How DU closed gender gap

Published on May 03, 2022 11:54 PM IST

From the hesitant 1940s and the awkward 1970s, Delhi University has come a long way in educating and empowering women with multiple co-educational and stand-alone colleges for women showing the way

A fresher being ‘ragged’ at Miranda House when DU’s 1983-84 session kicked off. (HT Archive)
A fresher being ‘ragged’ at Miranda House when DU’s 1983-84 session kicked off. (HT Archive)
BySadia Akhtar, New Delhi

St Stephen’s, which was among the first three colleges to be affiliated with Delhi University, was established in 1881. But women were admitted to the college, that too only for the MA course, for the first time in 1928-29. They were first admitted to undergraduate courses 15 years later, in 1943, which was stopped in 1949, with the establishment of Miranda House. Women were readmitted in 1975, and in 1993-94, they were also admitted into BSc and BA (Pass) courses.

Supriya Guha, an alumnus who was part of the 1975 batch, recalls, “We were 45 girls out of a batch of around 1,100. Around 16 girls were from the same school, and were familiar with each other. Delhi was a much smaller place then. A lot of young boys said they did not want the college to become co-educational, arguing that it will ruin the culture. But this was only a laddish kind of awkwardness, since everyone also came from single-sex schools.”

From the hesitant 1940s and the awkward 1970s, Delhi University has come a long way in educating and empowering women with multiple co-educational and stand-alone colleges for women showing the way and setting the agenda on gender justice.

In 1961, Shashi Mehrotra joined Delhi University’s Lady Irwin College for a degree in BSc (home science). A resident of Old Delhi’s Katra Neel area, Mehrotra went to a neighbourhood Hindi school, making the transition to higher education a challenge. The 18-year-old found herself in uncharted territory at an institution where students, teachers, and staff conversed in fluent English. Initially intimidated by the new challenges that came her way, Mehrotra knew that stepping back was not an option.

“Soon after taking admission at Lady Irwin, I realised that I’ll have to learn English, because the staff and lab assistants were very fluent in the language. I just could not back out because my father was very keen on seeing someone from the family study at the historic college. My course was superb and I did not want to let go of the opportunity of studying here,” said Mehrotra, who began to devote hours to learning English and the impressive line-up of nearly 28 subjects offered by the college.

The second oldest women’s college of Delhi University, Lady Irwin was set up in 1932 under the patronage of Lady Dorothy Irwin, the wife of Lord Irwin, then Viceroy of India.

The college began with three teachers and 11 students and offered two courses, a one-year course in house science and a three-year diploma course for those who wished to take up home science professionally as teachers. The college was run under the aegis of All India Women’s Education Fund Association till 1950. It was then affiliated to Delhi University, and a BSc in home science course was introduced.

While student politics on the campus was non-existent, Mehrotra recalled signing up for special classes aimed at aiding the country’s effort during the India-China war. “For a reserved girl from Old Delhi, the college offered a lot of freedom and opportunities,” she said.

In the early years, the most prominent among the colleges for women in Delhi was Indraprastha College for Women (IP College), which came into being in 1924. The result of a nationwide campaign for women’s education and empowerment, the college has its origins in Indraprastha Hindu Kanya Shikshalaya or Indraprastha Hindu Girls School of 1904.

Annie Besant, founder of the Theosophical Society, who emphasised the need for efforts to educate women in India, in a 1903 speech, said, “The power of women to uplift or debase a man is practically unlimited and man and woman must walk forward hand-in-hand to the raising of India, else she will never be raised at all…”

In their book, The Women’s Movement and Delhi’s Indraprastha College, authors Meena Bhargava and Kalyani Dutta write that Besant’s vision inspired the members of the Indraprastha Lodge of the Theosophical Society to form a board of trustees that laid the foundation of the Indraprastha Hindu Girls School.

It started out from a haveli in Old Delhi’s Chhipiwara in 1904 with five students. The college began as an intermediate college in two rooms of the school in 1924. It shifted to Chandrawali Bhawan in Civil Lines in 1934, and to its current space, Alipore House, in 1938.

In September 1945, the college acquired its current name.

Babli Moitra Saraf, principal of the college, said the institution has carried on the legacy of educating women from across the country. She recalled that the college played a key role in ensuring that learning was not disrupted even in the aftermath of Partition. The college conducted classes in the evening till 1949 to cater to refugee students who had migrated to India.

And yet, despite the benchmarks they set, IP and Lady Irwin were off-campus colleges. This changed in 1948, when then DU vice-chancellor Maurice Gwyer set up Miranda House, making it the first women’s college on campus with a residential facility.

In her book on Delhi University, professor Aparna Basu says, “An interesting folklore goes that Miranda got its name because of three reasons — Maurice Gwyer’s daughter’s name was Miranda, Gwyer took inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest where the protagonist’s name is Miranda and the third being that Maurice Gwyer’s favourite actress was Carmen Miranda.”

