“This is like life in Kashmir; isolated, alienated, and cut off from the mainstream,” says Anvesha Mishra, a second-year student of Arts at the Mahila Maha Vidyalaya (MMV), the women’s college inside the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) campus. We are at the grounds outside the University’s amphitheatre, in a secluded corner of sorts, where Anvesha and a few of her friends have gathered to share their experiences of life in the girls’ hostels in BHU.
As the girls list the “absurd” and discriminatory restrictions in the five girls’ hostels in BHU, the analogy of life in Kashmir seems rather perceptive, even if a bit exaggerated. The girls don’t reveal their names because they could “get suspended” for speaking up against the administration. And then, as the evening starts to fade into darkness, the girls must head back in time for the ‘curfew’ hour, that begins at 8pm. The defiant among the lot say they might try to “stretch” it “by 8.30pm”, but “not more”. After all, these are young girls, away from the confines of their homes, and in a city like Varanasi, girls must ‘behave’.
“From 9am-5pm, we are busy with classes. After that, we only have time till 8pm to do things such as visit the main library, go to the market, or meet friends, ” says Anvesha, a resident of Rae Bareilly. After the main gates close, there’s a roll call to ensure all the girls are in. “If you are not in by then, it’s a serious violation of rules,” says Shikha, another second-year student. The ‘rebellious’ among them might bend the rules by writing a false name at the gate if she misses the deadline. But even that is hard to pull off every time. “If you miss the attendance, you will be asked to explain, your parents might be called,” she says. The boys, however, can stay out till 10pm, and unlike the girls, don’t need permission to step out after the deadline.
For the girls, however, the paranoia around the deadline is such that girls are strictly advised to book trains – to go home – in such a way that they don’t need to step out of the hostel between 8pm-6am. A former resident of the postgraduate hostel says that in her hostel, girls were prevented from step ping out of the hostel gates after 6.30pm. “I couldn’t even drop my friend to the train station if I needed to,” says BHU alumna Princy Dwivedi, who graduated last year.
Why should girls be deprived of attending events on campus after 8pm, the girls ask? Or going to coaching classes which would mean they risk returning after the deadline? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to meet their friends from adjacent girls hostels after 10pm, they wonder? Why should girls not talk on their mobile phones after 10pm, if the boys can? Why are girls, unlike boys, not allowed to bring their day scholar friends into their rooms? Why should girls’ hostels not have LAN connections in their rooms, when the boys have that facility? And why can’t they visit the library until 11pm when the boys can?
The gender divide
Across the country, patriarchal and sexist norms continue to define the lives of young women in hostels. Not unlike many other Universities, in BHU too, girls are subject to dress codes – no shorts, decent clothing please – no night outs or visitors, and difficult-to-get permission if you need a day out. And – perhaps only in BHU – girls’ hostels won’t even serve meat because it violates “tradition”.
“How can they get meat at Malviyaji’s hostel! In fact, he didn’t even want onion or garlic in the food. But we do give them eggs, you see,” says Sandhya Singh Kaushik, principal, MMV. The MMV is an 87-year-old institution , founded by Madan Mohan Malviya. Malviya, a Hindu nationalist leader who served as president of both the Hindu Mahasabha and the Indian National Congress. Malviya’s vision for the women’s college, says Kaushik, was to provide a “sheltered”, “separate” and “safe” space for girls from “backward classes”. The college started with “traditional” subjects such as Home Science, Sanskrit, and the Arts, but with time, expanded its repertoire to include “modern” subjects such as social sciences and bio-informatics.
This, the administration feels is a testament to its concept of blending “modernity” and “tradition”, a ‘harmony’ that must reflect in women’s behaviour too.
Which is why, Kaushik says, demands to “break the boundary walls” of the women’s college that separate them from the main campus have been dismissed. Says Kaushik, “Our girls are no less than any other; but they are sensitive and immature, and must be protected.”
