As you read these words, feminist history is being made in the campuses of universities across the country. The past few weeks have brought in an avalanche of movements led by and for primarily women students in institutions of higher education all over the country, protesting against arbitrary restrictions on their access and mobility. Punjabi University (Patiala), Panjab University (Chandigarh), Regional Institute of Education (RIE) Bhopal and RIE Ajmer recently saw women organizing themselves to collectively ask for an extension in the curfew and trash other discriminatory rules. They have braved administrative apathy, intimidation, and violent crackdowns to make their voices heard. Refusing to bow down to the repressive strategies of the administrations (which include false accusations, emotional blackmail, complaints to parents, witch-hunting and police/ABVP attacks), these young people are resisting draconian, patriarchal rules to lay the foundations for a very different sort of campus life for women: one that is richer, free-er, and safer, with the abolition of curfew at night and access to secure public spaces. In this fight, they are combating the security rhetoric advanced by the authorities to explain the surveillance, moral policing, and discrimination that women are subjected to in places of higher education.
Last year in September, students in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) were lathi-charged by policemen after they protested against both curfew and the administration’s problematic handling (or lack thereof) of a case of sexual harassment. This year, on September 23rd, students in BHU sought to commemorate the first anniversary of their movement. They were met with violent backlash from students of the right wing student organisation Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and brutal repression from the administration in terms of police cases, suspensions, and harassment. This March, women students in Jamia Millia Islamia successfully got the administration to extend their curfew. In May 2018, women students at Aligarh Muslim University broke open hostel locks to join protests against violent attacks on members of the student body by the Hindu Jagran Manch, an RSS affiliate. Earlier that year, they had won the right to freely move around campus till curfew time. This August, women students at Hidayatullah National Law University protested for a week against the curfew as well as administrative action regarding sexual harassment, among other issues.
As I write these words, I see news reports popping up regarding the resignation of their Vice Chancellor, which renders the student body’s recent hunger strike successful. Last month, women studying in Kottayam Medical College, Kerala, organized a candlelit protest that succeeded in securing extended curfew timings. Women in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University have been sustaining a struggle against a dictatorial administration, through songs, slogans, and conversations. Autonomous women students’ collective Pinjra Tod has, for the past three years, consistently demanded such rights from the DU authorities, by way of petitions, protests, press conferences, submitting potential ICC draft codes, etc. After frustratingly tepid responses from said authorities, Pinjra Tod has called for an indefinite protest next week against issues surrounding hostel rules, hostel allocation, hostel infrastructure and fee structure, and the establishment and running of Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) in all educational institutions, to combat sexual harassment.
These collective struggles are serving to consolidate a politics of women asking women’s questions; a politics of empowering women to make decisions about their own safety, rather than infantilizing them and rendering them voiceless by covering them up and locking them in. These movements come in the wake of years of battle: years of struggling to convince (first) oneself, one’s peers, one’s parents, and the authorities that the issues highlighted by said movements are, in fact, injustices, suffered by women who exercise their right to receive an education. Thanks to maggoty rhetorics like that of honour, a practice as barbaric as locking women students up in their rooms is seen as par for the course. A student protester in RIE Bhopal put it beautifully when they said, “it actually took time convincing people that we were being deprived of our rights, so bringing people together itself was a victory”.
While the lived experiences and backgrounds of individual female students vary, these movements were born out of the rage that comes with seeing how female hostellers undergo a regime that is poles apart from what their male counterparts undergo. The former is objectively more cumbersome than the latter, and, more often than not, causes women students to feel like they’ve been robbed of their autonomy. In classrooms, we (usually, hopefully) have the right to be as radical and non-conformist as we want, in terms of intellectual positions. However, the minute we exit the classroom, women aren’t trusted to make decisions regarding their mobility and safety.
Movements like the ones we saw last month seek to demolish the notion that all the measures the authorities take to restrict women’s mobility and autonomy are meant for their “safety”. On the contrary, these are routes used to police women’s bodies and their minds, to curb their spaces, and to take away their individual agency by demanding that they be instantiations of the Brahminical ideal of the good and obedient woman. Women in hostels are usually constantly subjected to a refrain of “your being here is a privilege you’re enjoying, be grateful.” Where is this privilege though? Does it lie in leashing yourself to a timer every time you’re out in the evenings, and ending every evening with a panicked rush back to your cage? Does it lie in living under constant surveillance; living in fear of your warden ripping into you for everything from the length of your bottoms to the number of night-outs you take in a month? Women need no more privileges, really. What women need are rights.