#BreakTheCurfew, #ResponsiblyFree – these are hashtags that have become familiar with use over the past 3 weeks in my college (College of Engineering, Trivandrum).
The college, a government establishment, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, prides itself on very contrasting achievements like technical education, modern outlook, ‘prestige’ and perhaps most importantly, following cultural standards which were modern in 1939 (like a curfew for the Ladies’ Hostel of 6:30 pm). What are the reasons cited by the authorities to keep the curfew in place?
1. Security issues – Low height of compound walls, attitude of the locals, dark streets.
2. Possible ‘misuse’ – Perhaps the most common of reasons, ‘misuse’ ranges from talking to boys to, like a friend put it, ‘wild, unrestrained sex.’
3. The hostel ‘inmates‘ were aware of rules when they took admission and had signed a declaration form, promising to abide by all rules.
4. Cost of increasing security.
5. There are WiFi facilities at the hostel and citing ‘lack of access to libraries’ is an excuse.
7. Girls have curfew at their homes, why not the hostel?
These reasons are irresponsible and repressive pretexts, because it is the responsibility of the authorities to provide security to the students. Extending the fenced perimeter, and putting in more lights within the campus are all doable. For years, the Ladies’ Hostel has had a strange rule, something like caging the bird with clipped wings. At 9 PM, the grills connecting our corridors and those giving us access to the courtyard are locked. The arguably ‘ancient’ building is at a constant risk of a fire hazard. The authorities, who supposedly care for our safety, have not, all these 75 years, considered putting in even a fire exit! This is simply because death is considered better than loss of ‘honor’. Female students who have to catch early morning trains leave the hostel at 6:30 PM and wait at the station, sometimes till 3 AM, because once closed, the gates are opened only at 6 AM. Again, the lack of security here has not been the cause for concern of our college authorities in all of 75 years.
Authorities say that they give permission for students who have work to do. This permission is obtained very rarely and with much effort. One question – is the campus suddenly more secure when these girls who have permission, roam around? Is it safer when fewer girls are out at a time?
The college has part-time classes in the evening. Don’t these students need the security that the authorities have already acknowledged does not exist?
IISER, a central government institute, which shares the CET campus, has a curfew of 10:30 PM for both girls and boys alike. Security is ensured by constant patrolling near the building and residence areas. The watchmen aren’t chosen at random and most are ex-military men. How then do they say this campus is always unsafe for CET girls?
Also, the Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor, another institute which shares the same ‘cultural’ land as our college, has not had any curfew and no issues whatsoever, for 40 years now.
H. Venkatesh, IPS, City Police Commissioner, had, at a discussion on ‘Break The Curfew’, offered to provide police patrolling both inside and outside the campus should the authorities agree to a curfew change.
The authorities have no trust in our maturity or sense of responsibility. Statistics like “10% genuine and 90% misuse” were thrown at us. Like someone put it, we are mistrusted for our youth and our gender. As young adults over the age of 18, we deserve the chance to make mistakes, explore our freedom and learn to live with the world past 6:30 PM. If we do not learn to do this now, how will we do that at our workplaces, just a few years down the lane? How do the authorities expect us to learn to be ‘mature’ when we’re thrown into the world without the harness of a curfew once we leave college? ‘Misuse’ is a word that’s highly subjective and it is unfair that a skewed definition has locked up 400+ girls of the college each day at 6:30 PM for 75 years.
As freshers, we were not aware of the facilities outside college and all forms were signed under this ignorance. From libraries and computing facilities, active beyond our curfew time, to mixed group projects and tougher assignment problems, girls of the LH do not have equal access. The M.Tech students are purposely given simpler assignments to do because teachers know that they have neither the resources nor the freedom to access these at the hostel.
With a restriction on our time has come a restriction on our space – physically and mentally. Roadblocks in the evening usually only allow us to move to areas within a walkable distance. Despite being the capital city, we cannot attend college fests and competitions, cultural programs in the city, or run a simple errand in town because everything we do is defined by the boundary traversed by the minute hand.
The college has spent immense amounts of money on programs, especially this year, as part of the 75th year celebrations. The excuse of not having funds is absurd and unjustified. There are plans for new buildings and departments to be set up in a couple of years. Not once has a discussion arisen on increasing security or assigning funds for the same. In addition, the WiFi at the hostel does not give the students access to International Journals, and this can be done only over the college network.
Sandra, a 2014 graduate, told us that she took months to recover from the fear associated with the dreaded 6:30 PM, which affected her efficiency at work.
‘Culture’ is not something that resides in locked rooms. It is the result of free expression of ideas. A restriction of this is what will make us a “culture-less” people.
Again, even having a curfew at home does not restrict our daily needs to work and communicate. We have an easier access to transportation and facilities at our homes. Also, projects can be done in mixed groups and discussions can be conducted with friends. The situation is not the same in a hostel.
