By Ila Ananya
“I used to be a part of a mechanical engineering team, a team that has to build aircrafts for an international competition. Since the team is comprised of students, they have only the late night to work in, because they cannot work during the day due to classes. The girls, at least during my day, were not allowed to work in the workshops or labs late into the night while the boys were given all the permission to work round the clock,” says an alumnus of VIT, Vellore. Following this, she says that from the next year, girls were no longer selected to these teams, simply because their hostel rules stopped them from participating.
If you’re a woman studying in most private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, you might be familiar with this story. You might even be familiar with these rules that stop you from accessing the library after 6 pm because you need to rush back to your hostel, while the boys can spend their nights there. Once in the hostel, you don’t have access to the Internet. Forget the Internet, in some colleges you aren’t even allowed to have a phone. A student from SASTRA University, Thanjavur, says, “We were not allowed to join any coaching centre outside campus for GRE or CAT,” and that she was not allowed to attend any events hosted by other universities.
These testimonies of students whose academic and job opportunities have been affected by curfew regulations are from a report on gendered hostel rules in colleges in Tamil Nadu. The report, compiled by Bhargavi Suryanarayanan, a humanities student at IIT Madras, and Vandana Venkatesh, a recent law graduate from the National Law University, Delhi, who circulated a questionnaire among students to get their testimonies, is based on the 264 responses they received from 61 colleges in Tamil Nadu. Ninety-two percent of the respondents identified as female, 7 percent identified as male, and 1 percent identified as members of the transgender community or as not fitting into the gender binary. The responses were primarily from engineering colleges based across various districts, with most responses coming from Thanjavur, Vellore, Chennai, and Kancheepuram, in that order.
According to Vandana, 86.7 percent of students said that their hostels had different curfew rules for men and women, and of these students, a staggering 98 percent said that these differential hostel rules adversely affected them.
Bhargavi, whose viral Facebook post about the regressive gendered rules in SASTRA University sparked off this report, says she cannot even begin to explain how restrictive these rules were — “One girl wrote about being slapped when she spoke up about the rules. A male teacher had asked her to go inside, and when she questioned her curfew, the teacher casually slapped her. It was in public, and nobody came to help either,” she says, horrified.
The testimonies indicate that in colleges like Kamaraj College of Engineering, Virudhunagar, girls’ hostels are expected to ensure that their windows are closed at all times. They aren’t allowed to leave the campus without being accompanied by a family member — women are even expected to give the hostel two photographs of people from their family who are the only ones allowed to pick them up. A student from Srimathi Indira Gandhi College, Tiruchirpalli, says that personal letters are read in the hostel. In many of these universities, women are expected to pin their dupattas to their shoulders when they come in to class, and they can’t wear jeans — in NIT Trichy, a student writes that black and white clothes are seen as an attempt to attract attention, and leggings are seen as seductive. According to a testimony from Kamaraj College of Engineering, women wearing shorts or sleeveless t-shirts with their hair untied in hostels are shamed.
These aren’t surprising results. They are results that we’ve known all along, but this report makes amply clear their serious consequences beyond just freedom of speech and movement — such gendered rules also heavily affect women students’ academic and job opportunities as well as their mental health.
Women students say that their applications to workplaces are strengthened by internships and extra-curricular activities. However, since their academic performance is hindered because they can’t access the library and labs beyond 6 pm, can’t travel to other colleges to present papers, and can’t take up part-time jobs or internships because of hostel curfews, their job opportunities remain severely restricted.
An alumnus of MOP Vaishnav, Chennai, for instance, says that because of her curfew timings, she couldn’t take up a part-time job that required her to be present till 8 pm, which would have opened doors for her professionally and academically. A student from SASTRA University said the college didn’t allow her to extend a very important internship that would have significantly helped her, and another student from SASTRA writes in her testimony that they were called (the all-too-familiar) “uncultured” when they tried to speak up, and were threatened with “dire consequences”.
As the report also indicates, it’s obvious that there’s something terribly wrong when students use words like “prison”, to describe their hostel and college spaces. Testimonials in the report specified that they felt ‘suffocated’, ‘claustrophobic’, ‘restricted’ and ‘caged’, with constant policing of how well their dupattas were pinned, or who they were talking to, contributing to several mental health issues like major anxiety and stress disorders, suicidal tendencies, panic, depression, anger, loneliness, and low self-esteem. Some women said there was evidence of being marked down in a subject if they wore clothes that authorities disapproved of, or interacted with male students, and this was a source of worry.
An alumnus of Kamaraj College of Engineering writes that a girl in her college committed suicide after her ‘character’ was questioned for interacting with a boy. Another alumnus of the same college says that she was once called for an ‘enquiry’ for talking to a male student. The male student in question was actually a young male professor. In her hostel, her clothes, the way she walked, the accessories that she wore, the way she spoke, were all criticised. “It was psychologically damaging,” she writes. From SASTRA University, a student says that girls weren’t allowed to leave the campus, even to the store opposite college, unless they gave up their ID card and returned in 20 minutes. She says, “I was clinically depressed throughout college because I felt like a prisoner.”
What do the women students suggest? They all say they want equal rules — if there’s a curfew, the same curfew needs to be applicable to male and female students; dress codes must be removed (a University Grants Commission ruling in July this year banned the imposition of rules like dress codes and hostel curfews) and women must be allowed to leave the campus. It was also recommended that a grievance cell to address gender-based discrimination be set up, and students who didn’t identify as belonging to the gender binaries suggested that there also be a mixed hostel.
Bhargavi and Vandana approached the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women with their report, and were told that they should come back after the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections earlier this year. Of all the colleges they sent their report to (some of whom responded saying they will “look into the matter”), NIT Suratkal was the only one that responded positively to the report — the chairperson, who is a woman, interacted with female students to understand the issues. It was decided that the new lab that they are building, will either be open for 24 hours to all students, or the same curfew will be imposed on both men and women.
In her Facebook post, Bhargavi had written that when she and her friends protested the rules at SASTRA University, the Dean told them that they [the institution] held the reigns and that students had no right to question the institution and its rules. This idea that the Venerable Institution is above its students, and that discriminatory and paternal rules exist for the ‘safety’ of women, policing everything from their clothes and bodies to their use of public space, seems to be an excuse for maintaining and wielding power with no intention of reform. As Bhargavi and Vandana’s report shows, it has ultimately led to women losing agency, job opportunities, and had a significant impact on their mental health.