“We are going to have all these night walks and rallies, to really put women in the forefront.”
For many youngsters worldwide, college embodies freedom. In India, however, many unmarried women who leave home to work or study live in hostels with strict rules. Their families prefer it that way. But some women students in Delhi are protesting against such regressive and ‘sexist’ rules. They have started the campaign Pinjra Tod – Break The Cage.
On a recent Friday night at Delhi University’s Arts Faculty, about a hundred students had gathered for an open-air concert. The mood was cheerful, with boys and girls chatting and taking selfies. The concert started early at around 5 in the evening as by 7pm the female students had to leave. Those who live on campus hostels have to be home before the evening curfew. And at some hostels, this curfew starts as early as 7:30pm.
The event was co-organised by the female students behind the campaign Pinjra Tor or Break The Cage and is meant to protest that very regressive hostel regulations. Their bright yellow banners depicting a woman breaking a barbed wired fence could be seen behind the musicians, while young women handed out flyers. 20-year-old Devika Shekhawat is one of them,. She told me that it is the discriminatory nature of the rules that triggered the campaign. “Boys are not at all accountable for anything they do.
But women are held accountable for wanting to go out and stay out even for half hour beyond the curfew time. You have to give a reason and get the request signed by your parents and different college authorities.” Moreover, Devika added, female students are often morally judged for their actions. “One girl went through this three-day process and was granted one night away from her hostel. But when she came back the next morning, the hostel warden asked her: ‘Whose bed did you keep warm last night? Such form of moral policing is very rampant.”
For many students, private accommodation is simply not affordable. And for most parents, the strict hostel rules are a relief when their daughters are moving out for the first time, often hundreds of kilometres away to cities unknown to them. For one 20-year-old women student I met, the fact that she got an accommodation at an hostel on the DU campus was the condition on which her parents allowed her to study in Delhi.
The girl (out of fear of her college authorities wants to stay anonymous) understands their concerns about safety. She says at the beginning the 10pm hostel check-in time wasn’t a huge problem. “Back then I had to be home by 6 or 7pm, so to be able to be out on my own till 10pm without anyone asking where I am or what I am doing, that was already a big freedom to me in my initial days of college.”
Gradually though, she changed her mind, especially because the boys are allowed to roam around campus freely even after 10pm. “One of the college canteens stays open after 10pm, and we can hear the guys all the time, ordering tea and coffee until late at night, while we are trapped inside. If you fear for our safety, because the boys on campus might suddenly turn rapists after 10pm, why don’t you lock them up?”
The young woman, who belongs to the conflict area of Kashmir, is aware of the stark clash between her protected background and her new-found freedom. “Coming from a conservative society, I could have never dared to ask such questions. And the biggest irony is that although I have learnt all these liberal ideas, I will not be able to implement these once I go back.”
While the Kashmiri student understands her parents’ concerns about her safety, Devika of Pinjra Tod does not accept it. “For family and parents, and universities as well, the question is not about security”, she says, arguing: “It is about pressure that they want to keep women under, according to their rules and their norms of a perfect woman.” Devika also questions whether a curfew does anything for the safety of women. “We have been saying: we don’t need locks, we need lights.”
As part of their campaign, Pinjra Tod has submitted reports at the university authorities and the Delhi government’s Commission for Women. In addition, the women have organised all kinds of events to reclaim public spaces for women, especially at night. Devika is especially enthusiastic about an event held last November, called Library Of Our Dreams. “College libraries are open till two o’clock at night, but women are locked up at 7.30, 8.30, maximum 10pm”, she explains the reason behind the event. “So we all took over the Arts Faculty area, with books all over, for all night studying.”
In a video on the Facebook page of Pinjra Tod the girls can be seen with their books, reading out poetry at a campfire and singing songs. Various other events and protests are also documented on the Facebook page, with girls shouting slogans and debating the rules. The campaign did pay of. In May of this year, the Indian authority for higher education, University Grants Commission (UGC), sent out a notice to all universities saying there should not be any discriminatory rules. However, according to Devika, most college hostels still continue to maintain the old curfew hours.
While an interview request to college authorities remains unanswered, they can count on Devika and her fellow campaigners to knock on their door this academic year. “We want to personally talk to them and request them to please follow the rules, now we have the UGC guidelines.” The young women also want to repeat their Library Of Our Dreams, as well as organise other events. “We are going to have all these night walks and rallies, to really put women in the forefront.”
The campaign is not restricted to women of Delhi University. The movement also includes women from Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University, National Law University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. They have been organising signature campaigns, online petition and events across Delhi.