One of the major ironies that marks women’s education in our country would be that – while on the one hand, the Universities are purportedly spaces which are meant to empower women; yet the University has remained a space where patriarchal power structures and norms continue to be reinforced! I’m reminded of a chilling scene from the documentary ‘India’s daughter’ where the accused (rapist) expresses no remorse over his deeds while nonchalantly stating that – ‘respectable women are not expected to be out at night’ … unwittingly, our Universities seem to be following the same logic, with their draconian curfews and restrictions in women’s hostels.
An old professor in the university, laments the fact that the deadline in women’s hostels around DU have practically been the same since the 1950s! The deadline in most women’s hostels around the country happens to be anywhere between 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. Such a rule hampers women’s ability to be productive, and most importantly they are denied access to university facilities like the libraries, mess and canteens which remain open till late into the night. The irony becomes glaring when we realize that – such rules do little to prepare young girls for the professional world where they are often expected to compete with men, and work till late.
It was in this context that a bunch of students from DU decided to initiate a mass movement called ‘Pinjra Todo’- the term ‘Pinjra’ (cage) serves as an apt metaphor for hostels where women students are confined. The confinement is at two levels: on the one hand, it restrains the physical movement of women beyond a certain space; and at another level, it stunts their intellectual growth –by preventing them from attending events like seminars, plays, and even coaching classes after college. The movement has garnered a lot of support on social media platforms like Facebook, where women students from across the country continue to write testimonials based on how University curfews which solely target women students, limit their potential to partake in college activities, and avail facilities within the campus. Male students on the other hand, do not face any of these dilemmas while pursuing higher education. If women are victims within our social order, then such rules victimize them further by treating adult women like minors, who are not seen as independent beings but, as repositories of their family’s honor. Unwittingly, our bastions of higher education seem to reinforce the patriarchal assumption – that women are not intelligent enough to look after, and make decisions for themselves, and that their lives should be governed by the norms of ‘guardianship’.
Let us look at some of the testimonials by girls from across the country:
1) The deadline in a women’s college is 7:30, and it is reduced to 5 pm on events like Valentine’s day!
2) MA Student : There is very little open space inside our hostel building with large lawns outside. Yet during an earth quake, the guards refused to let us out into the lawns outside our hostel as it was past the deadline.
3) BA student, DU: One night there was a fire inside our residence block. However, the warden would not let us get out of the building. There was only one exit to the block, and the warden had the keys. It was only after a large group of students gathered to protest, that we were allowed to go out.
4) MSc Student : I wanted to join a coaching institute for UPSC after college hours. However my coaching would have ended around 8:00 p.m, and my hostel deadline ends at 7:30 p.m. Hence, I could not take up coaching.
5) Student from Chennai: Once when my train was delayed by several hours, I had to spend the night in a railway platform as I had missed the hostel deadline , and would not be allowed inside !
6) A lady Doctor: I lived in a Paying Guest accommodation, and as a doctor I was required to work till late hours. When I would arrive late due to my work timings, the landlord would make snide comments about my character. This left me with no choice but, to move out.
The movement organized a ‘Jan Sunwai’ at Jantar Mantar in October 2015. Such an event seeks to generate, a sense of solidarity among women students, who face similar hardships and trials on account of their gender. In the past few months, the movement has collected hundreds of testimonials, and suggestions from all quarters. Based on these suggestions, a charter of demands have been prepared. I have highlighted some of the prominent suggestions:
- Extend the curfews of all women’s hostels and PGs till half an hour after the time any University resources, such as libraries, labs or sports complexes remain open or half an hour after the approach of the last metro at the closest metro station, whichever is later.
- Allow women to enter the hostel on return from leave at any time.
- No arbitrary restrictions on the entry of female visitors into women’s hostels.
- Spaces such as hostel/college lawns and grounds should be accessible to women at all times.
- Develop participatory and collective mechanisms for deciding rules and regulations for using the hostel space.
- Ensure that rights to form unions are not denied to residents of women’s hostels.
The testimonials, and complaints have been presented to DCW (Delhi Commission for Women), and as a result one of the universities has been served with a show cause notice. While this might not amount to much, yet such a measure would help the movement win the ‘battle of ideology’. Lately, the movement has taken up the cause of physically challenged women within the University hostels, and is thinking up measures to improve their lot. Another important issue which has come up, is the disparity in the hostel fees charged by men’s and women’s hostels – the women’s hostels are more expensive, in DU it amounts to an annual difference of Rs 35,000 on an average. This is ironical given that women students in any case face greater hardships, and stigma in their quest for higher education- when education for girls is made more expensive, it would make families even more reluctant to invest their resources on a female child. As a new year begins, let’s hope that the ‘Pinjra Todo’ movement attains more strength and success in the days to come!