protest

Girls Uninterrupted: How 2018 Was a Defining Moment for Indian Women Students’ Fight Against Hostel Curfews

The past few months have witnessed some of the most successful student protests against gender discriminatory curfews across the country.
December 27, 2018, 10:30am
hostel protest by women students across India
Illustration: Prianka Jain

On October 10, 2018, a three-hour long march at Panjab University (PU) in Chandigarh—with 500-odd women students walking and sloganeering to break the hostel gates—turned into a 47-day long sitout. Through the rain and cold, Diwali and Guru Purab festivities, protesting women stood their resolve in a makeshift tent, shouting, “Roke tenu keda hai, adha ambar tera hai (Whoever dares to stop you, half the sky is yours).” Somewhere along the way, the words changed from ‘adha’ (half) to ‘saara’ (full). And in that moment, it became clear: The women would settle for nothing less than a complete abolition of curfew in their hostels.

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At Panjab University (PU) in Chandigarh, a three-hour long march turned into a 47-day sit out.

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"Whoever dares to stop you, the entire sky is yours."

The hostel curfew has long been an enemy of women students in India’s public colleges and universities. While on paper, curfews are same for boys and girls, in practice, boys never have to follow the rules. On the other hand, in-and-out timings for girls are rigidly enforced. Strict policing by college authorities encompasses daily harassment of women students, while them being locked up in hostels results in a loss of opportunities, which are easily accessible to men on campus.

On December 15, the PU Senate (their admin body) finally changed age-old rules to allow 24x7 entries and exits in womens’ hostels. Kanupriya, the student body president, recalls what it was like, “Girls' hostel mein no one is saying hello, good morning, good evening… everyone is saying congratulations. Jitna jeetne ke baad congratulations mile hain utna hi abhi bhi mil rahe hain. (I’ve been congratulated by as many people now as I was when I won the election),” says the 22-year-old, who created history by becoming PU’s first woman president in September this year.

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Student body president Kanupriya leads the protest at PU.

Women of PU aren’t the only ones celebrating. Over the past few months, some of India’s most prestigious educational institutions have witnessed successful student protests against curfews in women’s hostels. These include the Regional Institute of Education in Bhubaneswar, Ajmer and Bhopal, Kottayam College in Kerala, Hidayatullah National Law University in Raipur, National Institute of Technology in Allahabad, Punjabi University in Patiala, and Chandigarh’s Panjab University.

The Girls, They Are a-Marching

There had been disparate movements against gender discriminatory hostel curfews in the past. But in 2015 students’ protest against Jamia Millia Islamia University’s decision to do away with ‘night-outs’ for women hostellers (they could no longer seek permission to stay out later than 8 pm), led to the formation of a collective of women students across universities and a movement called ‘Pinjra Tod’ (break the cage). It was premised upon the recognition of the similarity of this experience. Since then, Delhi-based collective Pinjra Tod has acquired a larger purpose—organising campaigns against hostel curfews and for affordable accommodation in colleges, and challenging the way patriarchy operates, critiquing “caste, class and politics of reproduction”.

However, barring a few protests that had taken place in colleges like IIT Roorkee, RMLNLU Lucknow and NIT Calicut over the last three years, the movement was largely restricted to Delhi. But the recent spate of protests has seen the focus shift to universities across other regions in India, many of which Pinjra Tod was not actively involved in, though there was communication online and a sharing of experiences and resources. “What happened this time is that because there is a collective assertion and everything is also on social media, there is a sharing of resources,” says Avantika Tewari, a member of Pinjra Tod. “We have also seen that when it comes to the discourse on gender, there has been some kind of a shift in common sense. Just the fact that we are able to communicate all our politics and consolidate it together, and share resources, has enabled these kinds of protests.”

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“Usually, if there was a change in curfew timings in DU, we would think that it’s a different institution. But when this protest happened in a regional college, we thought if it could happen in RIE Bhopal, then why not in RIE Ajmer?” adds Anita Malwani*, a 21-year-old student of RIE, Ajmer. At the Regional Institutes of Education—an NCERT-affiliated institution that is known for its courses in teacher training—a kind of domino effect resulted in protests in three out of the six branches in September 2018.

A few kilometers away from Panjab University in Chandigarh, women students at Punjabi University in Patiala started protesting September 18 onwards. Finally, on October 10, their curfew was extended from 8pm to 10pm, while the rules for returning post curfew were relaxed considerably. “Even if you’re out after curfew timing, you just have to let the warden or prefect know. Before this, you’d be fined based on how many minutes you were late by,” says 26-year-old PhD student Jaspreet Kaur, an active member of Democratic Students Organisation (DSO) that was leading the movement in Punjabi University.

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The protest at Punjabi University in Patiala led to a curfew extension from 8pm to 10pm.

