While India reels from gender inequality and rising violence against women, a group of female students is fighting discriminatory hostel rules at public universities.

The female students at Jamia Millia Islamia University in the national capital New Delhi, led by an autonomous collective Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), have accused the university of having discriminatory and ‘patriarchal’ rules against them as the boys’ hostel has no curfew times or restrictions on when they can leave. Even in the 21st century, the authorities deem it better to lock up women in hostels early rather than let them claim public spaces and make things safer, they argue.

Years of discriminatory practices faced by female students in Indian universities have created a raging demand for equality that lies at the core of Pinjra Tod, which started in 2015. The movement, which originated in Jamia, has resonated with women students in several universities where branches have been created.

“This movement is important because it’s a fight against the constant institutional scrutiny faced by women in higher academia. It gives space for women to put forward their concerns and demand a change in the ways that university administration runs,” Jamia student and Pinjra Tod activist Mariyeh Mushtaq said.

Breaking the cage

The movement has spread beyond Jamia and New Delhi. In April, the Pinjra Tod wing of Panjab University in Chandigarh was successful in extending women’s hostel curfew from 9pm to 11pm and even till midnight in “unavoidable circumstances”.

It is also addressing other associated problems with public university hostels ranging from high fees to dress codes to issues faced by women who are forced to stay in facilities for paying guests. Regular marches by women students to increase visibility in male-dominated public spaces and consciousness-raising campaigns at different places are changing the way students see repressive and gender-biased rules.

Last year, Delhi University saw a series of protests after the warden called the parents of a woman student at Ambedkar Ganguly Hostel over her actions and brought the curfew back from 10pm to 9pm. More issues of infrastructure and moral policing problems poured out once the protests took off and spread across the university. End result? The rule at that particular hostel went back to what they were.

However, in Jamia Milia Islamia, where the women’s movement started, success is yet to come. The women students emerged victorious in March after a struggle lasting almost four years against the curfew, only to see it lost in three months time.

Student protests led to the authorities extending the curfew at the girls’ hostels in March from 7:30-8pm to 10:30 pm. But in June it was rolled back to 9pm in the new academic year. But they were able to remove the need for permission being needed from a guardian before they are allowed to leave.

A temporary win and a long fight

The rollback enraged the women students, who said the move was a clear breach of trust, as the authorities had signed a memorandum submitted earlier by the students and granted the extended curfew.

To justify the rollback, university officials argued that parents of the girls would not allow such a relaxation of the curfew and that the students only protested because they wanted to party and roam at night.

The Hostel Provost of Jamia, Azra Khurshid, said: “It [the early curfew] is for women’s safety, and we have our ways of running the hostel and let us see how many parents agree to our rollback; only then will we decide what is to be done.”

The authorities also made it mandatory for female residents of hostels to submit an undertaking saying they will not indulge in any protest or signature campaign against hostel rules and if they fail to do that it could result in them losing their room at the hostel.

However, after protests, this clause was withdrawn from the university prospectus. The women students along with Pinjra Tod are still fighting to change the curfew.

Controversial new regulations

After the earlier curfew extension to 10:30pm, the Jamia hostel devised different rules for women who come early and ones who come after 10:30pm. Girls at the hostel say that was a way to divide them into the “good” and “bad” to keep them under scrutiny, with the “bad” ones identified for the future.

“The manner in which the Jamia administration has come out with these new rules in the face of large protests against sexist rules in the hostel last semester, completely silences and dismisses the struggles and voices of dissenting women,” said Sabah Maharaj, a Jamia student and member of Pinjra Tod.

The authorities, in June, issued a ‘Hostel Manual’ with more restrictions and also required the female students to submit an air or rail ticket copy if they take are due to leave.

Maharaj said that these new rules didn’t just curb their mobility but “further increase surveillance on women students” in the name of safety. The issue of women’s safety takes on extra seriousness in Delhi, given that the capital had the most reported rapes in 2016 out of 19 major cities, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

A report on hostel rules by Pinjra Tod compelled the Delhi Commission for Women to issue notices to all 23 registered universities in Delhi on gender bias in hostel rules. The Jamia university administration also got a notice but tangible outcomes are yet to be seen.

The government also doesn’t seem to be on the women’s side. Last year, Maneka Gandhi, the Women and Child Development minister, faced protests for saying that young women were “hormonally challenged” and to protect them a “lakshman rekha” [a protective line for a woman] was needed via an early hostel curfew.

Discriminatory practices 

Curfews at most university hostels in the capital range from 7pm to 8:30pm. But it can be much earlier for some universities in other states. The Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, for example, has a 5pm curfew for women.

Students say these regulations deny women equal opportunities and access to educational spaces. Libraries are often open on campuses well beyond the time that hostels close their doors for women, which means only male students have access.

Curfews have also been unnecessarily stringent at some locations. A Pinjra Tod newsletter has noted that women at Delhi University’s School of Economics were unable to fetch drinking water from the mess water cooler because they were locked in the hostel.

Meanwhile, men enjoy unmatched freedom. “During the three years I have stayed in the men’s hostel, the curfew times were never in practice. Usually, male students stay out late either to use the reading rooms of the central library or due to some other reason,” Towfeeq Wani, a postgraduate student at Jamia, said.

However, while the movement has only had limited success to date, it has cultivated an anger about discrimination which many feel is only going to grow. Indeed there was another protest today against the 9pm curfew at Jamia Milia Islamia University.

A sense of simmering resentment and defiance was evident from a notice promoting the latest protest: “The cages are about curtailing our political voice and assertion. They are cages that render us invisible on campus after certain hours.

“Women’s entry into higher education has been a long struggle but it still comes with ‘terms and conditions’.”