By Shivani Bhasin
Yesterday, in response to a report submitted by the women’s collective Pinjra Tod: Break the Hostel Locks, the Delhi Commission for Women sent notice to Delhi’s 23 registered universities and two institutes asking them to explain restrictions on mobility and discriminatory pricing for women hostel residents. This is a historic moment for Pinjra Tod who have been campaigning for months, protesting Delhi hostels’ bizarre rules which include strict curfews for women, higher prices for women’s hostels, arbitrary punishment in the form of ‘disciplinary measures’ against students who break hostel rules and the witch-hunt of individuals who dare to speak up about their lack of freedom. Here are excerpts from a conversation with Pinjra Tod.
DCW’s notice is indeed a historic notice. How hopeful are you of the DCW’s intervention?
It has taken six months for the notice to come through but we have had a round of meetings with them where they have shown commitment to addressing the issue. They have a larger plan of formulating a set of guidelines on the question of gender equity on campuses. The Pinjra Tod report had brought up the issue of internal sexual harassment complaints and DCW had their own internal process where they had brought this up with college committees last year. We understand that this will be a long process. All these college administrations are resistant to DCW’s intervention so the time that they take in answering DCW’s questions, we will have to wait and see. Students are exerting pressure on their own administrations and getting into negotiations with them. DCW serves as a supportive mechanism.
Have there been any favourable responses or attempts to hold dialogues by the college authorities?
We went through DCW right at the beginning. The reason for this is that they had taken suo- moto cognisance of the cancellation of late night outs at Jamia Milia Islamia last year. After that, we thought that this not an issue only at Jamia but across all Delhi, so let’s make this a larger petition. Be it Miranda, Lady Shri Ram or St Stephen’s, all of these colleges have seen earlier struggles around this issue. In all these cases, the administration has done individual witch hunting of students and tried to crush our movement. They call up our parents and say, “Aapki ladki raat ke ek baje ghoomna chahti hai.” We wanted to build our strength through DCW first as a question of institutional policy so that this kind of individual targeting can’t happen and so that the struggle doesn’t get limited to isolated events in each college.
Administrations have been feeling the pressure. SRCC (Shri Ram College of Commerce) earlier didn’t let some of the girls take coaching classes after curfew, now they have extended the curfew.
Has the DUSU (Delhi University Student’s Union) been of any help to the demands of women hostellers who are campaigning for Pinjra Tod?
It’s basically an ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad is the student’s wing of RSS) student’s union. We got into a scuffle with ABVP right at the beginning of our campaign and in September itself two of our members got a threatening call from an ABVP member and we filed an FIR against him (Note: The ABVP denies this). They have never come out publicly in support of us. We see ourselves as a strong feminist movement and we cannot identify with the anti-women politics that ABVP stands for. We have a few women who are a part of ABVP who have come for our rallies. They come within their individual capacities and they are fighting within their organisation about this.
DUSU are a hurdle for us. When one of the women’s hostels broke the curfew during the water crisis and gherao-ed their provost’s house, the DUSU president had come. The women actually shoo-ed him away because we don’t believe in their politics. He also has a dowry case filed against him. It’s completely hypocritical to take the support of someone like that.
I read about the incident where Pinjra Tod campaigners Shambhavi Singh and Suhasini Shriya were verbally threatened with assault. Have there been any more incidents of this nature?
We’ve not had massive trolling on social media as yet, either. We had sixty women in the police station after the incident asking the police to register an FIR. Never in the history of DU (Delhi University) has an FIR been registered against an ABVP person, but that day it happened and then the matter got taken up in the media. The only time we were threatened again was when we helped in organising #DUStandsWithJNU. A lot of ABVP men were hurling abuses at us then. They’ll roam around during our events and try to look threatening but they have not been able to do anything.
They tear down our posters on the Wall of democracy in North campus. But they’re such cowards, they’ll never do it in front of you.
What role can presidents of hostel unions play in helping Pinjra Tod?
Their support is very crucial. If they are on your side, you have a voice in the hostels. In fact, many people who are a part of Pinjra Tod are standing for hostel elections. Usually in women’s colleges, the hostel president’s powers are so limited. They ask you to organise hostel nights and cultural activities and make rangoli, which is not what hostel unions are about. Our strength comes from women who live in hostels so we are having conversations about getting the hostels more functional.
In Jamia, they had declared elections only for the men’s hostel till we protested. Then they had elections for the women’s hostel. DU has 15 women’s colleges but only four of those colleges are a part of DUSU.
