How does India keep its women safe? Lock them up, obviously

  • Jyoti Sharma Bawa, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 16, 2016 16:20 IST
An online campaign started by student activists from different colleges and universities against sexist rules in women’s hostels are exhorting women to break free. (PinjraTod/Facebook)

How do you stop a crime from taking place? Herd together all the prospective victims, lock them up as the sun goes down and lose the key till it is daylight again. Because, obviously, everyone is safe during the day.

Repeat this process day after day, year after year, generation after generation. That is how India has kept, or tried to keep, its women safe for decades. The time-honoured system is not only the favourite recourse of moral guardians (it comes right after ‘wear the right clothes’) but of college hostels also.

Graffiti like this appeared all across Delhi University in September 2015.

While male students have all access pass to their hostels, women have strict curfews, draconian guidelines and the all-powerful warden. Women also have the homilies which tell them it is all for their own good. There is the big bad wolf waiting outside and since we can’t tame him, we will imprison you and expect a thank you in return.

For the rebels, there is the constant threat of telling the parents and, worse, eviction. The system endured for years but no more. Students at many universities in Delhi are calling the hoax and taking to streets in protest.

They call their campaign Pinjra Tod – there can’t be a more apt name. They say they are in these universities to study and gender discrimination can simply not be a part of the course.

They started a conversation that India sorely needed. Women can’t be imprisoned on the pretext of keeping them safe, women cannot be held at ransom by moth-eaten rules. The campaign, which began in early August, comprises of women from DU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University, National Law University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Take a look at some of the recent promulgations – Punjab University asked wardens of all girls’ hostels to keep the gates closed from 8am to 6pm so as to avoid “any untoward incident”. In 2015, Indraprastha College’s female students found out their bathrooms don’t have latches. An anonymous letter sent to the principal demanding this basic right resulted in an impromptu meeting and the diktat from the principal that the needful will be done when she deems fit.

All of this is recorded by Pinjra Tod on their Facebook page. “Such clampdowns were a norm in colleges across India. There were sporadic protests earlier which Pinjra Tod turned into a collective. In 2012, Daulat Ram College banned mobile phones and laptops for women hostellers. There were no latches in the hostel rooms so that wardens can hold surprise checks. Even full body searches were conducted by wardens to check for phones. Students protested, just as they did in Miranda and many other colleges in Delhi,” says Devangana Kalita, an activist with the campaign and a former Miranda College student.

What brought individual protestors together was Jamia Milia Islamia’s decision to cancel late nights for its women students in 2015. The Feminist Collective got in touch with Delhi Commission of Women, which had taken suo motu cognisance of the matter, and turned one case into a petition on investigation of women’s freedom in hostels. They wanted action taken against moral policing, functional sexual harassment redressal bodies and end the everyday surveillance in colleges. The process is on with DCW, so is the fight.

If a woman wants to attend coaching at 8 pm, curfew should not stop her. If you want to work and return to hostel at 9pm, rules should not become a hindrance. If you want to go to the library at night (DU library is open till midnight), you don’t need your warden’s approval.

And who will guarantee the women’s security? It will be guranteed by sensitising the men who are allowed all rights and, as they say, education begins at home, schools and colleges. Keeping women imprisoned didn’t help anybody, rape statistics in India will prove that. Maybe setting the right precedents will, and women are demanding their rights. They call it Pinjra Tod.

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