On February 15, University Grants Commission asked heads of all universities to set up a task force. The purpose was to recommend measures to ensure the safety of women and youth, and programmes for gender sensitisation on campuses across the country.
However, a month after these notices were issued, 40-odd female students and faculty members of Gender Forum at Ramjas College and St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, gathered at the former to hold an intervention on the subject. Their aim was to give a larger voice to a subject that has always been brushed. From unrealistic hostel rules to being locked-up and forceful adherence of strict deadlines, the forum threw open concerns that reflected a general apathy towards women in this country.
Abhija Ghosh, former student of Ramjas College and a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University was present at the convention. A vocal supporter of the cause, she says the university is still where it was when she was a student there. “When we raised our voices against discrimination, our general concern was the way in which gender issues were being addressed at the university. It’s all right for boys to roam around the city at wee hours but not for girls to step out after 7 pm. Clearly, there is general disregard for gender equality,” she says.
The need for gender sensitisation has taken a front seat since the gruesome gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in the National Capital. The incident triggered mass protests across the country and brought to the forefront the manner in which such cases are handled by police and the general indifference among masses.
Debraj Mookerjee, professor of English at Ramjas College, has been a vocal supporter of equal rights for all students. His involvement in the ‘movement’ has helped several boys and girls come out and speak up. “This issue is not rocket science. The Constitution of India allows men and women to have equal rights and freedom, but the university does not seem to agree with it. It seems to be living with the misconception that women are not their responsibility but that of the parents or teachers and so on. It seems to believe that women are incapable of making their own decisions. It is a question of the need for a drastic change in mind set,” he says.
At a time when India is struggling to safeguard its image as a ‘progressive society,’ incidents of rape and acts of sexual violence against not just Indian women but tourists has triggered outrage across the globe. Embarrassingly so, notifications of warning to women tourists have also been issued. But all of this has simply had no impact in the way authorities function in India, especially when it comes to freedom of thought and action for the younger generation.
In March this year, a group of students from St Stephen’s College started a discussion forum on Facebook called House Arrest. The forum was aimed at discussing gendered rules in residence. With a strength of 433 members from various colleges across India and some offshore supporters, issues of hostel deadlines and unjust behaviour meted to those who oppose such restrictions were discussed. “A lot of us were subjected to hostility not just by the faculty but also by students because we wanted unrealistic deadlines to be curbed. We were locked in our dormitories by 10pm and not allowed to step out. The issue really is why is this bias against girls when boys are free to roam the campus or elsewhere anytime they wanted. When we question, we are shown the prospectus which has a deadline of 7 pm for the girls hostel in all colleges,” says a third-year student from the college.
College authorities silenced the protesting girls by serving them with various threats. The measures used was documented on Sanhati, an online journal. Formed in 2006 in West Bengal, Sanhati discusses various socio-economic topics with contributory articles from students, journalists and like-minded writers.
In a petition, which was published in Sanhati, students of St Stephen’s College said their demands (curfew at hostels be lifted and efforts be made to make the campus safe) were met with stiff resistance from college authorities.
A General Body Meeting was organised in college on March 25. The principal attended the meeting but behaved in an extremely high-handed manner and termed the issue of curfew as a ‘petty grievance’ contrived by a few mischief-makers. “He made sexist comments proclaiming that men and women were not equal — they were different, like apples and oranges, like eggs and stones — and had to be taken care of differently. He refused to recognise the students’ right to voice their demands, claiming they were mere guests and that he could force everyone out of residence and keep the buildings empty if he so desired,” said the petition.
Since the meeting, the most vocal section of the students has been targeted with threats of disciplinary action. “Students have been called to the Principal’s office individually, or in small groups, and threatened with suspension from residence if they were not happy with the rules, by him as well as the hostel wardens. The Principal has been trying to isolate the ‘troublemakers’ by questioning their academic inclination,” read the 962-word statement.
