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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

When the clock strikes six: The repressive rules of women’s hostels in India

In women’s hostels across the country, the promised freedom of adulthood runs into repressive curfew hours, suspicion about sexual lives and wardens who believe they are obliged to ensure that their wards do not “stray”. But the girls just want to have fun.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi |
Updated: October 28, 2015 1:45:51 pm
hostel-main A resident of a Jamia University hostel

By Paromita Chakrabarti, Premankur Biswas, Shaju Philip, Pooja Pillai, Debabrata Mohanty and Alifiya Khan

A month ago, when the protests over the appointment of a new FTII chairperson reached Delhi, Anwesha Dutta did not think twice about joining the rally at Mandi House. Around 6 in the evening, by then coralled to a police station with a bunch of students, she felt the first pangs of unease. “I had to be back in the hostel by 7.45, in time for the attendance, or I wouldn’t have a place to stay for the night. That’s when I pleaded with the policemen to let me go,” says the 22-year-old, who comes from a hill station in north India.

Dutta is a student of humanities at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi (all Jamia students requested that their names be changed). The university has recently set an 8 pm deadline for students who lodge at the University’s Hall of Girls’ Residence, which includes four hostels for undergraduate and postgraduate students and one for working women. Even nights-out have been disallowed. The consequences of being AWOL are severe — if a student is found missing at the daily attendance before gates close at 8 pm, not only are they not allowed in but their place at the hostel can also be revoked overnight. “Which means, for students whose local guardians are not understanding, or for those who have come to the city for the first time and know very few people, there’s nowhere to go,” says Dutta. The Delhi Commission for Women has issued a notice to the university, asking it to explain its new rules.

Dutta made it back in the nick of time, but this curb on her freedom has been nagging her ever since, particularly since the rules are not equal for male and female students. “There is no roll call in the men’s hostel. If they come in late, at the most they have to sign in a register before being allowed entry. This is openly patriarchal,” she says. During her undergraduate years, Dutta studied in a residential university in the south where the hostel deadline was 9.30 pm for both boys and girls. “Even there, the wardens were strict but on paper we were equal,” she says.

hostel2 Students of Rama Devi Women’s University in Bhubaneswar in their hostel room

For most young adults, life on campus is the threshold they cross before they step into adulthood. These years help them figure out who they are and who they want to be. It’s a time for discovery, of learning to step out of one’s cocoon, of negotiating boundaries and setting their own rules. When Noori came to Delhi from a strife-torn city in northern India, the capital was the place she hoped would set her free. During her BSc course in a reputed college in Delhi’s north campus, she discovered a love for debates and reading, and learned to engage with fellow students without fear or rancour. “And then I came to Jamia and found out that, in the end, you cannot get rid of stereotypes,” she says, sitting at the MCRC ground at Jamia. A stone’s throw away is the entrance to one of the girls’ hostels, where two guards sit with impassive faces. “Why would you tell me that I have to be indoors at 8 pm ‘for my own good’? Why would you not believe that if I want to go out, I might want to watch a movie or go to an exhibition? Why is it that the first thing people think if you are late is that you were out with your boyfriend and you were sleeping around? And even if I do, why would you not recognise my autonomy over my body?” she asks.

Noori’s questions are echoed in hallways and dorms in hostels across the country, where women often find that the promised freedom of adulthood does not stand a chance against repressive curfew hours, suspicion about their sexual lives and wardens who, in all earnestness, believe they are obliged to ensure that the girls do not “stray”. You might believe that individuality is shaped against the grain of familial authority, but hostel authorities believe they are ultimately answerable to parents and their sense of propriety. Ramya Swayamprakash, 30, who did her MA and then her MPhil in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and lived in two hostels says that even in JNU’s liberal environment, there were a few over-enthusiastic administrators. “For the most part, wardens understood that we were adults and did not impose rules on us. When I moved from a co-ed hostel to a women’s hostel, however, the situation was vastly different. The wardens were oppressively annoying. We were once told that we should look to our wardens as we would to our mothers,” she says.

