a bit weird, like cut-out Naga headgear, which is totally culture appropriation but the emphasis was on a band and a fashion show and that’s it. It was very nice and good but their concept had to be larger. If we talk about the North East and how its culture has to be showcased, why aren’t we talking about the problems that they face? We can’t project something that’s nice and forget something crucial like the problems. But now I realize is that there is not such a big problem to the people in Stephens, but other things are. So now I am looking for a cultural day. It’s still in a very working condition in which you can come as whichever culture you want to dress up as. So we have something as a Cultural Committee which might not really work because people might not actually come and say, “Hey I am being discriminated.” The fact is that, the committee will just be there symbolically, so if something wrong happens I can actually help.

Benjamin: So you were talking a lot about the trans-gendered, but since we do not have any trans-gendered people here…

Aina: How do we know that?

Benjamin: Are there any ways of finding out if there are any?

Aina: Society and culture invisibilises (sic) transgender people that are why you are asking me this question. Do you know everybody in college? Delhi University last year said that we welcome transgender students. Our college principal put up a status on Facebook saying about how Stephens has a history of welcoming all sorts of heterogeneity, and rightly so. If we plan on formally receive them, I believe that there must be some of them right here. Because what is transgender? We need to know who they are. Does it simply mean you were born with certain organs and identify with the other gender. There is a global debate going on about it. So my question just is, are we giving them comfort enough to identify themselves as transgender. That’s just a conversation I want to talk about in the council meeting, if that is the right place to talk about it. There is a structural problem that there is no right place to talk about these things. So I have put these ideas forth and I mean to have a conversation about these things even if they yield no result.

Rishi: There has been a rumor that you plan to restrict the freedom of movement of boys in residence after a certain time. Are you trying to put a curfew on the boys?

Aina: Yes, it is in my rough manifesto. All I said was same rules apply for all. Now one thing that has been picked up is that “how dare she restrict the freedom of movement of boys?” Where’s the indignation when girls have been locked up for the last 30 years with no food at all? And where is all this indignation that we will shut down the Science Dhaba after 10? I have not yet had a talk with the college about it. I have not started the conversation with the college. College has a view that we cannot remove the curfew from the girls because of their safety. I believe safe spaces are a very politicised concept. Spaces can be made safe only if the girls are let out especially within the college, since it is the responsibility of the college that nothing happens to anybody. If there has to be any rule why does it not apply to all? After 10, if the spaces outside the rooms become such a terrifying space, why are they not for the boys? I do not have anything against the boys. Some of them are my friends. You should put the rules for everybody. People are saying that Aina is going to impose a curfew, who am I to do that? I don’t have that sort of powers. All I can do is request the college. The college might not want to talk about that at all. It’s just something I intent to talk about. My intention is absolute equality.

Urvi: So you plan to conduct an audit to determine how disable friendly the college is, which will be done for free by an NGO. So, the college already has a lot of requirements. What steps are you planning to take?

Aina: Ayde Sir said that he would look into the proposal and it will be the principal’s final call. They have been a number of things such as the braille printer and Ayde sir was very happy about it. The college would be able to afford it themselves. But what we realized is that blind people have stopped reading braille. That’s 80,000 saved. Now what we need to do is that everybody has laptops which most of them do. And that we have all the email IDs and we send them mails every day which we have started to do now.

Urvi: There is an empty unused room right next to the college hall called Samvedna of the equal opportunity cell meant for disabled students. So instead of formulating another society, why not revive the former?

Aina: We are not formulating another society; we have a committee that will look after it. For example, there is an empty braille notice board. But since we don’t need braille I would like to take that title off so we don’t look stupid. There are a number things that have to be done let’s see what I can do in this one year.

Rishi: So this is the most trivial questions of all the questions I have been asking you so far. Do you have a plan for the fests, Harmony and Cappricio, yet?

Aina: When we talked about Capriccio, we were told that we would not talk about it anymore. It would mean angering the college. The college has very firm reasons for why it will not conduct the fest. I don’t know the reasons, but it is very firmly decided by the college not to conduct it. We will try to conduct Harmony as vibrantly as can be. People from our cabinet have a lot of contact from bands and associations so that they can make it livelier. I think the union in the past few years has been centered only on harmony and sweat shirts. It’s not that difficult to organize it. Yes for 5 days we have to probably sleep in the college hall. But it’s just 5 days. We can’t tell the college that we’ll give you a great Harmony is what we’ll do throughout the year. Harmony is a simple thing. People give sponsorship, college takes sponsorship. Harmony happens; some 100 people come, dance for 5 minutes and then go back. Other people are not even allowed in the college so it’s not a big deal. It’s just made into a big deal.

The Interview team thanks Aina for her time. Aina confesses that the interview team went a lot easier on her than she thought it would.


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