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Safety or Moral Policing? The Unapologetic Gender Bias of Indian Hostels #Vaw

Hostels across the country have different rules for women, arguing that to keep girls ‘safe’, you need to keep them inside.

A Pinjra Tod rally on International Working Women's Day. Credit: Facebook/Pinjra Tod

A Pinjra Tod rally on International Working Women’s Day. Credit: Facebook/Pinjra Tod

New Delhi: Hindu College, Delhi was in the news recently for its hostel norms that were seen as blatantly sexist. The college just opened its first ever women’s hostel (though the college was established more than 100 years ago), but the rules that came along with it made the decision bittersweet for many. The rules listed in the hostel prospectus included asking girls to dress according to the “normal norm of society”, no visitors (including female visitors) without prior permission, only one night-out a month, and a provision for random checks by wardens. These restrictions, according to the college principal, are to ensure the “safety of the students” and “maintain decorum”. No such rules exist for male hostellers. In addition, the hostel fees being charged from women students will be 82,000 rupees annually, compared to 47,000 rupees for men.

The National Commission for Women has taken suo moto cognisance of this, and asked the college to respond with a detailed explanation of how the rules were created.

Shocking as they may sound, such rules are far from rare in hostels around the country – in both private and public universities, as well as in private paying guest hostels for female students. In recent years, several groups and campaigns have taken up these issues, the most well-known of which is ‘Pinjra Tod’ (literally ‘Break the Cage’) in Delhi.

In the College of Engineering, Trivandrum (CET), for instance, the curfew for female hostellers is 6.30 pm. Unsurprisingly for anyone who has been a student in India, no similar rule exist for the male students. “We dug through the rules and found that there was a 9 pm curfew for the boys,” Aishwarya, who graduated from CET last year, told The Wire. “But ask anyone on college campus – nobody even knew that rule existed, let alone implemented it.”

Irked by the rules, Aishwarya and a few others started a campaign called ‘Break the Curfew’ on campus. “We started thinking about it when we realised that most of the girls would do projects that had only secondary research, they didn’t try and do the technical aspects. Because how can you complete a technical experiment and monitor it if you have to be back in your room by 6.30 pm? It’s just not possible. This is what we told the authorities, but they didn’t answer us properly. All they said was ‘Don’t you have Wi-Fi in the hostel? Can’t you study in the room? You should finish your technical work before 6.30 pm’.”

The response they got from the administration was extremely disappointing, Aishwarya said. “We were told that we couldn’t understand the problems as of now, we would only understand them ‘after we got pregnant’. Others said changing these rules would ‘damage our culture’. Wardens and other authorities also singled out those they saw as ‘organisers’ and called their parents,” she said.

In St. Stephen’s College, Delhi the curfew time for girls is 10 pm. Though this time is later than in most other places, girls are physically locked into the hostel after that. Again, no such regulation exists for boys, who are allowed to be outside (though officially have to stay on college premises) for as long as they like. There is even a dhaba within the campus that stays open until midnight, to cater to the male students. “I was the president of a society that had after-dinner talks. They started at 8.30 pm and sometimes, a passionate discussion would begin with the speaker that carried on past 10 pm. At 9.40 pm I would have to get up, apologise to the speaker and run to my hostel because the in-time was 10 pm. It was humiliating. Not turning up for the roll-call at 10 pm meant immediate expulsion. I was once late by ten minutes. The warden locked the door and made me stand out pleading. I knew she was on the other side, but she just wasn’t opening the door. After a good while, she opened it, and screamed at me for twenty minutes straight,” a former student of St. Stephen’s said*.

In addition to regulations like the curfew, moral policing is also a regular complaint from girls in hostels. “On coming back to the hostel exactly three minutes late due to my participation in a university wide event, my warden publicly humiliated me to an extent difficult to describe, which included her calling up my father and telling him that “Hindu college ka ek bhi ladka nahin hoga jiske saath aapki beti soyi nahin hai” (There would not be one boy in Hindu College whom your daughter has not slept with),” a female student living in a Delhi University hostel reported*. “She has repeatedly raised objections about me having male friends and humiliated me on that account, although it is of little relevance to her duties as a warden.”

“Protecting the modesty” of girls is something that colleges and hostel wardens take it upon themselves to do, female hostellers have said. At the mess in Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi for example, there are checks on length of clothes, neck line, etc. so that the students aren’t exposed in the presence of male mess staff*.

Several students also cited academic and professional difficulties that arose from their curfew times. “I find that many resources of the university are inaccessible to me because of my sex. The central library reading room in Jamia Millia Islamia functions till 2 am, but girls staying in the university hostel cannot use it after 8 pm because they are supposed to report to the hostel by 8 pm every day. …Female students sitting inside the reading hall after 10 pm are also questioned by the guard for sitting inside the library in late hours,” said a student of mass communications at Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi*.

Regulations like this do not stem out of concern for the student, claimed Shrutakriti, a student at Jadavpur University who lives in a paying guest hostel next to the campus. “We have a curfew of 9.30 pm, even though our hostel has women between the ages of 18 and 35. Once, there was a really bad traffic jam because of a political rally, and I got back five minutes late. Instead of letting me in, the staff at my PG said I would have to wait outside until I called up the owner and explained everything. Clearly they didn’t care about my safety, since they made me stand alone on an empty, dark street instead of letting me in. This is all just power play,” she told The Wire.

“Also, every time we want an extension, they will insinuate that we are into some really shady activities,” she added. “Many times they have told me to ask my parents to call them, because my word is not enough, and then when my mother calls they speak to her rudely and say that she is a friend pretending to be my mother. If they do believe that she is my mother, they tell her that I am getting involved in things, and it is not their responsibility.”

There are innumerable stories like the ones highlighted here across the country. It does seem, however, to be becoming a bigger part of public conversation and consciousness, especially with students and campaigns across the country raising their voice.

“We submitted a report to the Delhi Commission for Women last November,” Devangana from Pinjra Tod told The Wire, “and we got a call from them today saying that they will give notices to all 20 registered universities in Delhi on the grievances that we had raised.” This notice is expected to go out within the next few days.

*These experiences have been taken from the report submitted to the Delhi Commission for Women by the Pinjra Tod campaign in November last year.

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