Home > Blog > Women’s Hostel Revolutions: What India desperately needs

Preface:

The Indian Higher Education system has never been renowned for championing the cause of liberal ideals. In this day and age, when youngsters the world over are being given more and more freedom and being inculcated with a greater sense of responsibility, Indian students, especially the women students, still find themselves cocooned and constricted within a framework of archaic rules and regulations which not only limit their freedom and movement, but also inhibit their access to a plethora of opportunities in both academic and leisure spaces. While most of these codes are practiced in the name of safety and security, they also often stem from a deep-rooted mistrust of students being unable to look after their own interests as also from skewed patriarchal mindsets which have reinforced themselves in Indian society over centuries.

Women’s morality isn’t just the fiefdom of Khap Panchayats anymore, our educational institutions are clamoring amongst themselves to have an equal say. To think that the idea of keeping women safe by restricting their movements is one which the Indian education system finds reasonable is chilling in itself. Some of the biggest institutions in India are responsible for creating gender discriminatory rules and restrictions so bizarre and outdated that they would make Saudi Arabia appear a liberal utopia.

IIT-Roorkee, one of the leading engineering colleges in the land, has seen its women students protesting the prevailing curfew on them forcing them to be inside their hostels by 10 p.m. every day, while the boys are free all night, a situation which sees them miss out on a wholesome college experience in a top institution, getting admission into which was an equally difficult task for the boys and the girls.

What rankles most is the blank refusal by most institutions to engage in constructive dialogue with the students about these issues. Not only are students who bring this up regularly denigrated with pointed questions being asked about their morals and intentions behind asking for greater freedom, many institutions also have convenient excuses prepared behind which they shamelessly take refuge, such as passing the buck on the parents, or patronizingly telling students to read the administration policies before joining.

The aftermath of Nirbhaya saw many of these colleges tightening the rules for their women students. Those institutions which for all these years had the temerity to persist with rules that even prevented their male and female students from interacting with each other brazenly used this incident as a way of espousing their abnormal policies. This was thankfully enough provocation for the UGC to issue some very strong words about how discriminatory rules and timings which constrained women were not acceptable ways of keeping them safe and the proper strategy was to empower them.

The Higher Education system’s faulty and embarrassing track record should tell the aspiring female college-goer that the educators are not to be trusted with their well-being.

If freedom has to be gained, it will have to be seized. Women have to make their voices heard, and protest for what is rightfully theirs. Till the great academics and disciplinarians of the age are weaned away from their patriarchal leanings, this is going to remain a battle of the students, by the students and for the students, a battle for reclaiming basic rights for today and for the future.

“A woman is human.
She is not better, wiser, stronger, more intelligent, more creative, or more responsible than a man.
Likewise, she is never less.
Equality is a given.
A woman is human.”

  • Vera Nazarian

“I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ he (Aragorn) asked.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

J.R.R. TolkienThe Return of the King

“If you really think granting freedom to women will make them vulnerable and prone to the excesses of men, let all the women free. Impose curfews on the men instead”.

  • Golda Meir

“The extension of women’s rights is the basic principle of all social progress.”

  • Charles Fourier

It’s the 21st Century. You know the drill by now. Nothing but knowledge reigns supreme. Not race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability or age identifications. These cannot be the outdated anchors used to drag you or anybody else down anymore. You have been granted rights, you have been given all the freedom to blossom, the world’s your oyster so go out there and seize the day. Go to college, get educated, experience life and change the world!

What’s that you say?

Oh, you are already in college?

Great!

Oh, in one of the IITs?

Woah, even better! So what’s stopping you? And why are you wasting your time reading this? You should be out there inventing stuff, running companies, earning dollars not rupees and making the rest of us poor mortals green with envy whenever you are not astounding us with the million achievements you have somehow managed to fit into your resume by now.

You are a girl?

SO?

You haven’t been given the freedom to pursue all that?

WHAT DO YOU MEAN?!

