By Tishya Khillare:
“No. We’re not allowed outside this door. Go and see- they’ve locked it from outside!”
“What? How can they do this? Let me try. I really can’t believe this is happening!”
And so I walked from my room to the front door of one of Ravenshaw University’s newest girls’ hostel. It’s February 2014. A bunch of us, M.Phil and Ph.D students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have travelled to Cuttack, Orissa to participate in an International Conference on International Relations at the prestigious Ravenshaw University known for producing stalwarts like Gopal Ballav Patanaik and Devdas Chhotray. The female participants are accommodated at the new swanky girl’s hostel. It’s much cleaner than JNU hostels. The male participants are outside campus in a guest house, with air conditioning and televisions in their rooms. We’re jealous of that at first, but soon we find out we have to abide by archaic hostel rules, and air conditioning ceases to be a problem.
We have to be back by 7 p.m. sharp each evening. “What if we come back after that?“, I ask a girl who stays in the hostel; she has been handed over responsibility of explaining the rules to us. “You can’t. There will be a roll call so I will have to inform the coordinator about your absence.” I’m sure my face had contorted beyond recognition as I expressed shock and angst and could experience nausea, breathlessness and blood rushing to my head, all at once. She smiled at me; it was a simple smile with a hint of pity. It was the smile of a local introducing an outsider to the ways of her world.
We move out in the evening to buy snacks and Odomos. Some girls are in a rush to get back before 7 p.m.
“C’mon! Don’t tell me you’re running back in at 7, are you?“, I chide them.
“Of course, what if they take some action?”
“Let’s not go at 7 and see what happens?”
“No, we shouldn’t do that.” Others agree.
There is strength in numbers, so they say. I have no takers for my rebellion. Grudgingly, I follow them back to the hostel before it is 7 p.m. Post dinner (which we were forced to eat in the hostel because between sampling Oriya cuisine and having your life in danger, what would ‘good girls’ like us choose?), a roommate tells me of her struggle to get the hostel door opened. She wants to talk to her boyfriend over the phone but the signal inside the hostel is weak. In a minute, I’m walking towards the door to get it opened.
I find it shut so I try pulling it open. When it doesn’t open I bang on it thrice, pausing a good minute after I thump the door each time. After my admittedly irrational claustrophobia gets the better of me and I let out a couple of panicked shouts for “bhaiya!“, a middle-aged man comes to the door, visibly irked by the nuisance I had created. He asks me what I want, I don’t reply. After all, how can I articulate to him in a couple of seconds, the enormity of what I want and why I should be granted exactly that – my freedom, that very moment? No questions asked.
He doesn’t budge, his body blocking my way out.
“Kya chahiye?” (What do you want?) he asks again, in a louder voice this time.
Perplexed, I reply equally rudely, “Hatiye, beech mein kyu khadein hain aap?” (Why are you blocking my way?) and proceed to pull open the door completely- in a moment questioning his well-established authority. What next? I want to loiter around but find myself fixed right in front of the door, the hostel gate is padlocked. The guard, whom I’d just managed to brush aside and two other men (presumably care-takers), stare at me disapprovingly. I call up my parents immediately to share with them my utter shock over this whole ‘locking up girls at night’ business.
“Can you imagine this?” I’m screaming into the phone. My parents are JNU alumni. JNU, as many might already know has no time restrictions in any hostels, boys or girls. It’s a closed campus, as is Ravenshaw University. Hostel restrictions are as strange to me as they are to my parents. Students, faculty and employees everyone is out at night walking the streets. There is a lot of loitering around. There are a lot of conversations over chai, maggi and samosas. There are a lot of students studying at the library all through the night. And yes in the midst of all this human activity, in a romantic sort of a way, there are a lot of people coming of age too.
“I’m presenting a paper on feminism and I’m locked up inside the hostel! Can you fathom the irony of that?” I continued screaming into the phone. I am livid. I pretend to not notice the three men gesticulating at me to go inside. All these girls are locked up inside. There is no girl out on campus, only boys are allowed. These girls, how will they learn to think critically if they are locked up each night? How will they learn to be curious if they are made to submit to such rules! What kind of intellectuals are we creating? Is it only a man’s place to experience freedom? To experience what it means to push boundaries? How will I, as a girl, ever understand what academic curiosity means if I’m made to live in constant fear and submission, if I receive training not in questioning the known, but in limiting my brain to accept what is known, all too meekly. We are just creating ordinary minds. This locking up business, it’s denying half the students of this country the opportunity to grow wholly.
