Stringent curfew timings, allegations of discrimination in hostel menus, repeated complaints of harassment and an unwritten rule that prohibits them from participating in any protests.
The trigger for Saturday night’s protest, mostly by women students, in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) was an alleged incident of sexual harassment on campus two days before. But women students at the university say the protest was waiting to happen, given the discrimination and harassment that they have faced over the years.
“This protest became so big only because we have been quiet all this while because the administration tends to shame us instead of taking action. But we were outraged when we heard of Thursday’s incident and decided to protest,” says an Arts undergraduate student.
“They want to silence us and tame us. Why are these rules never applied to boys? We are not allowed even the fundamental right to protest,” says a Science undergraduate student who was injured during the police lathicharge on Saturday.
“This protest has become a marker. It is the biggest women’s protest in the 100-year history of the BHU. And it was waiting to happen,” she says.
According to the administration, the university is spread across 1,365 acres, with around 10,000 women housed in 18 hostels. And for many of these students, the main point of contention is different curfew timings for women — 8 pm and in one hostel, 6 pm. University officials confirm that the men are allowed to stay out till 10 pm.
“The boys are free to roam on the campus through the night, with lax curfew timings. But we are closely watched, our entry timings are noted in a register and we are thoroughly questioned even for a delay of a few minutes,” says another woman student.
Three late entries result in a call to the student’s parents and repeated flouting of norms leads to the women being blacklisted during the annual hostel allotment. Students allege that while parents of women hostellers are called on campus during allotment, the men face no such requirement.
“None of this is written down as rules. But we go through this, feeling dirty, as if we have committed a sin by being late, as if we were roaming with boys and doing dirty things. The male guards who note down our timings scold us if we are late by a few minutes,” says a student.
“What happened on Thursday was before 7 pm. The victim was flouting no rule. All we are asking is at least provide us security till 8 pm. They should install lights in dark areas and deploy female guards,” she says.
Then, there’s the constant threat of harassment. One student recalls how she was openly taunted by students from the men’s hostel because women have to fill out separate applications to leave early in the morning to use the swimming pool on campus. “They asked me to come and bathe in their hostel,” she says.
Even the hostel menus are different for men and women, say students. “They give us an egg as non-vegetarian food and that too, once a week. We go out to eat non-veg once or twice a week,” says a student while others nearby smile and nod their heads in agreement.
Officials confirm that in the boys’ hostels, students are served egg curry once a week and chicken curry on Sundays for an extra charge of Rs 30 per plate.
On Monday, with the university shutting for Dussehra four days in advance due to the protest, some students were packing their bags to leave by the evening trains, worried about having to travel in general class without tickets.
“I am feeling very unsafe about this. I had planned to stay back to study during this break. Again, the women are asked to leave during every break unlike the male students who allowed to stay back,” says a student from Jharkhand.
Dr Neelam Atri, chief coordinator of the Mahila Maha Vidhyalay (MMV) in BHU, says, “There are 1,000 girls in five hostels of MMV and most have left. There are still around 150 girls left. But we cannot force them out. There are from the Northeast and Telangana and other such places. They cannot just leave suddenly. The wardens and I have offered them to let them stay with us for the Dussehra holidays.”
Atri claims the curfew timings are not imposed strictly. “If students want to stay outside beyond 8 pm, they are asked to give a written application only so that we are informed. After that they can stay out as long as they want. And they are never asked to justify what they do outside the hostel gates,” she says.
The students, meanwhile, say their plight is in stark contrast to life on the “island of freedom for women” on the same campus — the IIT.
Says a woman student at the IIT, “We have the same curfew timings as boys, 10 pm. We have access to our own library till 10.30 pm, which gives us a few more hours of study than those dependent on the central library of the university. We do not really have an any restrictions on the clothes we wear.”
A few kilometres away, a women student at BHU says, “They have so much more freedom than us, only because they are IITians. Here, students of the arts, social sciences and pure science subjects are mocked for wanting longer access to the library or seeking coaching for civil services and other competitive exams. We are often asked, ‘what do you have so much to study for?’ As if we don’t want to build our future.”