By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz:
“I know why the caged bird sings,” read one among dozens of hand-made posters that were strung up across a section of Jantar Mantar road on 10th October, 2015. By about 2 o’clock, people had gathered in the shade of the tree-lined avenue for Pinjra Tod’s Jan Sunwai. The public meeting organized by the young women students of universities in New Delhi, was also attended by Delhi Commission for Women’s representative, Farheen Malik. One by one, women came front and centre to talk about what can only be described as tyrannical rules for hostel and PG residents in the city. The charter of demands put forth by the organizers, at the end of about two months’ mobilization and campaigning, was welcomingly accepted by Malik on behalf of the DCW. Following the program, Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with two of the organizers, Devangana Kalita and Shambhawi Vikram Singh, to talk about the birth of the campaign and its vision for the future.
Was there any particular event that catalysed the campaign?
Devangana Kalita (DK): I think the moment which really made us go public with this campaign across universities was when the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) gave a directive to Jamia saying that the circular cancelling late nights was gender discrimination. Often it’s very hard for students to confront their administration, because they get witch-hunted, or threatened with a phone-call to their parents. So the DCW was then a body we could address our demands to, which gives us a certain legitimacy when we take on the university administration, as well as building solidarity and mobilize students.
Many of us had been part of earlier protests, like Kiss of Love, or the 14th February protest, or Blood On My Skirt, and we saw Facebook really worked in terms of reaching out to people, so we created Pinjra Tod as a platform where people could send in their stories, and feel that shared solidarity and connection – that feeling of anger and oppression.
Shambhawi Vikram Singh (SVS): A lot of people actually then joined Pinjra Tod after our on-ground campaigning, and took it up in different units. So Jamia was functioning on its own, AUD was functioning on its own, and so on. The documentary film we did also helped mobilize people. The page was constantly updated. We were getting personal messages from women students across the country.
DK: A university like Jamia gets targeted because it’s a minority institution – it’s a Muslim university, it’s ‘conservative’. But LSR or Miranda House, that are supposed to be feminist colleges, are also quite terrible when it comes to these restrictions. The idea that this is not an isolated case in Jamia or DU. We knew it was something happening across the country, so it was important to connect the personal with a more collective, political struggle.
How have the administration and the faculty responded to Pinjra Tod?
SVS: Some of the faculty has been quite supportive. But that has not been the case with the administration, which was silent for a long time. Then two or three weeks after the campaign started, there were these circulars being handed out on campus, after all these years, asking whether students lived in PGs, and what the conditions were like there. SRCC increased its curfew time by half an hour. And Jamia also came up with the response that they are currently trying to figure out how to uphold gender parity within campus. Of course the authorities will not make public statements, but we do feel like this was a response to our campaign.
On the flipside, the wardens in these colleges, especially Miranda House and Jamia, have been on the look-out for people promoting the campaign – they’ve been looking for people with parchhas, and asking people, and appointing spies to figure out who’s involved in the campaign.
Was it hard to mobilize students around the issue of these protectionist rules and regulations?
DK: We started out with 10 or 15 people, and with Facebook it just grew bigger. So far it’s not been very difficult, in terms of people taking their own initiative. I think how to keep the momentum going is going to be difficult. For a lot of us, this is mainly what we were thinking about over the last month – between classes or when we had breaks we would go campaign or put posters up across campuses. When I was doing my undergrad in 2007, it wasn’t this easy to raise the demand about curfews. You would get called elitists. This whole thing is a coming together of the demand for more hostels, and questioning the way existing hostels are. Also after 16th December, the kind of response we’ve received form the media has been more than we expected. This is a point where the gender question, or the women’s question, is emerging as significant in society, and I guess that’s also feeding into the responses we’ve been getting.
But has there been any resistance from the student body itself toward the campaign?
SVS: Quite a few women told us they didn’t feel they needed this. They said they were happy returning to the hostel by 8pm, and that they didn’t mind getting permission from their parents. There was a lot of anxiety around the whole issue of safety, and it’s been drilled into our brains so often that we’ve actually accepted it, which is quite dangerous! It was disappointing to hear this from them.
But we found that these women were amenable in some ways – for example if we articulated ourselves without words like “autonomy” and “freedom”, and just convey it in the simplest of terms. If we gave them the argument that the streets would be safer if there were more women outside, then they seem to get it. We were able to politicise certain people who had not thought about these things before.
Some of the men also responded to the campaign, wondering if restrictions would be tightened on their hostels too – wondering if their curfews be reduced from 9pm to 7pm. There is this recognition that this is not right, and that there is discrimination. There is a lot of anxiety that women are finally raising their voices. But of course there were a lot of men who said, “Main kyu sign karu? Yeh toh auraton ka hai. (Why should I sign? This is for women).”
How does Pinjra Tod respond to the University’s argument that it is responsible to our parents?
That is our primary problem with the University. Women coming into higher education has been a long struggle. As Mary John said, over the last 10-20 years, women are present in almost equal numbers as men in central universities than any other sector. But now that we are a significant section of the university, how are we treated? We are not treated as adults, we are constantly infantilized. The University acts like a khap panchayat, telling you where to go, when to go. They say, “we are responsible to your parents”, but shouldn’t it be responsible to our constitutional rights? Our parents might want all kinds of things, they might say, “second year bahut padhai ho gaya, nikal ke le jate hain tumko, shaadi karwa dete hai (You have studied enough till your second year, it’s time to get you married).” Parents might want only a certain kind of girl to come out of the University, who can be sold in the marriage market. The University saying it’s accountable to our parents has to be strongly countered. The University has to treat us as young adult women, who decide for themselves who to marry, who to vote for, whether you can drive etc.
We know safety is an issue. We are negotiating questions of safety all the time, and we know best how to do that. You have to trust us, and give us the space for adventure and risk, and experience adult life, not constantly constricted! The university is a mechanism for reproducing patriarchal structures that exist in societies and families, whereas they should be spaces for challenging these things, and that’s why it should cater to our constitutional rights.
At the Jan Sunwai, you presented the Delhi Commission for Women’s representative with a set of demands. What are these larger demands?
We don’t want a cap on the number of late nights women students can have. We want to raise the question around women’s access to public spaces and infrastructure. For example, the Delhi metro runs a women’s coach till 11.45 – if you enter it after 9.30, it’s probably deserted because women are locked up inside at night!
The DCW is an advisory body and it can issue notices. How the administration then takes it up – we have to wait and watch. We still need a local one-on-one meeting with the administration. We’re hopeful that the DCW will do something. They’ve been keeping a track of the campaign, and constantly messaging us, saying they’re interested in working with us and meeting with us.
Following the Jan Sunwai, Pinjra Tod campaigners met with the DCW chairperson Swati Maliwal and release this statement on Facebook: “[Maliwal] said she would be willing to issue directives to colleges and universities on all our main demands.” The group will also be preparing a detailed report of case studies by the 23rd of October, 2015, and invites women students to share their experiences with the full assurance of confidentiality. They further noted that the “realisation of any of its directives can only be ensured by how strong we are on the streets,” and urging the student body to be consistent, persistent and vigilant.
As the movement builds, we should all keep in mind this verse written for the campaign by the all-girl rock band, The Vinyl Records:
“The streets need more women, more light
Even Cinderella had till midnight
The world’s changing; Don’t hold on so tight
Laxmi Bai didn’t have a curfew to fight.
7, 8:30, 10 pm-
You don’t want us safe; you want us in.
We won’t be prisoners anymore;
It’s time to PINJRA TOD!”