Women often face a bind in that feminist ideologies are espoused in the classroom and regressive patriarchal mindsets govern the hostel. What does this portend?
You know, you go to class and study feminism, go to the library and read feminist texts and go for international feminist conferences only to be locked up in the hostel at 7.30pm. This contradiction reality is really frustrating. You are not able to experience the empowering possibilities of what you are reading. The UGC [University Grants Committee] has this Saksham committee report which feminists like Uma Chakravarti and Mary John have formulated. It is a really progressive report, it’s about the question of women’s safety and autonomy and it is saying the things that we are trying to phrase. When you tell women that we will lock you up for your safety and we will not let you make your own decisions, you are actually incapacitating them. To make women more autonomous, you have to drastically change their realities.
How do women break the pinjra at home, where parents’ ‘safety’ concerns are couched in the same patriarchal mindset that restricts women’s mobility in college?
The pinjra means a whole lot of things. Right now, Pinjra Tod is not just composed of women from the hostels or PGs but also women who live at home. Family is a much more difficult and complicated thing to break. As a women’s collective, we feel some sense of solidarity and support with each other. We have a Whatsapp group of 150 women which is buzzing all the time. People share deeply personal things, like facing abuse in families or even asking advice on how to explain feminism to family. It’s not easy to tell your parents that you’re a part of a radical movement. However, participation in the movement is demanding various kinds of negotiation, subversion and resistance with respect to the family structure.
How can parents and college authorities become better allies to the Pinjra Tod movement?
The first thing the universities tell you is we have these rules because your parents want them and our parents are also part of the patriarchal, casteist mentality. Parents need to stop treating their daughters as subjects who need to be constantly monitored and policed.
Has Pinjra Tod made any efforts to present the campaign’s demands in front of the Delhi government?
The notices have actually come out during peak exam time. Once our exams are over, we are planning to discuss these things. DCW has worked very closely with the Delhi government and has their support. We might launch a larger national petition which is addressed to the NCW [National Commission for Women] and UGC.
Students who disregard hostel regulations are often punished heavily and have to arbitrarily leave the hostel, which you call a ‘witch-hunt’ in your report to the DCW. What can be done to correct this situation?
A lot of these cases occurred before Pinjra Tod started as a movement. We are very careful about maintaining anonymity of students who are part of the movement. The people who speak publicly to the media themselves do not live in hostels. As the movement builds we know more students will get identified and so we have taken up this matter with DCW as well. They have told us that we can lodge complaints with them.
At the undergraduate hostel for women in DU, students were thrown out for protesting about the water crisis there. They even had a rule in their hostel rule book that if you protest about water crises, disciplinary action will be taken against you. We had therefore pushed for a clause that none of the students, who were protesting against hostel rules, would be targeted or denied a hostel seat.
Pinjra Tod stood at 50 members initially. Is there greater interest in membership now?
We are Delhi-based, but there are also groups in Patiala, Chennai and Bombay. We have 150 members from colleges in DU and there are also people from Jamia Milia and AUD [Ambedkar University, Delhi]. Pinjra Tod has some main events like the women’s march at Jantar Mantar but people are also doing their own things and building the movement. In Jamia, chupke chupke hota hai, going to put posters in the morning or holding screenings of films in your hostel room. In places like Miranda House, people hold public discussions more vocally.
What kind of intervention is required to ensure that the Gender Sensitisation Committees do not become a farce?
We need to have a strong feminist voice on campuses. It’s important that there are elected bodies for women. At the moment, the Vishakha guidelines are quite incredible, there’s the Ordinance XV-D in DU and GSCASH [Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment] in Jawaharlal Nehru University [both deal with sexual harassment]. You see it functioning quite well in JNU even though there has been some silencing in cases which involve high-profile professors. These committees will only function well when there is a strong feminist movement in the campus asserting pressure on them.
What role can professors play when provosts and deans become autocratic in their decision-making?
Their teaching obviously counts, but their support is also very important. We are in conversation with teacher’s associations of various colleges. When you have faculty supporting you, it becomes difficult for those higher up to target students individually. In one of the colleges, a student was being harassed by her HOD for her support for Pinjra Tod. We had other teachers in this college who were supporting us and so that gave us the strength to lodge a complaint. The HOD had to back off.
Dress codes and hostel regulations are a blatant violation of fundamental rights. Is there a legal recourse?
For us, it was very important to build a strong movement first. But the question of legal recourse is on our mind. The patriarchal logic which defines our institutions is also present in law; we are in conversation with lawyers like Karuna Nundy and thinking of filing a PIL. That is still in process.
(Photos courtesy Pinjra Tod)