YOU ARE IN IIT! Those hallowed Indian institutions of educational excellence where freedom is considered paramount and it is ensured that students are brought up in a liberal environment which enables them to achieve their full potential!

It’s not like that for girls?

SINCE WHEN?

Wasn’t cracking that mind-numbing, life-scarring, internationally dreaded examination ironically called the JEE (and not MAR JAA for example) good enough to leave Indian society and most of its facepalm inducing restrictions behind?

Hmm, which is that college all of you model yourselves on, the one in the United States?

Ah yes, the iconic Massachusetts Institute of Technology!

IIT, MIT, IT, yes we get the smart drift…

Well so here’s this on the MIT page:

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is committed to the principle of equal opportunity in education and employment. The Institute does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, age, genetic information, veteran status, ancestry, or national or ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, employment policies, scholarship and loan programs, and other Institute administered programs and activities.”

“…does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, age, genetic information, veteran status, ancestry, or national or ethnic origin…”

Put that in bold for you in case you missed it. That’s papa IT setting the tune for the rest of the IT infants all over the world to follow.

So yes, what may this lack of freedom you face as a girl be, that the MIT so specifically ensures it doesn’t run with but supposedly, the IITs do?

Curfew timings???

IITs have curfews? Special curfews for girls?? Are you serious???

Damn.

*****

 

 

 

The setting is the oldest engineering college in India, one that got converted into an IIT in 2001, and has continued to churn out top students, both male and female, year after year – the prestigious IIT-Roorkee

And what about IIT-Roorkee?

Most Indian colleges have the commonly established rule of boys having late or no curfews, while the girls have to be tucked in by dusk. The IITs are ofcourse unlike most Indian colleges and usually have no curfews for students from either gender. IIT Roorkee however, bucks the trend, and quite unfairly so. While the male students are free to access the Institution’s library or spend their time in any way they wish to after classes end, only having to enter their hostels when it catches their fancy, the girls have to be inside by 10.00 pm. As mentioned, the libraries are open way beyond this time, but only accessible to the boys.

Blatantly unfair? Yes?

Brazen gender discrimination? Yes.

Blatantly unfair & brazen gender discrimination? Hell yes!

The Students Affair Council (SAC) of IIT-R, to their tremendous credit, have been involved in dogged negotiations with the University authorities for quite some time now. In the face of numerous counter-arguments from the University officials and a continued reluctance on their part in agreeing to a change in an established yet outdated rule, the SAC have steadfastly stuck to their mandate, of removing the curfew completely for the girls and putting freedom into their own hands, just like the boys have it.

The Council took a lead role in this struggle, organizing the senate meeting with the concerned authorities where this matter was to be initially brought up. Present in this meeting from the Institution’s side were the Dean of Students’ Welfare (DOSW) and Dean of the Disciplinary Committee (quite ironically labeled as the DISCO). Numerous issues were brought up as is the norm, with the Girls’ curfew timings being a major point on the list.

But what did these institutional heads choose to address before slipping away?

The increase in the number of stray dogs on campus!

Yes, this is the topic the respected Deans of IIT-Roorkee chose to address and give greater priority to before calling the meeting to a close. They felt the issue of dogs had to be attended to, while the one about the girls could be conveniently discarded, as if by avoiding it, they could escape it. There could be potential black comedy hidden somewhere in this ‘dogs are more important than girls’ performance, were it not such a tragic reflection of Indian society at large. Probably most appalling was the fact that it took place at one of those God-anointed Indian centers of excellence, a role-model for Indian colleges and Universities everywhere, an IIT.

But these are IITian students we are talking about. The next time, they rightly (or wrongly) decided to pooh-pooh hierarchy and directly organized a meeting with the Deputy Director (DD).  The DISCO dean was to be present too. Unfortunately, as is the case in other colleges, there was to be no fruitful outcome.  With regard to the inability to access the libraries, the answer was that reading rooms could be used. For discussions and study groups? Do that before 10.00 pm or on weekends when there are no classes. For unrestricted participation in fests or placement committees? Take the special paperwork route. 5 minutes over, end of discussion. The only glimmer of hope was offered towards the end by the DD, who asked the students to come up with concrete suggestions with regard to making the campus secure, after which the issue would be discussed further.