Rucha Takle believes hostel life set her up for independence Rucha Takle believes hostel life set her up for independence

It is 5.30 pm. Ginu George, a seventh semester BTech student of College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, is frantically scrolling down the contacts of her mobile to find the number of her hostel warden. George, 20, is out of town and she realises she won’t be able to make it to the hostel by 6.30 pm, the witching hour when all of Thiruvananthapuram is warming up to leisurely evenings but when young women studying to be engineers have to back in their rooms. Male students can return whenever they wish. If anything, life was harsher for the 400-odd residents of CET’s ladies’ hostel until last year. If you entered late, you had to pay a fine of Rs 100. That concession came by way of a movement, “Break the curfew’’, asking for the deadline to be extended to 9 pm. In March last year, residents refused to enter the hostel at 6.30 pm and sat outside in protest against the unreasonable deadline. Little has changed, except that latecomers no longer have to pay the fine.

“When girls are asked to return to the hostel at 6.30 pm, it adversely affects our academic life. We are not even allowed to sit in the library after the deadline. Most of the students depend on the library for texts prescribed in the syllabus. We also cannot attend any social and academic events outside the campus,’’ says George.

The situation is no better at the hostel for women on the Kerala University campus in Thiruvananthapuram. The curfew hour remains the same. While men can be at the library till midnight, women are allowed in after 6.30 pm only if they are in a group — even if it is barely 100m from the girls’ hostel. “If I want to sit in the library in the late evening, I have to find a few others who think on similar lines. What a strange clause!’’ says Ashwathi Krishnan, a postgraduate student in the department of mass communication. Krishnan, who is from Palakkad, had hoped for a taste of city life. But her discovery of Thiruvananthapuram will have to wait. “After class, we have to return to the hostel immediately. There is no time to socialise. We don’t even have the time to make friends. Even in the hostel, we have to speak in a low voice,’’ she says.

At residential universities, women find an unwritten code of conduct that one is meant to follow, an invisible line one cannot cross. Sahiba, another post-graduate student at Jamia, says in the north Indian city she comes from, she had always been encouraged to study, to ask questions and told that education is a great equaliser. “But there’s no space for protest even in a reputed university such as Jamia. When the VC had come to the hostel on one of his visits, some of the girls had told him how inconvenient the new deadline is, but we were told it’s for our own good. We are always told that good girls don’t do such and such,” she says.
Many of the rules involve — what else — male friends.

Today, for instance, one of us is Dipanita Das’s cousin. She shows the way up a narrow flight of stairs of a two-storied building in Shyampukur street in the heart of north Kolkata, apologising every few minutes. “Be careful, there is a beam ahead,” says the 26-year-old employee of the e-commerce portal, Netscribes. This working women’s hostel has a large-hearted curfew limit of 10.30 pm but does not allow even male “relatives” more than five minutes in its premises. “Male friends are never allowed in. If you introduce a young guy as a brother, they allow him in for some time. But they constantly hover around when he is visiting,” says Das.

The room that she inhabits is the old Kolkata version of a barsaati, a small terrace store room without the pretension of being anything else. Das has a single bed in her room and a built-in set of racks in the wall that functions as a wardrobe. The sole window overlooks the back lane of the sooty neighbourhood. “But I have got the terrace, and that’s all I need,” she says.

Dipanita Das at her room in a Kolkata working women’s hostel Dipanita Das at her room in a Kolkata working women’s hostel

In the seven years that Das has stayed in the city, she has changed a lot. She once scrupulously returned to the hostel by 9 pm, but now stays out beyond the deadline on occasion. She remembers a particularly harrowing day two years ago when she had to attend a friend’s wedding and returned to her hostel around 12 am. “I had taken prior permission but the warden didn’t open the door. There I was in a silk saree, with flowers in my hair, banging away at the door, tearing up. I felt so helpless that I burst out laughing,” she says.

For most outstation students, a seat in a reputed college or university offers not just a shot at quality education, but also the opportunity to unlearn some of their old ways and forge new friendships.

She may have been daddy’s girl at home, but Madhurima Barai, a teenager from Kolkata now staying in one of the three hostels of Bhubaneswar’s Rama Devi Women’s University, rarely misses her parents and twin brother. “What I like most is that I can go out with my friends without my brother tagging along!” says Barai, sitting in the lobby of Anyatama hostel, one of the three hostels of the university. Having lived in Bargarh and Rayagada, small towns in Odisha, Barai fell in love with the anonymity that the Odisha capital offered. “I could go out with someone I liked without my parents looking over my shoulders,” she says.

The curfew here is even stricter, at 6 pm, but that does not worry many of the girls. Residents are allowed to go out for three hours every day if they have to attend tuitions or if the parents or local guardians send in applications seeking leave. “We have to be careful of their security and safety. But we are not overbearing,” said Suramani Purti, warden of Anyatama hostel.