Pratibha Jolly, former principal and alumna of the college, who enrolled for a degree in physics in 1970, added that the college was called a “House” in line with the Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) tradition. She said the college carved a space for itself as a reputed institute of science.

“Miranda pioneered science teaching in the university for women. Right from the beginning, it had a physics, chemistry and botany department. The students included women such as the princess of Patiala among others. They were daughters of the elite,” said Jolly.

The Lady Hardinge Medical College for women was founded in 1914 to commemorate the visit of Queen Mary in 1911-12. The college was set up at the initiative of Lady Hardinge — the wife of then Viceroy Baron Charles Hardinge — who wanted to start a medical college for women. The college and hospital were formally opened by the Viceroy on February 17, 1916. A pioneer in the field of medical education, the college has the unique distinction of being the only Medical College in India exclusively for women undergraduate students. While the college was initially affiliated with Calcutta University, it affiliated with Delhi University in 1950.

In 1949, Saroj Kumari Prakash joined the Lady Hardinge Medical College for her bachelor’s in medicine degree. Then a 17-year-old, Prakash lived in Old Delhi’s Haus Qazi area and commuted to the college in a tonga. Studying at the prestigious college was a life-altering experience, said Prakash, who was associated with the college from 1949 till 1985 in different capacities as a student and faculty member.

“Life on campus was disciplined. My classmates were from different parts of the country since a specific number of seats were allocated to different states. While only 45 students were included as per the usual practice, an exception was made during my time to accommodate students affected by Partition. Five extra seats were carved out in 1949,” said Prakash, now 90.

She recalled that the college had a unique set of rules in place for the smooth functioning of various tasks. Roll calls and coordinated bells announcing different chores were the order of the day. “If first-year students were required to come to the common room, the bell would ring once. If third-year students were required to go for a postmortem class or visit the mortuary, the bell would ring thrice. The system worked like a well-oiled machine,” said Prakash.

In the aftermath of Partition, Delhi’s population rose as millions of new residents poured into the Capital. To cater to the educational needs of the large population of displaced persons, a number of new colleges were set up.

Among them was Lady Shri Ram College (LSR), established by the founder of Delhi Cloth and General Mills, Shri Ram, in 1956 in the memory of his wife. While the college started from the premises of a school building in 1956 in Darya Ganj with 243 students, it shifted to its current location in Lajpat Nagar in 1958.

Ishrat Akram, 73, who signed up for the BA (Pass) course at LSR in 1968, recalls that the college was mostly attended by girls from elite families. A resident of Old Delhi, the commute was among the challenging aspects of college life, she said.

“Public transport was not easily available. We used to walk till Red Fort from Jama Masjid and board the DU ladies’ special bus, which used to drop us at Darya Ganj,” said Akram.

She said some of the most vivid memories from college days were of the time when senior students “ragged” juniors. “In those days, ragging marked the initiation of students into college life. Freshers were garlanded with shoes or asked to imitate the rooster,” said Akram.

The college café used to be a modest outlet in the early decades and was referred to as a canteen. While it served basic items such as tea and samosa, eateries outside the college were also in popular demand. Besides the roadside eateries, students often frequented Paras and Sapna cinema halls that had been newly opened then.

The number of colleges in south Delhi grew over the years to accommodate students in an ever-expanding city.

In 1959, Janki Devi Memorial College was founded by freedom fighter and Gandhian Brij Krishan Chandiwala in memory of his mother Janki Devi in old Rajendra Nagar.

Rama Sharma, principal of Hansraj College, completed her graduation and master’s in Hindi from Janki Devi between 1982 and 1988. Sharma, 57, said the off-campus college had the image of “an institution of the masses.”

“With LSR or Jesus and Mary College (JMC, set up in 1968), there was always a perception that students from privileged backgrounds went to these colleges. Janki Devi, meanwhile, welcomed students from diverse backgrounds. It never saw any political activity or protests, since it was away from the campus,” she said.

In 1964, Kamala Nehru College was established. Initially known as Government College for Women, the college started in Defence Colony and moved to its current location in the 1970s where it was renamed Kamala Nehru College. In 1968, JMC was set up by the Congregation of Jesus and Mary.

But, while a substantial number of women’s colleges dotted the Capital, there were still not enough for living in the city’s rural areas. The early 1990s saw gradual changes with the establishment of two colleges — Aditi Mahavidyalaya in Bawana and Bhagini Nivedita College in Najafgarh. Both the colleges were tasked with the job of bringing young women into the fold of education and offering them opportunities that were not easily accessible to them on the outskirts of the city.

Kalpana Bhakuni, principal of Kamala Nehru College, said women’s colleges offered an unparalleled sense of freedom and comfort. Recollecting her time as a student at Miranda House in the ’70s and then as an administrator at KNC, she said, “There is a lot of spontaneity. The manner in which one conducts oneself or interacts with friends and teachers comes very naturally. Even as the head of a women’s college, there has been no change in my perception. The moment women enter the college, they enter a safe space where they are in their true spirits, without any inhibition. Women’s colleges offer openness, freedom, and comfort,” said Bhakuni.

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