A Bond of Protection

On the 23rd of August 2017, Project: White Rakhi 2017, was launched across a number of university campuses in Australia. The initially launch was held at the University of Technology, Sydney with subsequent events held at RMIT, Melbourne; University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney. Students were joined by Members of Parliament, University Representatives and Community Leaders in launching the campaign in response to the recent Australian Human Rights Commission Report Change the course: National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities, 2017.

Notable guests associated with the campaign included; Academics Professor. Shirley Alexander Deputy Vice Chancellor and Ms. Heather Miller of UTS, NSW Parliamentarian’s – Hon. Sophie Costs MP, Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism and Women, Member for Canterbury as well as Dr. Mehreen Faruqi MLC, Greens Spokesperson. The event was also supported by a number of community leaders, including Mrs. Sue Advani of Seva International & Womens Chair of UIA, Mr. Amar Singh of Turbans for Australia, Mr. Byron Danby of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and Prominent White Ribbon Ambassador and Artist Mr. Sukhdeep Singh, L-Fresh the Lion. Joining L- Fresh were White Ribbon Australia, representatives Mr. Petersen Opio, Ms. Hikari So and Mrs. Sunila Kotwal.

Akshay Raj, Founder of PwR noted “Project: White Rakhi’s focus is on changing the attitudes that students have towards issues surrounding gender equality and respectful relationships by promoting positive messages and changing attitudes around sexual harassment and assault. Based on the tradition of Raksha Bandan meaning ‘a bond of protection’ we are using an ancient tradition with a powerful message to tackle a modern epidemic”.

The statistics presented in the AHRC report are shocking. The fact that 1 in 5 women during their time at University would be subject to Sexual Assault or Harassment is simply not acceptable. These behaviours if continued would play a significant role in contributing to the the Domestic Violence crisis that is happening in homes all across the national.’ said Aman Choudhry, International Student Spokesperson, RMIT.

Although Project: White Rakhi was initiated was students of Subcontinental heritage its a campaign that has gained traction and is open to and supported by students from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds. Yes, the practice of Raksha Bandan has roots in the Vedic traditions but is just important to Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jewish and secular people in Subcontinent.’ said Ms Sanjana Suryawanshi as Akshay Raj touched on the history of Rakhi practices including between the Sikh Empress Maharani Jindan Kaur and the Nepalese Kingdom as well as Rabindranath Tagore’s eort to unite communities against the British Raj in the struggle for Independence.

Deviating from tradition, the campaign asked individuals to exchange the vows of care, protection and respect usually exchanged between brother and sisters to be extended between complete strangers. Rather than traditional vows, organisedrs asked attendees to take either the White Ribbon Oath or the #NeverOk Pledge or one of their own. The organisers stressed, ‘The basic principle is to extend the respect that you have in that brother-sister relationship to all people that you meet and embrace them as brother and sisters in humanity’.

The organisers also made special mention of the Rakhi’s worn by attendees at the event. The Rakhi’s ( Wrist Bands) were made by a a group of individuals associated with a smalls womens refuge in Thane, Mumbai for the campaign. In the closing address Mr. Akshay Raj noted that ‘ When you are wearing this Rakhi, you’re wearing more than just a few threads of white string, you are wearing an oath and promise that you have made to someone. However more importantly you are wearing the stories and struggles of these women from half a world away as well as their hopes and aspiration for a better world’.

The Project: White Rakhi campaign slogan ‘Be and Bro not a Bystander’ urged young men to take a stance on the issues of gender equality and redefining traditional male stereotypes. The campaign is a partnership between White Ribbon Australia, UTS Equity & Diversity,RUSU, #Neverok Campaign,The Conviction Group and the Billu’s, Circular Quay. The campaign was collaborated by various student groups such as SUPRA (USYD), UTSSA, UTS Indian Society, UTS Tamil Society, UTS Nepalese Society, UTS International Soc, AUJS and Vishwaas UNSW.

Despite recent criticism of the campaign Mr. Akshay Raj remarked , “ The campaign isn’t trying to change the world, however if we can spark a small change in behaviour amongst individuals, this will hopefully create a ripple eect across friends, colleagues, society and hopefully a generation”. “ The campaign is also about demonstrating to people the depth and true values of our culture, and that associations with the Delhi Rape case, crude Honey Singh lyrics and patriarchal constructs are not apart of a culture that we support and it is not apart of who we are or what we value. It also gives people of subcontinent heritage a chance to explore and understand the true meaning behind such customs”.

Reflecting on the campaign organisers remarked, “Originally we started from humble beginnings, with small collective of students from UTS in 2016 meeting to celebrate the festival of ‘Raksha Bandan’ as means to both allow students to reconnect with their culture and introduce them to Australian cultural precepts of gender equality and respectful relationships through the White Ribbon Message.

Since then the campaign has grown and significantly transformed and is soon to be launched in other Universities as well as in Delhi, India. The campaign was also used as an opportunity by NSW Labor Front bencher , Hon. Sophie Costis MP to announce a parliamentary round table with community representatives to discuss the recommendations of the AHRC Report as well as issues surrounding domestic violence in the subcontinental community.