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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Rattling the cage

Protests by women students for equality in hostel rules have sparked a debate on gender bias on campus. It’s a first step.

Written by Surbhi Gupta | Updated: October 16, 2017 12:40:10 am
bhu, bhu students protest, bhu vc, banaras hindu university, bhu women safety, bhu sexual harassment, sir sunderlal hospital, bhu vc g c tripathi, bhu news, Delhi University, hostels in Indian colleges, Delhi Commission for Women, latest news, indian express Cctv cameras are being installed at sensitive spots in Banaras Hindu University. (Express Photo: Anand Singh)

As an undergraduate student, I often wished to live in a hostel — away from home, the constant glare of my parents, the rules and regulations — and just enjoy the freedom of it. But I soon realised the picture wasn’t as rosy as it seems. I stumbled upon a Facebook page called Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), which later became an autonomous collective and a beacon of feminist thought and action in Delhi University. It was a movement initiated in the capital but its effect has spread to other cities as well. Pinjra Tod also influenced the manner in which politics operated on the campus. They had taken up a simple cause — demanding secure, affordable and non-discriminatory accommodation for women students across Delhi. For many students, the personal had become political.

A hostel may be sound like any other facility provided on campus. But for girls, especially from small towns, it is an opportunity to break the shackles of patriarchy, pursue higher education, move to a big city, and avail better employment opportunities. In many cases, parents “allow” girls to enrol in a university only if affordable “girls-only” accommodation is available. The absence of such a facility would mean a dream forgone, irrespective of the student making it to the merit list.

Banaras Hindu University (BHU) provides precisely such opportunities to girls. In fact, the enrolment of women has increased manifold over the past few years. Is that good news? Of course. But it has come with its share of discrimination and repression — stringent curfew timings, different menus for girls and boys, repeated complaints of harassment and an unwritten rule barring students from staging protests cancels out its many of it advantages.

The uproar that a recent case of alleged molestation at BHU caused has been in the making for some time now. Before the incident, the Supreme Court had already agreed to hear a petition filed by BHU students questioning the manner in which hostel authorities control students. Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who appeared for the students, pointed out that women could not roam around anywhere post 8 pm at night and weren’t allowed to make phone calls post 10 pm. The bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, has decided to hear the case in November.

Around the same time, the Delhi High Court will hear the case of Hindu College. In March this year, the institution had announced that a women’s hostel would open on campus. By the way, the college, which has been providing accommodation to its male students for decades, decided only this year to offer the same basic facility to women. Students began to protest when the discriminatory hostel rules, moral policing and a huge difference in the fees — almost double from the boys’ hostel — came to light. There are, of course, rules for men too — albeit only on paper and rarely enforced. The Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) intervened in the matter, summoned the principal over the disparity and asked the University Grants Commission to mediate. Even the National Commission for Women took suo motu cognisance of the discrimination and issued a notice to the college.

The issue may have gained momentum now but it all started two years ago. Protests by students across campuses led to the DCW taking notice of a discriminatory rule at Jamia Millia Islamia which barred women students from stepping outside the campus after 8 pm, a rule not applicable to men. It sent a show-cause to the vice chancellor asking for an explanation, but the rule stands unchanged even today. In the past two years, smaller battles have been undertaken by students in various colleges.

Women getting locked up in hostels and having to pay more for them leads to the denial of equal academic opportunities for them. Often, they are not able to access basic facilities like the library, cyber café, sports complex or the laboratories. The students are not able to sign up for coaching classes, internships and part-time jobs, essential for their personal, professional and intellectual growth. It often seems like there is no thought given by university authorities to the fact that these rules scream of blatant sexism. Hostel spaces are proving to be no different from home, where a woman’s freedom and sexuality are constantly regulated and guarded. Hostel authorities seem keen to fill the shoes of the “father”, to function as the patriarch in their absence.

Though much has not changed on the ground yet, conversations have finally ensued. With students’ cases reaching the higher courts, a precedent is expected to be set. If the apex court scraps such discriminatory and absurd rules later this year, it would encourage students to reclaim their freedom. Women students across the country have found a strong voice, articulating what they confront on a daily basis. But their fight has just begun.

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