The rape of the lock: a false epic revisited

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Has the “power of discipline” shifted from the authorities of Rabindra University to its students? Photo: Collected

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Has the “power of discipline” shifted from the authorities of Rabindra University to its students? Photo: Collected

“How to cultivate freedom alongside discipline? The German philosopher Immanuel Kant asked in 1799. The question is still relevant in many areas of life, especially in education. The forced haircuts incident at Rabindra University, Bangladesh (RUB) in Sirajganj makes me revisit the role of a teacher who has been given a three-pronged agency: she is head of department; a member of the university’s disciplinary proctoration team; and a member of the university’s highest decision-making body, the union. As a teacher, she is supposed to educate her students, and probably more given her anthropological background and her position in the Department of Cultural Heritage and Bangladesh Studies at the university. In theory, she is a “source” of freedom, which the next generation will learn to free their minds from. However, her administrative role requires that she ensure that there is no deviation from standards for the system to function. It is an “administrative tool” of its institution, through which the discipline manifests itself. How to bridge the gap between its two functional roles? What is our role in the discernment of its position in the social structure within which it evolves?

Let me focus on the tree before I scan the forest. Here’s what the available information reveals: When some students at RUB’s Department of Cultural Heritage and Bangladesh Studies demanded a spaced-out exam routine, department head Farhana Yeasmin Baten donned her cloak of power. She argued that the review schedule should not be revised, as a result of which three reviews had already taken place. Giving in to such demands would set a precedent for students asking to dictate official terms in the future, she said. The request for a change of date, signed by two-thirds of the students in the department, was ignored, which displeased him. When these students entered the examination rooms, the professor cut the hair of some of the students – who were said to have long hair, but apparently also of those who had been behind the request for a change in the timetable. exams. Previously, during her proctoral patrol, the teacher had asked the students to fix their shaggy hair which may have become unruly during the lengthy closure of the university inflicted by Covid. Strands of hair from around 14 to 16 students were clipped awkwardly, causing some students to completely shave their hair. The image of a young man having a shave with a blade was posted on Facebook by the protesting students, and it didn’t take long for the news of the “lock rape” to go viral.

The teacher appeared on a TV show and clashed with some prominent journalists and human rights activists to categorically deny her role in the forced haircut. She deftly washed her hands of the head shaving incident, just as Roman governor Pontius Pilate did during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Why “give credit” to the professor for the haircut that was done by a professional barber? Not a bad ploy. Again, can a college professor act like a military drill sergeant, or the Puritan principals who measured the length of skirts in mission schools?

The center of gravity shifted once many more students joined the protest: it was no longer a “departmental” problem – it became national and potentially international. Resistance is the only logical outcome of the exercise of power. Office buildings have been vandalized; insults took place. Dozens of students have gone on hunger strike to passively resist the “anarchist” educational role of an educator. The university authority felt the media pressure; the University Scholarships Commission (UGC) has called for an investigation. CCTV footage has shown the offender’s scissors, and the teacher has now been relieved of her duties. Students want more: they want the teacher to be fired. If you ask me, the professor should be fired for lying in public; moral turpitude and madness are two grounds on which a public official can be dismissed. She can be fined or suspended for her excessive use of power. And the locks of lost hair will testify against her when judgment is handed down, and the revenge-justice coin may soon be flipped to berate protesters for vandalizing public property.

I’m not here for a mind-boggling analysis of this particular incident on the basis of circumstantial evidence, or to murder the teacher’s character or throw her under the wheels of a media bus based on video clips smearing my Facebook wall .

I am more interested in the power structures inherent in our daily life. We are so used to conceptualizing power as a manifestation of authority, where one group or individual assumes control or asserts supremacy over another. Power is a slippery slope. Say, you catch a thief in action and make the arrest of a citizen, suddenly you find yourself on high moral ground. The person you’ve captured has done something wrong, which gives you the “right” to abuse, humiliate, or even shave their hair. Maybe a moment earlier the thief had the power to sneak into your kitchen through the fan; they had the power to silently enter your private space. Suddenly, when you capture them by the neck with a rod in your hand, the person becomes helpless. Your mighty scream has sounded the alarm and an angry mob is now empowered to lynch the criminal. Say, you are an office boss, and it is your office policy not to wear long hair. Are you berating a staff member or humiliating them in public for breaking office rules? Your harsh words can be more damaging than actual physical pain.

The RUB student who took sleeping pills, unable to endure his humiliation from the forced haircut, will tell you that he is not dealing with a physical injury, but a psychological one. The student feels oppressed, while the author of power here thinks that his method of discipline is a technique for improving the situation or bringing order to the system. When we participate in this discourse, we also have the feeling of stemming the rot. Once the media clippings and CCTV footage became available, the teacher’s agency changed. Instead of being the agent of power, the teacher has become a subject of power. Those of us who run a media essay, comment on Facebook, write about it, discuss it, it’s all become part of the power link. The French philosopher Foucault called this phenomenon “capillary power” because it runs through the small veins of our social body.

This huge fury over the “rape of the lock” shows that we feel empowered to corner a young assistant professor at a distant university, but we dare not point the finger at larger wrongdoing. Our moral compass oscillates according to the power of the magnet we are dealing with. It’s fine to play moral policing every once in a while, but just as important to be aware of the totem pole in which we exist. We don’t need to justify anyone’s action, but we certainly need to invest in understanding the system that allowed such “disciplinary action” to take place in the first place. For this we need to be more reflective about the power structure; unannounced comments will add sensationalism to give the media a time agency, without making any qualitative change to the system. So where do we change the power dynamic if we are to think of an academic institution, where teachers and students are both valued and respected? What other institutions are linked to this academic institution?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Shamsad Mortuza is Acting Vice Chancellor of the Bangladesh Liberal Arts University (ULAB) and Professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).


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