Now why is the above story being highlighted here? Because if you are a woman student in any of the Indian colleges, if you have ever felt restricted or constrained or plain annoyed by this disparity in rules between the genders, and if you have ever felt action should be taken, may such stories serve to inspire and remind you that you are not alone in this struggle.

And this isn’t the first time a gender disparity issue has come to the forefront in the Indian education space. There have been precedents from all over the country, where gender has been a defining theme in all sorts of issues.

These, from a quick skimming of the online news:

Exhibit 1 – From the Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore, Tamil Nadu –

http://www.ibtimes.com/vit-case-blatant-gender-discrimination-top-indian-engineering-school-1462288

Exhibit 2 – From the Panjab University, Chandigarh, Punjab–

http://www.nyoooz.com/chandigarh/7508/girls-in-hostels-upset-with-curfew-time

Exhibit 3 – From the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, Telangana –

http://kafila.org/2014/03/10/the-occupy-library-protest-in-eflu-hyderabad-anonymous/

Actually, why look at history for examples when so much has been brewing on this front over the last week itself.

If sexism is a religion, then Kerala is indeed God’s Own Country. This particular news item has been grabbing eye-balls off late and contributes immensely to the ‘gender equality on campuses’ issue. Kudos to the girls from the College of Engineering and Technology, Trivandrum, for their efforts in making the world a fairer place:

http://www.oneindia.com/india/kerala-girl-students-protests-against-college-seeks-gender-equality-1689249.html

200 girls sitting together to battle against and make redundant 75 years of gender prejudice is something worth applauding.

http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2015/03/college-of-engineering-trivandrum-bct/

May their tribe increase!

Guess what, here’s another heartening story! Matching the efforts of the CET girls in the bravery stakes recently have been the girls from Madras Christian College, Chennai, who, while constantly struggling with unequal hostel rights, also consider it their duty to bring to light student election irregularities in their famous institution:

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/MCC-to-hold-fresh-election-after-student-protests/articleshow/46656565.cms

With girls like these around, atleast we can take solace in the fact that all hope is not lost.

Just a quick read through the above incidents however, should be enough for an average woman hostel student in India to arrive at the following conclusions:

  1. Educated, supposedly progressive academicians will always be at the forefront of imposing such regressive rules.
  2. You will never be treated as an adult or as a student. You pay the fees, you follow the school rules. Or else, don’t join.
  3. Your gender will continue to define the world you inhabit, the friends you cultivate, the facilities you will have access to and the reputation that will be thrust on you.

Rather than being able to continually set the standards for other institutions to emulate, in terms of the freedom and facilities granted to meritorious students, IIT-Roorkee has begun to be afflicted by the strange case of ‘antiwomenfreedomitis’, that common illness which even today affects most educational institutions in the country, and prohibits the existence of basic common sense and clarity of thought, making them impose all sorts of restrictions on their women students, be it in the name of sanskaar, izzat, coupling, uncoupling, Alok Nath, Shakti Kapoor, log kya kahenge or whatever else they damn please. As long as it is enabling them to enforce unfair rules and make their women students lead sheltered lives, parents are happy, placements happen, rankings are topped and the world is a happy and better place just as these institutions seek to make it. Some of the horror stories abounding in college campuses across India even today maybe bad enough to make many of the IIT-Roorkee women squirm and thank their stars they are where they are.

In a century where the world had begun to absorb feminist ideals and initiated the celebration of gender diversity, India has yet to awaken from its slumber. Patriarchal mindsets continue to put an end to many happy stories, the major tragedy being that it has thoroughly infected not just society in the North and South, East and West but also all sorts of academic institutions in these regions as well.  Where educational hubs are supposed to be taking the lead in challenging existing gender norms, they appallingly perpetuate them, with ridiculous denials of basic freedom to women students in all forms, be it for free access to libraries or for simply getting out of the institution gates when they please, all in the name of safety and reputation. The IITs which have existed as progressive bastions until this point, shielded from such inanities, have also begun to be influenced by the regressive ideals set for Indian women students nationally, in a country proud of celebrating its differences but fiercely united when it comes to subjugating the female spirit.

