Looking beyond ‘Looking After’

The beats might differ from place to place, but you can’t miss the tune playing everywhere on the picturesque North Campus of Delhi University – it is the dismal strain of frustration at having to continue putting up with gender discrimination within colleges. Students of Ramjas College and Indraprastha College for Women stood up against hostel rules inimical to women’s freedom – and the authorities haven’t taken kindly to their demands.

At IP, the girls protested against the administration’s decision to move the hostel in-time from 9.30 to 7.30 p.m. following the December incident of gang-rape, in a bid to ensure greater protection. “But the Principal completely clamped down on the few students who spoke at the Open House session, organized to discuss their demands,” says Jessica Jojo, a second year Mathematics Honours student from St. Stephen’s who was closely involved with the campaign at IP. “Many of the other girls clapped in her (the Principal’s) support! She said that parents send their daughters to hostel only because they feel secure, knowing there is a ‘curfew’. So there could be no question of lifting it. After this there simply wasn’t anything we could do. Besides, one of the girls who’d spoken up began to be openly harassed. The warden was asked to maintain a dossier to keep track of everything she did – enter and leave the hostel, eat, talk. The others felt all the more scared.”

At Ramjas, the demand was that if the curfew rules for boys (which existed on paper) were not implemented; neither should they be for girls. According to Sania Hashmi, a third year English Honours student, “Equality is what we wanted. But what was most disturbing was the gaze directed at us and the moral calibration we were constantly subjected to. The warden, and under him the matrons and guards were always judging whether we were ‘good daughters’, morally untainted according to their standards or ‘potential sluts’.”

Petitions to the authorities brought some success. Rules that had simply come up in the course of regulating the daily affairs of the hostel were revoked: bags were no longer checked at the hostel gates, girls could have food delivered from outside till 12 instead of 11. But the curfew of 9 pm remained in place- only now, if they were a little late girls could still enter without having to apply for a late night (permission to be back by 11 pm which could be taken five times a month).

Beginning in 2000, the fight for gender equality in Ramjas has been a long one – first to set up a hostel for girls, then to remedy the horrifyingly prison-like conditions there. There were grills in the first-floor balconies (the floor housing women students), the terrace was out of bounds and of course, the in-time was ridiculously early. Vinita Chandra, an Associate Professor of English and an active member of the Gender Forum at Ramjas has been fighting long enough to know why the authorities so roundly reject women’s demand to move freely, even within the college campus. “Over the years I’ve realized it’s a long-drawn process, you know, patriarchy is so deeply entrenched in people that it’s a constant struggle to change the way they think – not a battle you can win once and then lie back.  For instance when the Staff Council at Ramjas met to discuss what suggestions to send the Justice Verma Committee, biases came out right into the open. Educated, independent female professors expressed shockingly conservative attitudes when it came to liberties for young girls. They said ‘gender tumhare liye bari baat hai’. In such a scenario the only way forward is to go on talking, engaging, discussing. You feel tremendously frustrated and think you cannot try persuading them any longer. Then you go back all the same, and begin afresh!”

But Ramjas students, says Jessica, are fortunate to have at least a few teachers who’re fiercely supportive of them, unlike some other colleges. Solidarity among the students themselves is also sorely lacking in many of the campaigns. At IP, the girls tried hard to mobilize support, going from door to door in the hostel before their talks with the Principal. But eventually, faced with the possibility of their academic career being harmed, few could fight it out till the end. Ragini Jha, a second year student of Philosophy Honours at St. Stephen’s sees this as the biggest hurdle they must overcome for a more effective anti-curfew campaign in St. Stephen’s. “Our campaign has had one phase. It might quieten down but will be taken forward through talks and discussions, just to mobilize more students. Then hopefully, if the atmosphere against curfews is kept up, it will be taken up again later. I think that’s what we should aim towards, and at the same time, assert the right to speak freely without being penalised.”

They have also felt the necessity of coming together to fight common battles against hostel rules or harassment around canteen areas; hence the formation of the Delhi University Gender Forum. Says Jessica, “There are other colleges too– for instance Miranda students have to put up with a lot of unfair treatment like not being allowed to hang their lingerie out to dry though there is no separate drying room provided. So we should try addressing all these issues together, through the forum. The Principals of the colleges have such enormous power that it’s impossible to fight them all alone. When Saba, Vrinda and others fought against gender discrimination at Stephen’s, back in the 1980s they could succeed only because students from other DU colleges supported them.”

But does Delhi University provide the democratic space needed for such protests? “Yes,” insists Jessica. “DU hasn’t witnessed campaigns on this scale for quite some time. Take the anti-Modi protest in February or the protests against the Vice Chancellor that’s been going on for more than two years now and is still growing. So I think it keeps getting better – but yes, to win the bigger fight we must support each other.”

Uma Gupta, Assistant Professor at IP maintains that a university’s link with the larger society is the decisive factor here.  “What we really need is for people outside the students from one or two colleges – everyone, from the intelligentsia to the media –to be equally firm in their stand against gender discrimination. Nothing but that can create an atmosphere conducive enough for these smaller campaigns to thrive.”

As crimes against women keep escalating in that ‘larger society’ and ministers at the helm of administration of the country itself continue to offer regressive remedies, it is vitally important that Delhi University students have chosen this juncture to open our eyes to how gender discrimination is daily practised within such, supposedly ‘progressive’ institutions on the pretext of keeping women safe. The offensive against these students only highlights how radical and far-reaching the change in social attitudes must be before we can in fact ensure a safe environment for women – an environment filled with the high winds of liberty and not the puny security of some dubiously well-meant incarceration.

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