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What It’s Like Being A Woman At Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College

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I have often been asked how great it is to be a St. Stephen’s alumni. Obviously so because of the great name the college has garnered for more than 100 years of existence. Times have changed but the 180+-year-old college still sticks to traditions, values, procedures that shout sexism. How great is it to be a Stephanian woman? Not great at all.

What will follow are personal experiences, wherein I would want to draw a different picture of St. Stephen’s College, so as to remove this misconception of it being a forward-minded, liberal, freedom-instilling environment.

What makes St. Stephen’s the best is its students, the peer group. Anyone who has gone to this college loves the societies they worked for, the peer groups they made in the lawns. I too have such lovely memories. Notwithstanding the importance of such interactions, I also cannot overlook the many other things I was made to partake in.

St. Stephen’s College runs on fear. It perpetrates fear, it augments fear of a different kind. It also stands for gendered fear and fear instilled through questioning various privileges. The very fact that I can write against the college only after graduating is an example of how this fear has worked its way in my being. I was one of those few people (named as Feminist Fanatics) who tried and went against a lot of values the college stood for, only to be hushed by few statements that went like this:

  • “You are in residence. It is a privilege. If you want to lose residence and live in a PG, do not say anything against the rules of the hostels.”
  • “Your parents don’t live here. We are your parents. You need to be protected.”
  • “You should not garner a bad name in the eyes of the administration.”

I had written a Faking News Post under a pseudonym against the rampant sexism at an age-old hostel tradition of Allnutt North Gentlemen’s Association Oath. I could do it under a pseudonym to keep my right to stay in the residence of the college. I could not afford to lose it lest I wanted to inconvenience my parents and that’s the structural way we are made to conform in the college. We are reminded of the rules of the hostels we signed, and we are told: Why question when you agreed to it? It is forgotten that a lot of us gained residence on the basis of merit and need, and that is used as a trump card for silencing us systemically.

If you know about St. Stephen’s, you know that it does not have any connections with the Delhi University Student Union. It has its own “Student Union Society”, something that actually works at a level of event management. It is surveilled by a staff advisor and consequently, the principal. Thus, the autonomous union is not autonomous at all. It is a sham that Stephanians are made to believe in.

This system has been known for its sexist past and whilst I was in the college, the things casually said about women candidates during elections were not surprising. Personal comments about her relationships and appearance were often the talk in the corridors unlike about the male contenders whose manifestos were being talked about. Somehow, due to attendance requirement, when a female contender did become the president, she was systemically ridiculed on a personal basis. Notwithstanding a lot of shortcomings on a presidential basis, it was very curiously sexist for a woman to be hated by virtue of being a woman whose “character is shady”. This happened not more than a year-and-a-half ago.

I was the co-head of the Gender Studies Cell, the most hated society of the college for obvious reasons. There was no overt hatred, there never is. There are just “sighs”, irritation, disgust, “oh not again” for people who associated with the society. I remember sitting in the mess lawns with my colleagues to discuss events, and I also remember trying to do events that were “subversive”. We efficiently planned an event during our principal’s address on sex, sexuality and shame. That was the only extent we could go to to make a point. Was it the limitation of our politics? No, it was the systemic fear in all of us that was deeply embedded. Why then did we even have such events that went against the overarching ideal of the college? We could not sit stifled.

We had events against Section 377, sexism, misogyny, ill-treatment of women in hijabs, film screenings promoting Pride etc. Only to hardly have attendees from within college. We got a lot of support from a lot of other colleges and their Gender Cells, but our own counterparts shied away from overtly showing their solidarity with our “cause” of rightful equality.

The 10 ‘o’ clock rule was a major bone of contention, and now I hear that even men have gotten a curfew. Whilst I was in college, I remember how tough it was to get the men to sign a petition against the curfew. Firstly – they did not have anything to do with it or were ideologically against it anyway, and second – well, PGs have 7 ‘o’ clock curfew so why can’t we girls chill? Now as it stands, when men suffer experientially (though not exponentially), they now understand what we spoke about.

Male validation for our “cause” was never our first way to go. But we expected the students to unite against this useless rule of stifling us within the rooms and corridors of our hostels. I remember passionately publishing an article by a junior about sexism behind the curfew, only to meet again in the mess lawns to discuss the “ramifications and repercussions” of this article. After all, she was a first-year female student. She cannot go against anything. There was no solidarity for the student, no assurance given to her that the repercussions would be taken care of. In fact, it was the only meeting attended by three male members of the society, just to remind her her place in the college. (albeit in very caring terms).

During the fests, women were told to stay inside the rooms if they weren’t participating in the fests and were literally locked inside the hostels. Along with 2-3 other women, I went against it openly and we were successful in getting the locks removed. Yet, there were warnings given to us about any mishap as a consequence of allowing us outside and we were told we would have to take full responsibility for it.

The fest themselves are uselessly done, with some thousand rules and regulations. Yet, some of these rules are also very curiously gendered. A woman who wanted to show her belly dancing skills was told not to perform in a program called ’47 seconds to fame’ that I was judging with few others. I also remember two men stripping on the stage with hoots following the show.

There are a 100 more narratives I could provide only from my three years in this college.

I do love St. Stephen’s, but not because it was a utopia of gender equality, but because it was not, my politics became stronger. I started reading a lot about feminist movements, queer struggles to see how to stand up against the patriarchy and heteronormativity which this college gave me a taste of. In fact, St. Stephen’s is the best place to know how the big bad the world is.

To people who look forward to getting admissions in this college: do come, because this college may tell you how to be silent, but also how to fight against it.

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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