Image for representation purpose only Image: Hindustantimes
If you’re an outstation woman student of Hindu College, Delhi University, and live in the college’s Women’s Hostel, you will be expected to pay nearly three times the fees that residents of the Men’s Hostel do. And while the Men’s Hostel residents are more or less free of any restrictions on their dress or movements, you will be hedged around by a positively Victorian set of absurd rules.
For instance, you can’t wear clothes of your own choice in the college or Hostel: the rules demand that you “dress in a manner which is THE NORMAL NORM IN THE SOCIETY while visiting the dining hall, visitor's room and common spaces in the hostel or the College.” What, pray, is the “normal norm”? After all, skirts, shorts, jeans, sleeveless tops and so on are considered ‘normal’ by most young people, but custodians of morality may well declare that only saris or salwar-kurtas with dupattas are the “normal norm” for Indian women!
You would have to attend ‘roll call’ at 8.30 pm every single day in the hostel unless you have “approved leave” – an unexplained or unauthorised absence after 8.30pm “will be subject to disciplinary action.” That means you can’t watch a film in a cinema hall or go for a party or just hang out with friends as adults do, without notifying your Warden and getting “approved leave.” You can be out till 10 pm on weekends or holidays; on weekdays just twice a month, and you can spend a night away from the hostel just once a month – needless to say, only if you “apply” for leave from your Warden 24 hours in advance, backed by a letter from your ‘parent/local guardian,’ and only if the leave is sanctioned. You will need your Warden’s permission “for taking part in any cultural/sports events outside college.” Your participation in such off-campus or on-campus events must be recorded in separate registers. You cannot “take up any full time/part-time employment or enrol for any course or coaching for which the classes are conducted outside the college without prior permission of the Warden.”
The Common Room is locked at 10.30 pm – so you can’t catch a film or cricket match or serial on TV after that time. You can’t talk in your room or in the corridors – yes, really. And you can’t ‘loiter’ in the corridors or hostel’s common spaces or anywhere outside your room after 11 pm.
You can meet visitors only in the visitors’ room – and only “those visitors who have been approved by parents and whose names and addresses are registered with the Hostel office at the time of admission will be allowed to meet the resident.” So, your parents and the Hostel authorities monitor your friends, and you aren’t allowed to make and meet any new friends after you join College! Even your women friends who are day scholars, cannot visit your hostel room. You’re not allowed to have any guests whatsoever in your room.
In other words, you, an adult woman, are under surveillance and subject to humiliating and infantilising restrictions in every area of your life.
Every college and University ought to be mandated to have hostels for both men and women – and the same rules should apply to both. The lives of students – male or female – must be free of surveillance and restrictions on personal autonomy.
When I was a Bachelor of Arts (BA) student in Mumbai in 1990, my College had no Women’s Hostel. Desperate for accommodation, I was lucky to get a room in a small women’s hostel run by a Gujarati women’s trust. The hostel had some of the absurd and arbitrary rules that the Hindu Women’s Hostel has imposed – though even that extremely conservative hostel did not demand that we seek Warden’s permission for cultural/sports events or coaching classes; and didn’t insist on parent-approved visitors. But watching a late evening play or a film festival, or going out for dinner meant that we had to find some ingenious way to break the rules. Relieved at having found a place to stay in the city, we didn’t complain very much about the rules – most of the time, we laughed at the rules and the Warden’s fear of lesbians (‘keep ten inches space between the beds or else bad things will happen,’ she would say); and we just found ways of subverting or breaking the rules as best as we could. We knew that any open challenge to the rules would mean that we would lose the hostel room – and that was a terrifying prospect, since our parents could not afford to rent a room for us and we could not study in Mumbai without hostel accommodation.
But I do remember an occasion when it was brought home to me just how humiliating and insufferable and inhuman it was to treat adult women like truant children. One young woman in the hostel was ‘exposed’ as having a boyfriend in whose room she had been secretly spending nights; her parents came to take her away from the hostel, in the midst of loud recriminations and abuse from the hostel authorities and her relatives.
A tall, strapping, striking-looking young woman, she had been subjected to a public shaming – and inevitably her education was rudely cut short as punishment for committing the ultimate sexual transgression of having loved and slept with a man of her choice. The hostel authorities were livid at the ‘failure’ of their rigid policing mechanisms – and we all felt the heat of tightened restrictions for some months afterward.
It is significant that factories too try to incarcerate women workers in ‘hostels’ to ensure surveillance and control on their autonomy. Garment workers in such hostels, producing for MNCs, are not allowed mobile phones, not allowed to speak to anyone except parents, from landline phones in a Warden’s presence, are not allowed to venture outside the hostel’s barbed wire-fortified walls, or allowed to meet visitors. The pretext is ‘safety’ – but the dividend, for the factory management, is that the women are prevented from joining unions.
In Universities and colleges too, the aim of moralistic and gendered rules for women’s hostels is to reproduce the family’s functions of proscribing inter-caste, inter-faith or same-sex liaisons; but also to prohibit or deter social and political activism. This is one of the reasons why JNU is demonised in the prurient right-wing imagination – because it is well known that in JNU, archaic rules prohibiting women from entering men’s hostel rooms are observed only in the breach, and no one in JNU has yet managed to suggest any dress or moral code for JNU’s women students.
This is why you have political leaders branding JNU’s protesting women as ‘worse than prostitutes’ and have ‘free sex’; fantasizing about the number of condoms found every night on the campus; or suggesting that the women’s hostels are dens of ‘organised sex racket.’ Spaces like JNU or FTII where women have won some small respite from the tight codes encircling them everywhere else are branded as ‘dens of vice.’ Ironically, the fact that the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment is more active and trustworthy than in most other campuses, also leads to further demonisation.
One the one hand, the fact that there is higher reporting of sexual harassment in JNU, thanks to awareness of and trust in the GSCASH, leads to JNU being profiled in the media as a campus with ‘the maximum number of sexual harassment cases.’ One the other, a ‘dossier’ prepared by a set of right-wing faculty members claims that the GSCASH is simply a tool used by Leftists and feminists to frame those students and teachers who refuse to be a part of the ‘sex racket.’
It’s a relief to see that young women today are chafing at and challenging the arbitrary and sexist treatment to which colleges and hostels subject them in the name of ‘safety.’ It’s well recognized by every woman student that such rules are not for their ‘safety’ – they are aimed at maintaining social and sexual control over women. It’s good that women students today are ‘breaking the cages’ and demanding equality and freedom in colleges, Universities and hostels.
Every college and University ought to be mandated to have hostels for both men and women – and the same rules should apply to both. The lives of students – male or female – must be free of surveillance and restrictions on personal autonomy. The women students of Hindu College deserve our wholehearted support in their courageous refusal to accept the sexist and degrading rules imposed on them. A victory of this movement in Hindu Hostel will strengthen the hands of students of other colleges and hostels – both public and private – where students are chafing against the unbearable regimes of surveillance and shaming.
(The author is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association)