Kaushik, a professor of psychology, says that while she is against “coercive” measures, discipline is important. “I don’t mind if young girls mingle with the opposite sex, or even if they are in a relationship. I am open and frank about these things. But these girls don’t know who to trust. Only the other day, one of our girls became a victim of cyber crime. I tell them, if you want to go out, then take full responsibility; don’t complain if things go wrong,” she says.
The patriarchal tropes of “protection” and “traditional values” find an echo at the office of Girish Chandra Tripathi, the Vice Chancellor of BHU, who says that Indian culture places a huge emphasis on “respect for women”, who represent societal “prestige and honour”. “I am only thinking like a father: if a daughter is not safe on the streets, then the father will have to keep her inside the house,” he says.
“We do feel unsafe,” says Anvesha, as we start to walk down from the amphitheatre to her hostel. At 7.50pm, it’s pitch dark, and street lights are missing for a few stretches that lead up to the main gate of MMV.
As the group finds its way with mobile torch lights, they argue that restrictions on women in public spaces only reinforce the notion that by “being out in the night, the woman is at fault”. Why not provide us proper security instead, so that we can move around safely, the girls ask?
Last May, when a resident of the Triveni hostel for post graduate girls was chatting with her male friend on campus, the two were attacked by a group of miscreants, who passed “sexist’ comments and beat them up too.
When the incident came to light, girls from the Triveni hostel protested outside the Vice Chancellor’s residence. “Several girls sat outside the VC’s house through the night. But he came out only by the evening of the next day. Instead of addressing our concerns around safety, and the frequent incidents of eve-teasing on campus, we were told that this was not the right behaviour. Admonishing phone calls were made to our parents about our participation in the protest,” says Princy, who was part of the protest.
Some students feel that the administration’s tepid response to women’s concerns around security, coupled with incidents of moral policing involving senior officials has only served to constrain women’s freedoms more than ever.
No place for dissent
Girl students contend that they want to raise their voices against the absurd restrictions, but are bound by an undertaking at the time of admission, which prohibits them from taking part in dharna-pradarshan (protest/agitation) on campus.
Despite the undertaking, however, many girls in BHU have been part of protests against tuition and mess fee hikes. “If you do this a lot, you might end up in the ‘defaulter’s room’ in the hostel. You will also be told that leadership qualities are not needed here. This is not JNU or DU’,” says Geetika. Which is why Anvesha and Geetika can only tacitly support the ongoing “library movement” on campus.
The “library movement” refers to the students’ agitation over a decrease in the hours of operation of the 24X7 cyber library. The agitation started in May, when a few students approached the administration to demand the opening of the cyber library. The library was started in 2013 for the benefit of “poor students” who didn’t have a place to study. But in November 2014, its hours of operation were reduced to 16.
This was done because of “misuse” of the facilities by some students. “It’s very expensive to run a library for 24 hours. The resources and staff of the library need some rest too,” says Tripathi.
As part of their agitation, the students claim they had managed 3,000 signatures from those who wanted the library to go back to its 24X7 schedule. Their list of demands also included a 24X7 secure bus service for girls in the University’s hostels, to allow the hostel girls to visit the library in the night too.
But the administration claimed that their demands were not justified – ‘why can’t they study till 11pm when the library is open’, they argued. About 20 days into the protest, nine students were suspended for two years. Three days later, at midnight, 14 protesting students were arrested, and later released on personal bonds.
“If girls are not allowed to participate in agitations, boys who do so are suspended for demanding their rights,” says a student who was part of the protests.
This issue of the students’ suspension was raised in the last Parliament session too, but students say nothing has been done to revoke their suspension. The administration justified it on the grounds that the protests were “politically motivated” .
It’s 8.05pm, and as the girls rush to make it past the gates, Anvesha turns thoughtful and says, “It seems that the University doesn’t want us to think for ourselves. There’s no space for us to demand our rights, or express our opinion. We are simply required to read textbooks, and maybe, even act like robots.”