The Rape of the Lock: A Mock Epic Revisited
"How do I cultivate freedom alongside discipline?" German philosopher Immanuel Kant asked in 1799. The question still remains valid in many sectors of life, especially in teaching. The incident of forced haircuts 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 the department head; a member of the university's disciplinary proctorial team; and a member of the university's highest decision-making body—the syndicate. As a teacher, she is supposed to educate her students, and probably more so given her anthropological background and her position at the university's Department of Cultural Heritage and Bangladesh Studies. In theory, she is a "source" of freedom, from which the next generation will learn to liberate their minds. Her administrative role, however, demands that she ensures that there is no deviation from the norms in order for the system to function. She is an "administrative tool" of her institution, through which discipline is manifested. How do we bridge her two functional roles? What is our role in discerning her position in the social structure within which she operates?
Let me focus on the tree before scanning the forest. Here's what the available information reveals: when some students of RUB's Department of Cultural Heritage and Bangladesh Studies demanded a spaced-out exam routine, the head of the department, Farhana Yeasmin Baten, put on her power cape. She argued that the exam schedule should not be revised, following which three exams had already taken place. Giving in to such demands would create precedence for students demanding to dictate official terms in future, she said. The application for a date change, signed by two-thirds of the students of the department, was ignored, resulting in protests much to her disliking. When these students were entering the exam halls, the teacher snipped the hair of some students—who allegedly had long hair, but apparently also of the ones who had been instigating the demand for change in the exam schedule. Previously, during her proctorial patrol, the teacher asked the students to fix their unkempt hair that perhaps had grown unruly during the long Covid-inflicted university closure. Locks of hair of about 14 to 16 students were awkwardly clipped, which made some of the students shave off their hair altogether. The image of a young man being shaved with a blade was posted on Facebook by the protesting students, and it did not take long for the news of "the rape of the lock" to go viral.
The teacher appeared on a TV talk show and faced some top journalists and human rights activists to outright deny her role in the forced hair-cutting. She deftly washed her hands off of the incident of the head-shaving—just like the Roman governor Pontius Pilate did during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Why "give the credit" to the teacher for the hair-cutting which was done by a professional barber? Not a bad ploy. Then again, can a university teacher act like a military drill sergeant, or the Puritan school principals who used to measure the length of skirts in missionary schools?
The centre of gravity shifted once many more students joined the protest: it was no longer a "depart-mental" issue—it went national, and potentially international. Resistance is the only logical outcome of exertion of power. Office buildings were vandalised; name-calling took place. Scores of students started a hunger strike for passive resistance to the "anarchist" pedagogical role of an educator. The university authority felt the media pressure; the University Grants Commission (UGC) demanded an investigation. CCTV footage showed the culprit's scissors in question, and the teacher now has been relieved of her duties. Students want more: they want the teacher to be fired. If you ask me, the teacher should be dismissed 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 lost locks of hair will testify against her when the judgement is being passed, and the revenge-justice coin may soon be flipped to bring the protesters to task for vandalising public property.
I am not here for a hair-splitting analysis of this particular incident based on some circumstantial evidence, or to assassinate the teacher's character or throw her under the wheels of a media bus based on some video clips smearing my Facebook wall.
I am rather interested in the inherent power structures in our daily lives. We are so used to conceptualising 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 nab a thief in action and make a citizen's arrest, you suddenly find yourself on a moral high ground. The person you captured has done something wrong, which gives you the "right" to manhandle them, humiliate them, or even shave off their hair. Maybe a moment earlier, the thief had the power to wriggle into your kitchen through the ventilator; they had the power to silently walk into your private space. Suddenly, when you capture them by the neck with a rod in your hand, the person becomes powerless. Your powerful cry has raised an 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. Do you reprimand a staff member or humiliate him in public for violating office rules? Your harsh words can be more damaging than actual physical pain.
The RUB student who took sleeping pills, unable to deal with his humiliation from the forced hair-cutting, will tell you that he is not dealing with a physical wound, but a psychological one. The student feels that he has been oppressed, while the perpetrator of power here thinks that her method of disciplining is a technique to improve the situation or to bring order to the system. When we take part in this discourse, we also feel that we are stemming the rot. Once the media bites and CCTV footage became available, the agency of the teacher changed. Instead of being the agent of power, the teacher became a subject to power. Those of us who are running a media trial, commenting on Facebook, writing about it, discussing it—all became a part of the power nexus. French philosopher Foucault called this phenomenon "capillary power" as it runs through the small veins of our social body.
This huge furore over "the rape of the lock" shows that we feel empowered to corner a young female assistant professor from a remote university, yet we dare not point fingers at larger wrongdoings. Our moral compass swings according to the power of the magnet we are dealing with. It's fine to play the moral police once in a while, but it's equally 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 ourselves in understanding the system that allowed such "disciplinary action" to take place in the first place. For that, we need to be more reflective on the power structure; off-the-cuff comments will add to sensationalism to give the media temporal agency, without bringing any qualitative change to the system. So, where do we change the dynamics of power if we have to think of an academic institution, where the teachers and the students are both valued and respected? What other institutions are linked with that academic institution?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.
Shamsad Mortuza is acting vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).