By Spandana Cheruvu:
So I asked one VIT University administrator, “Sir, I want complete gender equality. I want the In-time for both boys and girls to be same so that we have equal opportunities”. His response: “Go to IIT Bombay. There boys and girls are allowed to go into each other’s rooms.” Why, when I ask for equal rights as men, is my character called into question and interpreted as me wanting to spend time with boys for all the wrong reasons?
I am a fourth year B.Tech student at VIT University in Tamil Nadu. About a month ago, I spoke out against certain VIT rules that I feel are discriminatory against female VIT students, putting us at an unfair disadvantage. One such rule is that girls are allowed out only on either Saturdays or Sundays for just a few hours with prior permission from the warden, which is granted based on her whims. Being a volunteer of the Make A Difference organization, I teach school kids every Saturday. I could never go out on Sundays to have fun with friends or buy components for projects or do any other work outside campus. It curbed my activities a lot.
Recently, a few students along with a professor came together to start a non-profit organization called Education for Development (E4D). As I was a founding member, I had a lot of work to do, starting from buying second-hand furniture, computers to getting a broadband connection, etc., as the facility is situated off campus. I was happy to dedicate a lot of extra time after my classes to set it up. However, I observed that the male students had a lot more time to spend at the centre during weekdays and especially during weekends, whereas the work was divided amongst all of us irrespective of gender.
VIT student council members suggested to go for a survey of female VIT students, to give a clear indication of their opinions. Then the data could be presented to the management to request for appropriate changes and also include suggestions to ensure safety. Hence I, along with another female student (who wishes to remain anonymous), drafted a survey and posted it to the E4D website on 29th September.
On 1st October, the administration called us to put pressure to take down the survey, which the other girl did. However, the survey was quickly reactivated by the director of E4D, Prof. Ted Moallem, who took full control of the website from then on. Prof. Ted believed the students’ opinions should be heard and that a university should not prevent peaceful expression. He refused the VIT administration’s demands to remove the survey, and he also posted the results which now include responses from about 400 female VIT students (http://home.e4d.in/vit-female-student-survey-results).
The administration repeatedly threatened us, me and the other girl, to choose between the survey and our B.Tech degree. I showed resistance, leaving up some of the related posts I had made. Both of our parents were summoned immediately to come and take us away and we were blamed of starting a war against the university, while all we did was make a survey and proposal to address gender discrimination and campus safety.
My parents reached Vellore on 2nd October. They were told by the administration to take me back home along with them and on no terms I will be allowed to stay on campus. There was no official notice for leave. The other girls’ parents could not come for her, and so she was escorted all the way back to Delhi with a warden. The official statement given by the university is that the parents of both the girls took them back, which is completely opposite to the reality. It’s a shame that something like this happened on Gandhi Jayanthi, the day celebrating the birth of a man who fought for freedom of the country. ‘The Hindu’ newspaper wrote about what happened to us on 11th October, read here. You can also read people’s open letters to the VIT administrators on the E4D blog.
The Problem, As I See It
From everything that has happened, I have been most affected by the lack of support from my peers. They reacted with silence and fear. The incident couldn’t even stir my good friends to action. Most were too afraid to even talk about this openly (after all, look what happened to me), and many stopped communicating with me entirely. They could not even go to the administrators in a group. Their hesitation to act “against the grain” was too deep-rooted. Although most of the students say they agree with the idea of gender equality, I found that they had two basic reasons for not standing by me.
The first reason is the common attitude that the effort is futile and hopeless. They said that speaking won’t do any good and this is how things are in India, that I should not have tried going against people with such power. The second reason is the enormous sense of fear. They believe that there has to be a change, but they are not able to say anything now as their degrees would be at stake. The future of this country should not be driven by hopelessness and fear.
Indian students are brought up since childhood in a way so as to curb their inquisitiveness. Logical questions are answered as “Because they say so” or “It’s in our culture”. The result is a “herd mentality” which is not at all a sign of progressive society. What most of us care about is if the majority is following the same path or not. Hardly anyone would halt for a second and think about what they are doing, why they are doing it and whether it makes any sense. Most importantly, are they being deprived of any of the fundamental rights, and if so, shouldn’t they be voicing against it?
College is the phase of life where you are technically considered adults and learn how to brave the world before getting completely exposed to it. Universities play an important role in shaping the students’ mindset and the way they lead their lives in future. At such a stage, if fear is instilled, questioning is discouraged, and things like gender discrimination are encouraged in the name of safety, the students end up being ill-confident social cripples. All innovative, creative and independent thinking dies.
It must not be accepted by anyone of either gender that women are inferior in any way and deserve less opportunities. If they are physically less strong then they must receive self defence training and efforts must be put into making the surroundings safer, rather than jailing the girls. Otherwise, these ill values of submission and acceptance to fate without dissent are learnt subconsciously, and they are going to resonate through the generations to come, passing on from parents to children, hindering the progress of the society.
Private universities are businesses, and parents are their customers as they pay the tuition fees. Hence, rules are made to satisfy the parents, while the students are actually facing the situations. Of course, the parents want their kids to be safe. But at what point will the students also be considered major stakeholders in deciding the rules, and their opinions taken into consideration? Should financial dependence allow the parents to control the lives of their fully grown up children?
The private universities must have an open mindset and students must also be treated like stakeholders while making a draft of the rules. Since, this is a democracy, there is a chance of every rule being questioned some day. There must be a scope of open community discussion amongst students, staff and administrators, without leaving anyone vulnerable to being targeted. Also, change over a period of time is inevitable and hence, universities must be open to suggestions. Change should be preceded and succeeded by open discussions, which are very essential. Otherwise, it is autocracy with change depending on the whims of just the few decision makers. There must be a mechanism to openly conduct polls and surveys to get the input regarding the opinion of the masses of students. It will be in the university’s best interests to know the perspective of the majority.
Above all else, freedom of speech must not be curbed.