At National Institute of Technology in Allahabad, 200-plus women came together spontaneously, which overwhelmed the administration. “Because the hostel [curfew] timing is 8.30 pm, we started the protest at 8.20. They [college authorities] were just standing there, stunned. By 11.22 pm, they issued an official notice agreeing to our demands,” says Aaliya Damani*, a 21-year-old student of the college.

While students at NIT protested only after wardens kept delaying discussions on curfew extensions, the Government Medical College in Kottayam, Kerala, saw an impromptu protest after their requests were not considered for over two years. “There were 350 students in the hostel and all of them protested. We just opened the gates of our hostel and sat there for six hours, singing songs in protest,” says Amruthavarshini, vice-chairperson of the student body of Government Medical College.

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At HNLU Raipur, the protest was led by students who had been a part of Pinjra Tod. “Last year, we put posters around, worked the whole night, and mobilised people. Until then, nobody had connected with Pinjra Tod,” says Jaya Rishi, a final-year student at HNLU. Within half an hour of putting up posters, the administration tore all of them down. Suspected students were called in to the registrar’s office and severely reprimanded. But this time, when Jaya’s juniors called for a meeting to discuss the curfew, 350 girls turned up and the room resonated with this one sentence: “We are here for pinjra tod.”

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Scenes from the HNLU Raipur protest.

Will a Girl Walk Alone at Night?

Though finer details of protests vary across colleges, problems arising due to rigid curfew timings are similar. Foremost amongst these is losing access to professional and other opportunities which enable holistic growth, something that is readily available to their male counterparts. At Government Medical College in Kottayam, for instance, women rue missed opportunities when it comes to observing patient case studies, especially at nights. “While we get the opportunity only in the third year, boys get to go there any time they want. They come back and tell us stories of what they saw, while we never get that chance,” says Dhanya Shekhar*, a second-year student at the institute. At NIT Allahabad too, students talk about inaccessibility to labs and libraries, while at HNLU, third-year student Varshini Sunder points out how having to go back to the hostel at 10 pm causes difficulties when it comes to researching academic papers and coordinating with other team members for MOOTs.

But womens’ issues are not restricted to strict enforcement of timings. The way the hostel authorities required them to jump through hoops of unnecessary paperwork, policing and parental and college permissions, even for the smallest of matters, is equally distressing. For instance, women at Punjabi University would be fined for little things—from celebrating birthdays without authorities’ permission to signing the attendance with a blue and not a black pen. “Many hostel rules make us feel psychologically burdened on a daily basis,” says Kaur.

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Even when it comes to policing students’ behaviour, authorities would rather assert control over women students. At RIE’s three branches, and even in Punjabi University (till they protested against it, getting the practice stopped in 2015), girls are locked in their hostels during Holi. “They can’t keep boys in as they’d break the hostel gates, so they keep girls in even though there is only one boys’ hostel while there are three girls’ hostels,” says Amrita Salian*, a student of RIE Ajmer.

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Students stage a sitout at RIE Ajmer.

A major point of conflict between authorities and students and amongst students themselves, is women’s safety. Linked to this is the idea of parental consent. “I’ve been chief warden for several years. I think about these girls a lot. Because parents leave their daughters with us, their care and protection is our responsibility,” says Dr SG Wadekar of RIE Bhopal. At NIT Allahabad and RIE Bhubaneswar, authorities agreed to extend curfew timings, contingent on students getting forms signed by their parents.

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The protest at RIE Bhubaneswar.

At Kottayam College, whenever students brought up the issue of increasing their curfew, authorities would delay discussions, saying that they would bring it up with the Parents Teachers’ Association (PTA). “I am 22 and we are living here from the age of 19 to 25. What is this ridiculousness?” asks Amruthavarshini.

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The girls refuse to go back into their hostels at Government Medical College, Kottayam.

“Wherever there is a fight against curfew, this issue always comes up—if a girl goes out after a certain time, her safety is her own responsibility. The idea that our safety is the state’s responsibility is missing, whether it is Chandigarh administration’s responsibility in Chandigarh or PU security’s at PU. You can create the same normalcy at night as there is during the day,” says Kanupriya. Adds Tewari, “On the pretext of safety and security we've been curtailed most of our lives. This idea of authorities caring about our safety is completely hollow. We know for a fact that there aren't any Internal Complaints Committees in most colleges. If there are, they are not invested, or conducted in a haphazard manner.”

Could the extension and removal of curfews in these womens’ hostels mark the beginning of a drastic redefinition of campus cultures in Indian universities? Kanupriya certainly seems hopeful. “A huge mentality shift will take place after the removal of curfews in our universities. A girl being out when it’s dark will be normal,” she says.

*Some names have been changed to protect the anonymity of students.

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