A 19-year-old girl appearing for an examination in Assam was made to wrap a curtain around her legs by an invigilator who chafed at her wearing shorts, provoking outrage and allegations of gender bias, and prompting university authorities to order an inquiry.
The girl's family has, however, decided against taking the matter further in the interest of her mental well-being and academic future.
The incident occurred on Wednesday when the girl had gone from her hometown Biswanath Chariali to Tezpur to appear for the entrance examination of the Assam Agricultural University (AAU). She had unhindered access to the venue but an invigilator inside the examination hall objected to her wearing short pants.
Her father Babul Tamuli told PTI on Friday that after the invigilator at Girijananda Chowdhury Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences told her that she will not be allowed to appear for the exam wearing shorts, she took up the matter with the authorities there and insisted no dress code was mentioned on the admit card. She also told them she had appeared in the NEET exams recently in shorts.
However, as they were unrelenting, the girl rushed to her father waiting outside the venue. Tamuli made a dash for the nearest market to buy a pair of trousers. But before he could return with trousers the authorities had provided the girl a curtain to wrap around her legs which she did and wrote her paper.
"My daughter was traumatised and spoke to a few local journalists about the humiliating incident and the issue became viral on social media. There are many who have condemned the incident but many have attacked my daughter for not following a dress code in an educational institution which has left her more mentally disturbed," Tamuli said.
He said despite suggestions by many people to press for action against the authorities the family has decided to put the matter to rest. "We have decided not to proceed further and let the matter rest here in the interest of my daughter's mental well-being. We want her to concentrate on her academic future," he added.
The AAU has, however, constituted a three-member committee to inquire into the "unfortunate incident". Its registrar Tapan Kumar Gohain said the panel headed by dean of the agriculture faculty will conduct the probe and submit its report in 10 days. He said the university had issued no dress code for the students appearing for the examination.
The issue left many seething with anger over the "humiliating incident".
Congress spokesperson Bobbeeta Sarma said not allowing a young girl to sit for an examination just because she was wearing shorts is "making a mountain out of a molehill and amounts to mental harassment of the student just before her exams. I feel sorry that society has become so regressive about what a girl wears. Such a mindset is dangerous for the safety and security of girls".
The backlash in social media against the girl, chiding her for not being "cultured enough to not know where to wear what" is more alarming, she told PTI.
Gender rights activist Anurita Hazarika of North East Network dubbed the incident as "outrageous and a criminal offence". "Who defines modesty and decides for women? Would a boy be dealt with in the same manner if he had entered the examination hall wearing shorts or was the girl singled out for her gender?" she asked.
She said if a curtain was forcibly wrapped around the girl by a male invigilator, it can amount to sexual harassment. She said such behaviour is totally unacceptable.
Guwahati University professor in the department of women's studies Polly Vauquiline told PTI that the matter could have been handled by the authorities in a "sensitive manner". Wrapping a curtain around the student was stretching the matter too far when her father had already gone to the market to purchase the trousers, she said.
Vauquiline said, at the same time, it must be understood that certain norms are followed in educational and other public institutions, and even if one feels they are not fair, a formal dress code must be maintained by students, teachers and others concerned.
Professor of mass communication Jayanta Sarma of K K Handique State Open University (KKHSOU) said the incident reflects the society's mindset and the fact that the real priorities have been forgotten and importance is given to trivial issues. "Decency is a subjective matter and there is no law that bars a girl from wearing shorts," he said.
He also lauded the girl's father for supporting her through the "traumatic and humiliating" experience, and urged people to give up "Taliban-like attitude".
Prominent Assamese actor and social activist Akashitora Saikia said the incident was a reflection of a typical "patriarchal society" and asserted acceptance of a person should not be linked to his or her costume. "This negative narrative must be nipped and the polluted mindset of puritans should not be allowed to impact the younger generation which is very, very vocal and focused on its goals".
Eminent journalist and editor of web magazine NEZINE.com Sushanta Talukdar said the incident was not just regressive but "manifestation of a patriarchal mindset rooted in colonial, medieval outlook of imposing dress and other cultural codes on women to deprive them of equal rights and opportunities".