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How Can This Generation’s Women Reclaim Public Spaces At Night?

Posted on October 27, 2016 in Activities on Campus, Campus Watch, Society, Women Empowerment

By Sreya Salim:

“Nights are hers too…,” wrote my senior, Gokul Nadh below his pencil sketch of a woman in the backdrop of the city at night. The drawing was one of the highlights of the latest women’s edition of Calicut Medical College’s Wall Magazine, which is a board we decorate and write on once in every 2-3 months.

This month, we wanted to voice our objection against nights being out of bounds for women. Ironically, as we filled it up with many slogans and articles related to gender equality and safety in public spaces, the fast ticking clock was a matter of worry for all girls as the strict curfew rules in our college dictated that girls couldn’t enter the hostel after 8 p.m. As the night set in, all the girls had to pack up and leave, entrusting the rest of the Wall Magazine work with the boys, who were free to walk in or out of their residences and hostels at any time.

When asked to write an article about women reclaiming nights for the Wall Magazine, the first image that came up in my mind was of my 10-year-old self who would gaze at the star-studded sky and the sodium vapour lamps at the street outside her home for hours. Even then, the world after dusk seemed to belong only to men – women could never be spotted on streets during the night. More than a decade has passed and I am now a medical student preparing to establish my own career. Sodium vapour lamps have been replaced by neon lights and street vendors by fancy 24×7 eating joints. However, nights still remain out of bounds for women. Locked up at home or hostel after sunset, a walk down the street on a full moon night and a midnight coffee from the nearby café still remain dreams, that are yet to be achieved. My biggest fear is, what if our generation doesn’t succeed in achieving those dreams either? Every time I see my niece, who’s about 10, fantasise about becoming a pilot, I dread that what if she too grows up in a world that clips the wings of women?

After at least three broken deadlines and striking off several pages, I still found it hard to focus and articulate my thoughts. There were years of deprivation waiting to find its way out through the ink. I wanted to express the anger at being caged right from my childhood. I wanted to ask why women were treated like children despite having proven themselves in different walks of life. I wanted to ask why only girls are shooed into hostels in the evening when the college library, canteen and several shops remained open till midnight. I wanted to question why going to the doctor at night requires special permission from the warden. I wanted to express the anger I felt when my friend was slut-shamed just because she went out for a late night movie. I wanted to describe the gory nightmares my friend had for weeks after she was molested in the dark. I wanted to shout out that caging women would never be an alternative to social change. I wanted to reveal the ugly face of moral policing that remained hidden behind the facade of ‘safety’.

The ideology of locking women up in homes and hostels after dusk in the name of protection seems to be entrenched deeply in our society. Patriarchy has made it easier to impose restrictions on girls, rather than bring about total social change and stop discrimination on the basis of gender. Taught from a very early age that returning home before dark is one of the good virtues they should possess, women in India grow up with clipped wings and constricted mindsets. Girls who stay out at night are seen as being wayward and are very often harassed.

Moral policing continues even in our adulthood and is prevalent in many colleges in the form of dress codes that women have to adhere to. For instance, in Calicut Medical College, the girls have to wear sari or salwar kameez to college as per the dress code. The college diary classifies sleeveless tops, jeans, t-shirts and skirts as unsuitable for clinical postings. “I don’t understand how Sari classifies as a very respectable dress while leggings do not,” said Roslin, a third year MBBS student. Recently, even Government Medical College, Trivandrum banned wearing leggings, jeans and ‘noisy ornaments’ in college which created quite an uproar on social media.

“A major problem is that not all girls are on the same page regarding these restrictions. A large number believe that strict rules reinforce security and discipline,” said Shifa Safarulla, the joint secretary of the Calicut Medical College Union. She recalled a number of girls calling the dress code and the curfew imposed as well intentioned from the administration during a discussion conducted on the gender divide in the campus. “Even out of those who do realise how unfair this is, very few students raise their voices when their rights are violated. Most of the girls are afraid to speak out or protest against these draconian rules. All we can do is dream and fantasise about freedom,” she said. She recounted many experiences of unfruitful discussions with the authorities regarding hostel curfews.

Shifa believes that only a collective movement like the Pinjra Tod campaign, which aims to ensure non-gender discriminatory accommodation for women students, can help women reclaim nights. A survey conducted by our college’s magazine committee of 2014 showed that only 51.4% of the girls wanted the hostel regulations to be taken off. “How can we organise a collective movement when a large number of girls refuse even to open their eyes and look at the chains?” she questioned.

As Alan Moore wrote, “You’re in a prison, Evey. You were born in a prison. You’ve been in a prison so long, you no longer believe there’s a world outside.” Even so, I hope my niece grows up in a world that does not clip the wings of women; a world that doesn’t entail her to make compromises because it’s too late in the night. Maybe one day she will listen with disbelief to her aunt’s descriptions of cages that once existed only for girls. I want to be able to tell her that our generation’s rebellion broke the cages for the rest and that the door is open for her to fly free.

Image source: Pinjra Tod: Break The Hostel Locks/Facebook