The students of our college began to explicitly show signs of protest against the obviously biased 6:30 PM rule around 3 weeks back. Initially, the College Union approached the Principal with a letter citing reasons for a curfew change and the suggestion to extend it. The Principal of our ‘premier’ institution did not even bother reading it. The inmates of the LH decided to take things up into their own hands at this point and the first thing that was done was the creation of an FB page, “Break the Curfew” as a platform to collect stories from students and inform the general public about the movement’s progress. Soon after, letters were sent in to multiple organizations and personalities. The Vanitha Commission responded positively and sent a letter to the Principal, affirming their support. However, the Director of Technical Education claimed that a curfew change was not ‘applicable to our social fabric’ and girls should be let out only up to 7 PM at the most. There was no reply from the Human Rights Commission. On March 4, a Cycle Rally was organized to celebrate Women’s Day and to spread the word about BTC. This was followed by a street play at the College on March 10th. On March 11th, an Open Forum was conducted, moderated by Umesh Omanakuttan, a JNU research fellow. The discussion had opinions expressed by the Hostel Warden, teachers, members of both political parties on campus, and representatives of the LH. It was obvious that the authorities were deluded about the state of affairs. They falsely claimed that a curfew rule existed for all Government colleges. In addition, they were unaware of the directive from the University Grants Commission, which mandated the setting up of a “Committee Against Sexual Harassment.” It is the responsibility of the college to set up this body to address issues faced by women in campuses, and this has not been implemented at CET to date.
The movement is a constant point of discussion in the media, with reports by CNN, NDTV, The Hindu, TOI, Mathrubhumi, Manorama, Asianet News and Kerala Kaumadi, among many others. Support has been pouring in from actors like Rima Kallingal, Aashiq Abu and Joy Mathew. Alumni like Padma Shri G Shankar, Achuth Shankar, Dr.Babu Paul IAS, ex-education minister M.A.Baby and minister Muneer, writers like Devika, Sugathakumari teacher and many others ranging from Vrinda Karat to Shashi Tharoor have expressed solidarity for the movement. Universities like JNU, DU, Hyderabad University, singer Mohit Chauhan, transgender activist Kalki Subramaniam and the general public have responded, supporting our struggle.
Despite all these efforts, the Principal and other authorities were disdainful and refused to even listen to us. Thus, with no other option left, on March 18, the students decided to stage a peaceful protest on the campus, refusing to get in till 9PM, till our voices were heard and the authorities responded. Around 230 girls and even some of the boys of the college got together in unified support of a curfew change which violated all notions of gender equality on campus.
During the ‘night-out’ protest, efforts were taken by the students, media and MLAs to contact the Principal who refused to pick up any calls. Finally, the Chief Editor of The Hindu, Gauri Shankar, spoke to the principal. However, this was to no avail, as she refused to compromise on her stand and the protest continued.
After 11 PM, the Assistant Warden made an appearance, claiming to have been watching us since 6:30 PM, but shamelessly not taking an initiative to respond. Finally, at about 11:45 PM, the Principal conceded to a discussion the next day to decide upon the course of action.
What “touched” our hearts most was the concern for our safety during the protest. Authorities, who claimed to lock us up out of love and fear of our safety, didn’t even pick up our calls let alone provide security.
Up until now, the principal had varying opinions. Despite being an IITian who enjoyed flexible curfew timing on campus, she wouldn’t allow that situation considering Kerala’s “cultural” background. This opinion slowly transformed into the safer, “PTA shall decide” stand which she knew would be favorable to her position.
The discussion held on March 19 decided a change in the usual PTA meeting to be held on March 21. The Principal initially questioned the need for a change in a ’75 year old rule’. Strangely, the policy seems to be, the older the rule, the more applicable it becomes to our changing times.
The new format for this special PTA meeting was a 2 round discussion with parents and teachers – discussing privately in the initial round, followed by a smaller meeting which will have students representing the LH, parents of LH inmates, and teachers. It will be at this meeting that the future of our freedom will be determined.
In addition to this meeting, another one was held with the Higher Education Secretary, whose creativity in suggesting a solution I must admire at this point of time. The need was for gender equality, our supposed tagline was, “If guys, then why not girls,” so, why not advance the curfew timing of the boys hostel?!
A small background into the situation of the men’s accommodation facilities – most students rent houses or stay in hostels outside the campus over which authorities have no jurisdiction and where timings are flexible. The other option is the college men’s hostel where the gate was removed in protest, years ago, and the word ‘curfew’ is seen with part “yeah, right” and part, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”
Perhaps one of the secondary successes of our movement would have to be the extension of the curfew at NIT, Calicut, from 7 to 9 PM within the campus. NITC students, inspired by the “Break The Curfew” movement, submitted a letter to the Dean, requesting a curfew change, and within a day, with absolutely no protest, the timing was extended.
At the end of the day, we could write whole reports and rebuttals. However, tomorrow, at the PTA meeting, the parents are under no obligation to cite justification for their stand. A simple “no” could take us all back to staring at clock hands again. As long as they pay our fees, they’re the owners of our tongues, our wings – dictating where our feet walk, where our minds roam.
At the end of the day, we want a change – in culture, in mindsets. And it has happened. The greatest success for me in this movement might not be the roaring euphoria of revolution, but perhaps the quiet voice of my orthodox friend who once disagreed, telling me, ‘You’re right. We need to get out too’.
I wonder if the girls of our college, like the fairytale princesses, will forever wait for our clocks to strike at 6:30 PM.
However, one day we will discover the fairy Godmother in us and on that day, as Ayn Rand put it, “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me”.