Nandita Narain, head and associate professor of mathematics at St Stephen’s College is supportive of the students. She says, “The principal wanted an ordinance passed in order for him to rule out any protest against his authority and so that the complaints committee members be selected by him. If this Ordinance 16-B is passed in Parliament, it will misused by the likes of him. Thankfully, it has not become an Act of Parliament yet because people from his own church are opposed to its undemocratic statutes.”
Narain says that students have been fighting for this issue for quite some time but have mercilessly been shot down by authorities. “The principal seems to be running this anti-thesis, talibanised pathshaala. He is himself marred by allegations of sexual harassment. The point is that there is nothing wrong in having a debate to solve issues,” she says.
Ghosh adds, “There is this paternal attitude towards girls which is again completely unwarranted. Not just in college, but also in residential areas and PGs. Infantilization only happens in the case of women, as though they are incapable of making their own decisions.” Although other colleges at the university such as Kirorimal College have also fought for gender equality through their forum Parivartan, change in mindset has been painfully slow.
According to the MHRD, only 12.7 per cent of eligible women had joined higher education for 2009-10 while 17.1 per cent of eligible males had enrolled for the same. An even more shocking fact is that while 30 per cent of women in urban India enrolled in some form of higher education only eight per cent of rural women opted for higher studies. An inclusive approach is the need of the hour, if we want to see these numbers rise.
Universities across the country have started courses and cells for gender sensitisation. In January this year, Patna University constituted a 14-member gender sensitisation cell. Similarly Punjab University, Kurukshetra University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia are running gender sensitisation programmes on campus. Little-known universities like Veer Kuer Singh University in Patna and Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, J&K, have also started gender sensitisation committees. However, students believe that actual sensitisation can only happen on the ground and not in books or discussions.
Riecha Tanwar, director and professor at Women Studies Research Centre, Kurukshetra University, says, “Several leading Indian universities have started gender sensitisation programmes to safeguard women’s interests but its needless to say more needs to be done. To say that only students need to be sensitised is also wrong, faculty members also require intervention.” She adds that given the current social situation, parents have also supported the university’s say in maintaining a deadline for girls. “Certain structures need to be put into place and change cannot happen overnight so demand for strict hostel deadlines to be curbed is happening in many colleges but it’s a step-by-step process, which when given time can be put into place resulting in more freedom and equality,” she says.
Megha Sharma (name changed on request), a second-year student at St Stephen’s College, DU, says, “Starting a discussion in itself is taken to be a protest by students and as soon as the authorities hear of it, we are asked to shut down. We can still raise our concerns but what of students who come from rural areas. Because of the culture shock they face in the city they chose not to report a case of sexual harassment simply because they do not want to be harassed or because of family prestige.”
This is not just a matter of culture shock, says Mookerjee. “When exchange students come from the US or other countries to our campus, nobody calls their parents to tell them what their wards might be doing. They are responsible for their actions. Whenever something ‘unusual’ happens, the immediate response in India is to inform parents. Why? Why should you involve parents, they did not do anything,” he says.
Mookerjee adds that the actual problem is not about flouting rules, it is more deep-rooted. “What concerns me is the deep-rooted patriarchy in this society and it is instilled irrespective of the gender. They have to be given the freedom to make decisions. Imposition is not the solution. I think both sides need to sit and sort this issue out.”
Vinita Chandra, English professor, Ramjas College and one of the founders of Gender Forum, says, “There are two issues that concern us most. One, sexual harassment on campus, which need not be physical. Second, issues of hostel curfews at various colleges. It seems that the authorities are becoming more authoritarian.” Ghosh adds, “It is not unfair to demand freedom. If gender sensitisation is indeed a priority then it needs to be dealt with in a sensitive manner, keeping opinions from both the sides on the table,” she says. It seems that major universities, even while addressing the issue of gender sensitisation through committees are somewhat running away from actual problems. Voices demanding freedom and gender equality are far too strong to be struck down by intimidation. What remains to be seen is how the ‘gradual structural changes’ will be implemented for gender-neutral campuses across India.