Rama Lakshmi/ The Washington Post / Getty Images

Are Indian college dorms turning into women’s prisons?

Faced with strict curfews, women say they feel like inmates, not students

December 22, 2015 2:00AM ET

In India, each time a young woman who lives in a college dorm or hostel wants to stay out past her curfew, she must use one of her limited late night passes, have it signed by her parents, guardians or even her department. She must do so for plays, movies, meals, even to study late in the library anything that’s past her curfew requires a pass. This means that something as inoffensive as a late night walk requires advance planning.

The presence of a woman attending college away from home is cast by the university (with the tacit approval of her parents) as a security problem for which the school is responsible. One common “solution” is for hostel authorities effectively take custody of young women as though they are small children, displaying an anxiety with preserving women’s “virtue” both from possible assailants as well as from their own wayward desires.

As a result, women’s hostel rules are so strict that residents could just as well start referring to themselves as inmates, as the initiators of Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), a new movement to reform these discriminatory policies, have tacitly done. Pinjra Tod is currently made up about 90 women across the various university campuses in Delhi.

Pinjra Tod follows other efforts by women to challenge hostel curfews, such as when students of College of Engineering, Trivandrum ran the Break the Curfew campaign to challenge the 6:30 p.m. curfew for women that prevented them from even going to the library. Pinjra Tod’s participants have created their own anthem and an open air Library of Dreams outside the main Delhi University Library, where these intrepid and determined women hang out at night, reading poetry, singing, drinking tea, discussing life, sloganeering around bonfires, planning the next protest and even sleeping.

The movement seizes every opportunity it can to make its point. Recently, activists “gifted” the Indian minister for human resource development (who’s also in charge of education) a box containing rule books from their hostels after the official told a U.S journalist that she was of the opinion that Indian women were not told what to do.

Their efforts have garnered a lot of media attention in India. This very public form of protest is effective because part of women’s “jailing” in India stems from a widespread notion that public spaces are dangerous, and private spaces, safe. This is a deeply flawed understanding: Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau demonstrate that in 2015, 86 percent of rapes were committed by individuals whom the victims knew personally.

Further, sexual harassment on campus is a common occurrence in India and abroad, but little is done to address it. In 2014, a student of Jadavpur University was sexually assaulted on campus; protests over how the university handled the case ultimately led to the resignation of the Vice Chancellor. Emma Sulkowicz’s “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” at Columbia University, in which she carried a mattress around campus as a work of endurance performance art to protest sexual assault, is another example.

Often the assumption from hostel authorities is that being out is about sexual pleasure.

Sheba Chhachhi

Artist and writer

Campuses aren’t always safe; streets aren’t always dangerous; and yet, when women are victims of violence in the Indian cities where these colleges are located, the first thing that seems to happen is that the curfews get tightened.

Part of the fear is that women will be victims of violence in public, which does occur. Still, the moral panic that came out of increased media coverage of violence against women in public after the Dec. 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old female bus rider in Delhi is unwarranted.

In addition, there is a deep-rooted anxiety among parents and college authorities that women will act on their own desires and do as they please. These desires are not necessarily sexual — going to the theatre at night, for example, ought to be considered unremarkable — but doing anything at night is somehow considered suspect.

Sheba Chhachhi, a feminist artist and writer who lived in a hostel herself in the 1970s, pointed out in an interview with me that “often the assumption from hostel authorities is that being out is about sexual pleasure.”  

“I would often be late back late because I was at a talk or a concert or at a play but the question I'd hear over and over was ‘who is the boy?’” she said, adding, “they could not conceive that I would be late for any other reason. A movement for freedom has to be about more than sexual freedom.”

The notion that women can only be safe if they are kept indoors is hardly new. My great aunt who was a post-graduate student at the Banaras Hindu University, in the early 1940s used to tell us stories about being locked into a hostel with high walls to keep them “safe.”

And in 1905, the Bengali writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain published a story titled Sultana’s Dream in which she notes how illogical it is to lock up potential victims while potential perpetrators walk the streets. Hossain writes, “Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana!

And the sad truth is that very little has changed in real terms since Hossain wrote those words; Pinjra Tod is as a long-awaited rebuttal. The movement articulates a claim to enjoy city life for its own sake, to learn to be independent, to use libraries, attend evening lectures, eat out, watch films and have social lives of their own. In doing so, it exposes the systemic anxieties and assumptions concerning women’s sexuality.

It also pushes the boundaries of feminist protest by demanding women’s right to choose to take risks — albeit often perceived exaggerated risks conjured up by paternalistic authorities whose kneejerk reaction is to infantilize women of all ages. Pinjra Tod thus has implications far beyond the removal of curfew for women in hostels. The campaign challenges the location of the woman as victim and attempts to rewrite the script of women’s access to public space and the city.

Shilpa Phadke is an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India, and is a co-author of “Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter