NEW DELHI: The Gujarat Mahila Manch released a statement on February 14 against the “outrageous” act of “dehumanizing young women students” at the Shri Sahajanand Girls’ Institute in Bhuj, Gujarat. The Manch, a women’s collective comprising civil rights activists and organisations, has condemned the college administration’s alleged act of forcing 68 young women students to remove their underwear to prove they were not menstruating.

Nirjhari Sinha, a member of the Gujarat Mahila Manch, told The Citizen that after the “shameful” incident that is “against the independence of women”, the Manch has collected over 1,200 signatures and will be raising the issue with the Gujarat State Commission for Women as well as the National Commission for Women. “This is an attack on women’s rights… It needs to be opposed,” she said.

The incident allegedly took place on Thursday, February 13 after the hostel rector complained to the principal that the women students were violating “religious norms” of the institute. The Ahmedabad Mirror reported that the warden allegedly accused students of entering the temple within college premises “and even touching fellow students” while menstruating.

According to reports, authorities then “paraded” the young women from the college to the restroom, and forced each of them to remove their underwear.

“The incident clearly violates the basic rights of the young women, and as per the law it outrages their modesty, causing them mental trauma. It amounts to sexual harassment,” the Gujarat Mahila Manch’s statement reads.

“The hostel administration levelled this allegation and insulted us on Wednesday. On Thursday, when we were attending lectures, the rector Anjaliben called the principal and complained about this. We were forced to leave our classrooms and queue up outside in the passage. The principal abused and insulted us, asking which of us were having our periods. Two of us who were menstruating stepped aside,” a student told the Ahmedabad Mirror.

College authorities then took the women to the restroom, where female teachers asked them to remove their undergarments, the student said. The report records another student stating, “We come from far-flung villages. The college campus houses a school that runs classes from Class 1 to 12. They provide hostel facilities to the school students. The college does not have its own hostel. We live with the school kids in their hostel.”

“The principal, hostel rector and trustees harass us regularly over the issue of menstruation. We are punished for having periods,” she said.

The incident led to students protesting the actions of the college administration. Trustee Pravin Pindoria allegedly informed the protesting students that they could take legal action, but would have to leave the hostel first. According to reports a student further claimed that Pindoria forced them to sign a letter stating that “nothing had happened” in the college.

The Shri Sahajanand Girls’ Institute is affiliated to the Krantiguru Shyamji Krishna Verma Kutch University. According to the Gujarat Mahila Manch, the institute proclaims its mission to be “self-development and empowerment of girls through scientific and value-based education.” Most students at the institute hail from remote villages, attending SSGI primarily due to the hostel facilities available on campus.

The charitable hostel, for which a nominal fee is charged, is run by the Swaminarayan sect—a “very powerful sect in Gujarat” in Sinha’s words. All women are expected to strictly adhere to the sect’s norms while residing in the hostel. These norms include prohibiting women who are menstruating from entering the temple or kitchen, or touching fellow students.

“While multiple activist groups are fighting against the taboo attached to menstruation, such incidents again reinforce the redundant and unscientific idea of women being dirty while they menstruate,” the Gujarat Mahila Manch stated.

Sinha told The Citizen that, “Even if some houses are practising it in the villages, that does not mean it can be imposed in an educational institution. On top of it, you undress them. This act is criminal.”

“At an educational institute where the young women are under the custody of such a warden, their safety clearly is compromised. The warden is the one in charge of students’ safety and she herself has orchestrated this inhuman act as reported,” the statement continues. The Manch further alleges that the trustees have also reportedly supported the act and are “more concerned about upholding the norms of the sect”.

Sinha believes that such incidents, especially when young women are forced to sit separately when they attend class to study, cause mental trauma and affect the girls’ ability to undertake higher education. “It is for us to decide whether we are fit to work or fit to go to college. We don’t give our rights to somebody else. They cannot force isolation,” she said.

“Maybe some girls do face problems, but it doesn’t mean we become immobile during that time. With a little medication we can always go and work. Women work till the last day of their pregnancy. The decision should be left to the women.They are not going to impose this on us,” Sinha told The Citizen.

According to the Gujarat Mahila Manch statement, an FIR has been registered. The complaint was filed by activists, Sinha clarified. Media reports state that the women students did not file a police complaint as the college administration allegedly called the students’ parents, and “emotionally blackmailed” them stating this was a “religious matter” that did not warrant police attention.

The Ahmedabad Mirror reported Trustee P.H.Hirani as stating, “We run a charitable organisation and take token fee. As the institute has a temple on campus, the girls have been instructed to follow the sect’s rules. However, what happened to the students is unfair. Action will be taken.”

Meanwhile, the Vice-Chancellor of the Krantiguru Shyamji Krishna Verma Kutch University, Darshana Dholakiya has reportedly set up a fact-finding committee to investigate the matter further. “We will take strict action against whoever is responsible for this kind of behaviour,” Dholakiya told the press.

But this is not the first such reported incident. Students at SSGI alleged that they have consistently faced harassment at the hands of the college administration, and a similar incident was reported from UP in April 2017. A warden at the Kasturba Gandhi Junior Residential School in Khatauli spotted blood on the door of the toilet. She then forced 70 young students, aged 12 to 14 years, to “strip naked” to check if they were menstruating. The warden was later removed from her post.

“If the incident is not nipped in the bud, more young girls will be curbed from pursuing further education,” Gujarat Mahila Manch stated. As a group of women who have been part of the women’s movement for several years, the Manch has demanded that the warden be removed and immediate action be taken against all those who justified the act.

Further, the Manch also stipulated counselling sessions for the women who “have been traumatized by the incident”, urging all educational institutions to ensure they create a secular and safe environment for their students.