As is always, freedom means different things to different people. Eli Parida, a final-year arts student at Bhubaneswar’s only university for women, the hostel represents liberty. Parida’s home is 8 km away, but she chose to stay in the hostel as it offered her breathing space away from her joint family of 28 members. “I liked dancing. But no one at home, including my mother, encouraged it. My father clearly disapproved,” said Parida. Now, she dances in her room, at college functions and during Ganesh puja celebrations. Last week, she took part in a dance audition of a TV reality show. “The hostel warden did disapprove when we had to stay back till 9 pm. But it was fun.”

For countless of women, the hostel is the place where they emerge from the chrysalis of teenage years and familial curbs. This is where they learn to cope with loneliness and embrace friendships, this is where they find it is okay to lounge all day in a T-shirt and shorts without reproof, where they learn to laugh at themselves and treasure their strengths.

Aishwarya Mhaske, 21, has lived in a hostel room for over a decade of her student life and she is more at ease here than in her home in Loni Pravara near Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. “Of course, the food is not as good as home and we don’t have many comforts. But for me, hostel life means liberation. It gives you a sense of control over your own life and decisions — whether you want to watch a late-night film or attend a seminar,” she says.

Paroma Bose looks on this period as a necessary one before one faces the difficult and bewildering world as an adult. The 20-year-old is a resident of the Missionary Settlement for University Women, located in a quiet, leafy lane behind the famous Maratha Mandir cinema hall and a five-minute walk away from Mumbai Central station. The hostel itself, built in the early 19th century, is a compact yet airy space and wears the sleepy, post-lunch air of a small town. Bose, back from her day’s classes at St Xavier’s College, is one of the many residents taking a break in the airy verandah that does double duty as the visitor’s area. The hostel, she acknowledges, is a refuge from the city. At the same time, she points out, this phase in her life has been one of immense learning. “While living in a hostel, you are taken care of in a sense, but you also learn to manage everything — from handling your personal finances to fighting your own fights. In some way, it feels like my time here is preparing me for when I will have to step out, look for a job and deal with the larger world.” Agrees Rucha Takle, a former resident of Mumbai’s Telang Memorial Hostel. “This independence can seem a little difficult at first, but as we adjust, we figure out how to manage money, study and prepare for exams and also make time to hang out with friends.”

To someone like Rajlaxmi Borkotoky, who lived at the YWCA hostel in Colaba for three years and loved its sense of community, it also freed her from the demands of domesticity. “I had a busy professional life and it was just easy to live in a hostel because once I’m ‘home’, I don’t have to bother with chores like cooking. I can just go to the mess and eat,” she says.

There are problems too, though. Apart from inconsistency in the quality of food or petty fights breaking out over issues like water or loud music, there is the question of privacy. Borkotoky says, “You can’t expect privacy if you’re living in a hostel. If I had been dating at at any time during the three years that I stayed in a hostel, I would have felt the need to move out.” Important elements of leading the independent social life of an an adult, such as bringing home a date or hosting a party for friends, are of necessity sacrificed when women choose to live in hostels.

But very few young women end up scrimping on friendship and fun, the glue of all hostel life. Hyderabad girl Jui Mukherjee, who studies in Pune’s Symbiosis College and lives in its liberal hostel (midnight is the curfew hour and a cafe in the campus is open till 2 am), says she has made friends for life. “That’s because there are no pretences with the people you live. They have seen you like no one has. And you end up doing things, taking risks and responsibility for each other which is a great bond,” says Mukherjee. A late riser, the media student says she can’t hear the morning alarm. “So my roomie has taken up the responsibility of shaking me, throwing tantrums or waking me up in any manner to ensure I get to morning class,” she says.

Mhaske recalls with great fondness the pranks she played and the white lies she spun to cover up for her friends. “Like the time when my roomie reached after curfew hours. We helped her scale the wall by forming a human chain while others kept a lookout. Or the time I got caught and was reprimanded for stealing raw mangoes from the school adjoining our hostel compound. It was so funny I started laughing even while I was plucking the fruit,” she says. Swayamprakash remembers having “fun that involved a lot of drinking, smoking up and going to a pub. We used to have rooftop parties on the hostel terrace, often times on the boys wing roof so as to ensure everyone could come (men were not allowed in the women’s wing),” she says, adding, “Mostly, the great thing about hostel was it taught me how to circumvent authority.”

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