Devangana Kalita was just a few weeks into her first year at Miranda House, a women’s college in Delhi University, when she ran into trouble. She got back late from an inter-college debate she was competing in and missed the curfew: 7:30 pm. Kalita remembered being only 10 minutes late but, she said, the warden “lost it.” The result was a long apology written by Kalita and a phone call to her father. She said she had thought of college as a “liberating” space only to find out that it was “marred by these rules.” Those rules, she soon discovered, involved stern curfews and other restrictions on female students. Private hostels and “paying guest” facilities (rooms for rent basically) were no better - they insisted on equally stringent rules for women. The year was 2007.
Now eight years later, Kalita is part of “Pinjra Tod,” a Delhi-wide student campaign that seeks to “break through” the deeply sexist and suffocating rules. They range from curfews to clothes to differing levels of moral policing - even co-ed colleges don’t allow men and women into each other’s hostels. Kawalpreet Kaur, who graduated from the Indraprastha College for Women, said women have been pulled up by hostel wardens for wearing “inappropriate clothes” and “hanging out with boys” in the night.
In 2015, when Delhi’s universities reopened after the summer break, Jamia Millia Islamia said female students could no longer request permission to stay out later than 8 pm. Within days, the university received a notice from the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) asking why such a restriction was required. Then a student at Jamia wrote an open letter to the Vice Chancellor alleging that such a rule (or even the earlier rule that staying out late required a signed note from her parents or local guardians) “violated her Right to Freedom.”
“We took that as an opening,” said Kalita. Existing campaigns and students networks kicked into full gear for a movement that spanned across universities. The result was Pinjra Tod. Prison, Kalita said, was the first metaphor that came to mind when they were hunting for names. “What other place has a warden?” she asked, chuckling. She has even seen some college brochures, she said, refer to students in hostels as “inmates!” The campaign has no founders or leaders, she added, because Pinjra Tod is the result of a much older women’s movement.
In a 45-page report to the DCW in November 2015, Pinjra Tod demanded various things from an elected sexual harassment committee to safer public transport and more lighting in and around campuses. Since then the University Grants Commission, the governing body for higher education, has issued notices outlining sexual harassment policies and banning discriminatory dress codes and curfews for female students. But the struggle now, Kalita says, is to implement all of this.
“It’s not only the fight against unjust curfew timings,” said Kaur. “The fight largely is to…reclaim back our spaces.”