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At BHU, women find voice, freedom

Post protests: Officials say curfew hours relaxed informally, women students say administration sensitive.

Written by Sarah Hafeez | Varanasi |
Updated: April 3, 2018 1:30:40 am
Students enter the Mahila Maha Vidyalay gates past 8 pm, a deadline for women that used to be strictly followed before protests rang in change. (Photo: Anand Singh)

IT IS past 8 pm on the Banaras Hindu University campus. Students stroll through the gates of Mahila Maha Vidyalay (MMV), the women’s college. Behind the gates stand guards in grey uniforms, brought in after unrest on the campus in September-October.

Six months after the protests over a student’s molestation had thrown the spotlight on gender discrimination — including unequal curfew timings of 8 pm for women and 10 pm for men — the campus is showing signs of change, students acknowledge, although no change in rules is official yet.

“We now have to enter latest by 9.45 pm, and the gates close by 10 pm. Our protests yielded such an incredible result,” says Parul Shukla, in the second year of philosophy honours, and one of 1,000 MMV hostel boarders.

Royana Singh, BHU’s first woman chief proctor and appointed in the wake of the protests, refused to comment, saying she had put in her papers with the appointment of a new vice chancellor last week. A senior member of the proctorial board, however, agreed curfew timings have been relaxed.

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“We have to pass a change in such rules through the executive council which functions while the university is headed by a vice chancellor. Since a vice chancellor had not been appointed for the last six months, we unofficially allowed hostels to relax timings. These will be reviewed by the council,” the member said. “Before relaxing the timings, we consulted local police. They assured us the area is safe for women to be out till midnight and they are cooperating in ensuring safety.”

In the protests that had followed the alleged molestation — around 6 pm on September 21 — students had alleged that members of the proctorial board had “victim-shamed” the woman student for having stayed “out late”. This led to a two day sit-in at the university gates and police action.

Now, students claim the proctorial board relented to a relaxation after they ran signature campaigns. “No one takes women seriously until we fight,” said a third year economics student. A warden said they agreed because the “proportion of women students who tend to stay out late is very small”.

Students also say staff have become more sensitive; the administration attributes this to gender sensitisation workshops. “Wardens who used to chide us for talking on our phones until 10 pm have stopped doing so. Earlier, when we reported an incident, we were told our safety is our responsibility,” said a postgraduate chemistry student.

“All staff have been imparted lessons in gender sensitisation and they have been asked to be careful with the way they treat a complaint of teasing or molestation,” a proctorial board member said.

Barricades come up by 8 pm at women’s hostels to slow down city traffic passing through the 1,365-acre campus, which shuts at 10 pm. The campus is better lit, and security checks are done following complaints of molestation, harassment or even cell phone thefts, say students and officials.

“The presence of more women on campus until 10 pm has made it safer. Earlier incidents would happen as early as 5 pm,” said Harshika Ganwaar, a postgraduate student of public administration from Naveen Hostel.

Much remains to be done, however. A proctorial board member said none of the CCTV cameras installed works, with wires regularly snapped. “The Rs 70 lakh sanctioned for cameras by the previous V-C has not been spent because the order has not been tendered yet,” an official said.

Students also say their complaints, while being formally recorded now, are rarely followed up. “Whenever there is a problem, we are asked to give a written complaint, but we never receive a reply on action taken or any culprit caught even if we say we can identify them,” said Mineshi Mishra, in psychology third year.

A proctor said it is impossible to identify the culprit involved in a complaint when the complainant herself cannot identify him.

Women students also complain of a vegetarian menu with the occasional egg, when men are served non-vegetarian once a week for an extra charge. “Three months ago, we got a notification for forming monthly mess committees comprising students, wardens and teachers who will meet every month and decide the menu. We plan to serve non-vegetarian food in one hostel; students from the other hostels can come and buy food. We plan to get these passed through the executive council and roll them out in the new session,” a coordinator of hostels said.

“Male students have become wary about their behaviour,” said Deepak Singh, a postgraduate student in political science. “Female students have become very assertive. The administration has become very strict about ensuring their safety. It had no choice.”

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