I do not touch upon the topic of sexual harassment which authorities fear will be the only result of women being let loose. That discussion is banal. It’s redundant. It’s outmoded, over done, over abused, repugnant. Yes, repugnant. For if one insists on caging women, one accepts and contributes to a singular opinion of women – that of them being sexualized bodies. And therefore the locked doors, closed windows, padlocked gates- hostel after hostel, city after city, nights on end. Hiding from view, these sexualized bodies. But physical restraint demands intellectual submission. Which is a cause of greater concern for me and should be for all of us. Education is for achieving emancipation. One cannot emancipate by restraining both the body and mind.
And how is the mind restrained? Through fear. It’s a bad world outside, they tell us. No place for good girls like you after dark, they tell us. If you’re not back in the hostel on time you’re a bad girl, they tell us. You will be punished for flouting rules, they tell us. All this is for your good, they tell us. We are responsible for you in the absence of your parents, they tell us.
Parents. Always the fear of parents. As though a 26 year old Ph.D candidate like me has a mind of an infant and needs decisions vetted by an authority figure. I am old enough to create life and give meaning to that life but never old enough to give meaning to my own. Infantilized by society and its institutions, thousands of us. Night after night. Locked up in hostels and PGs all over the country. CCTV cameras put in place to record any criminal activity, watch over our movement instead.
Eventually the then Vice Chancellor of Ravenshaw University was prodded by my father on this issue. They’ve been colleagues at JNU, and approaching the vice chancellor wasn’t difficult for my father as it is for many students. The VC denied any such practice. He is certain there isn’t any locking up going on. Girls are free to go wherever they want. It might very well be that no such rules exists on paper, that somewhere down the years a hostel warden, a caretaker came up with this utilitarian approach to ‘keep the boys away’ but to deny its implementation is to deny the reality of hundreds of those girls. A reality that I shared with them on beautiful February nights locked behind a closed door, trying to pretend this walled ‘safe haven’ of ours wasn’t really a prison. After all there was a badminton court inside, what else does one want?
I have known fear of authority. I have known fear, of the dark, of empty streets, of parking lots with no lights, of dhabas crowded with men after dark. I have known fear, seeing a group of guys prowling around the girl’s hostel in Cuttack, titillated to see me, a girl, step out of her cage at night. They’ve caught a glimpse of that which is hidden, that which is forbidden. I have known fear, of seeing so few of us in public spaces at night, of seeing only men all around me. “Why are there no women here?“, I asked my male companions, my father, my brothers. Of course, we’re all locked up inside creating a paradoxical situation. Most of us aren’t free to go out but those of us who are don’t feel safe enough to be out. There is strength in numbers, they say.
But I have known joy too, of freedom born out of seeing bodies- male and female and all other colours- out on the streets of JNU, moving together at night. I have known joy, of getting lost with my girlfriends in the vast campus of Hyderabad University at night after filling up our empty stomachs with food and wandering the beautiful campus without the fear of being molested, raped, abducted or killed in mind. I have known joy, born out of having no locks to mark out a life of deprivation and exclusion for me. My campus life is limitless, full and free, about which I am thankful. But I know the struggle of sisters in Cuttack, of sisters in Delhi University, of sisters in PGs in Lajpat Nagar, of sisters in Calcutta, Patiala, Jodhpur, the ugly reality of sisters being told all over the country that they have no place under the night sky.
I don’t intend to pit one university against another. That line of thought is simplistic and futile. The important question being pushed forward is why, even in the face of contrary evidence provided by university campuses (like JNU, University of Hyderabad etc) which do not restrict student movement at night and successfully manage to give a safe environment to female students, do other campuses continue to impose sexist time restrictions? The circular argument that by being locked up one is safe inside does not suffice. We wish to be safe out there. Authorities cannot continue to circumvent their responsibility of providing safe campuses by conveniently locking up thousands of us. They might still want to lock us up but it won’t be convenient anymore. And so my hands will join the hands of my sisters to break the cages that confine them. My voice will join theirs when they shout against oppression, sexist moral policing, infantilization and their imprisonment. Together we will tell each other. Pinjra Tod!
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