Now returning to the story.

The administration eventually responded and agreed to another meeting with the students, where recommendations were submitted and discussed upon on making the Roorkee campus a safer place. The students also submitted a write-up reiterating the benefits of extending the timings of the girls and having a gender-equal campus in terms of rules, regulations and freedom.

In a temporary triumph, they were informed that the administration was willing to extend the curfew till 11 p.m. for a month on a trial basis, and provided the behavior was fine and no more threats were issued, another extension of the curfew would be considered.

A month later however, the expected thing has happened, with the institution contemplating a return to the previous curfew timings, their arguments comprised on the basis of sanskaar this and safety that. Quite incredulously, the administration’s main contention is that the extension in timings has only benefitted ‘couples’ and no other tangible benefit can be seen. Hence, a reversal to the previous timings is more than possible.

Not only does this case top the ridiculous charts simply because of the talk emanating from the IIT staff out of all people, it also showcases how bad Indian women students really have it, when you have to negotiate for your own rights by acceding to arbitrary conditions and subjecting yourselves to trial periods. The bigger tragedy is that it is taking place in the space of education, a space meant to be dominated by the most vocal, progressive and free-thinking elements of society. If educated women students are bestowed with the status of being nothing more than birds meant to be shielded in gilded cages, then there remains no hope for the uneducated female masses and no future for gender equality in the country.

Stand up for your rights, girls!

This is what the UGC mentions in its ‘Saksham Report: Measures for Ensuring the Safety of Women and Programmes for Gender Sensitization on Campuses’, published in 2013:

From Chapter VI, Section 6.4, Point 12:

“The UGC Guidelines on student entitlements provides within section 6.2 and 6.3 protection for students from ragging and sexual harassment. An additional emphasis could include the right to safety and a safe environment, free of intimidation and abuse on the basis of class, caste, region and community and Gender. Here too a “securitization” approach to these issues must be countered.”

Now if the University Grants Commission, the premier governing body responsible for maintaining University standards in the country, so boldly recommends that the onus of security and providing a safe environment should be on the institutions, and no one can discriminate between students using the feeble excuse of securitization, it is time the institutions start listening.

Need more ammunition? Here it is:

From Chapter VI, Section 6.7, Point 6.7.6:

“Timings: Maintaining differential timings and codes of behavior for women hostellers is widespread. Indeed, it has come to the notice of the Task Force that after the December 2012 rape incident, many HEIs responded by making their timings and rules for women even stricter and more discriminatory than before. Some administrators even believe that this is the right way of being gender sensitive. It must therefore be reiterated firmly by the UGC that discriminatory timings and other forms of constraining women are NOT valid or acceptable ways of keeping women safe.

Concern for the safety of all women should not lead to stricter discriminatory rules for women in the hostels. The attitude to women’s safety in hostels often infantilizes these adult women and does not empower them to learn to strategize about their own safety.”

There. Discriminatory timings and other forms of constraining women are not valid or acceptable ways of keeping women safe. Says who? Says the UGC that’s who!

The IITs do not operate under the ambit of the UGC and may need to find other ways to combat their institution’s unexpected retrogression in the gender equality arena. There’s cause for optimism though, the fact that the administration is willing to engage in dialogue and the existence of a vibrant and well-connected student base and powerful alumni network meaning reforms can never be too far.

As for all the girls and women everywhere else, it’s the 21st century, and it’s high time you voice your demands!

Your institutions do not have a right to curb your freedom, influence the way you learn or prevent your access to facilities.

The same rules should be applicable to all students and not be defined on the basis of gender.

It’s time to rebel.

It’s time for revolution.

Carpe Diem, Carpe Noctem, Carpe Freedom!

– Somesh S. Menon

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