NEW DELHI, India — There’s no question that women’s safety in India’s capital is a serious concern. Sexual offenses from rape to street harassment happen every day.
But locking the gates on women’s hostels at 7:30 p.m.? And refusing to let women stay out until 10 p.m., even just twice a month?
For many women and students in Delhi, that’s going too far.
The Pinjra Tod (or “Break the Cage”) campaign began last month when Jamia Milia Islamia, a prestigious university in Delhi, cancelled ‘late nights’ for female residents at its hostel (Late nights extend the regular curfew by two hours, till 10 p.m.). In India, hostels are residential facilities provided to university students to live on or near campus while they pursue their degree. As this subsidised accommodation is limited, rooms are given out on the basis of academic merit. Single women taking up jobs in the city can also decide to put up in working women’s hostels.
The Delhi Commission for Women issued a demand for an explanation to Jamia following the revised hostel rules, which it argued was discrimination because men’s hostels did not have to obey the same rules.
“These [policies] are not just limited to Jamia University. It’s all across the country, so we wanted to at least make a platform around Delhi,” said Devangana Kalita, a Delhi University alumna who was on the team that started the campaign. “We are constantly told that it is for your own safety and security, but the university isn’t doing anything about enabling measures like sexual harassment complaints committees.”
Break the Cage has brought into public discussion a host of problems women in Delhi’s hostels regularly face: Curfews at 7:30 p.m., two to four "late nights" a month, never later than 10 p.m., and demands for permission from parents or authorized guardians if a resident wants to be away for the night. Even hostels for employed women forbid entry after 10 p.m. While those running these facilities claim that the measures aim to ensure the safety of residents, Break the Cage says it is nothing but moral policing.
“The university just infantilizes you, makes you feel like you are girls who have to be protected,” said Kalita. She pointed out that as state-funded institutions, hostels are accountable to the constitution to guarantee the legal rights of adult women, and not to their parents. “We are experiencing the city every day, and the kind of violence which happens to us after 7:30 also happens during the day. Give us the choice to decide how we want to negotiate and think about our safety.”
In response to the campaign, women have also come out to complain about disparaging comments from wardens on what they wear, where they go and who they meet. The campaign has demanded checks on such regressive attitudes.
“These incidents of moral-policing seek to reinforce a certain Brahminical notion of the good and obedient woman, who talks politely, wears 'decent' clothes, does not indulge in independent relationships, marries into her caste and class — the qualifications are endless,” reads the group’s online signature petition to the Delhi Commission for Women.
Campaign managers have mostly received a positive response during their signature collection rallies and discussion groups, and they hope to convince the commission to demand answers from university authorities on discriminatory policies that apply mainly or exclusively to women.
Break the Cage is only the latest of a series of vocal feminist movement in Delhi’s universities. In March this year, college students across the city were greeted with sanitary pads stuck to walls and trees, with little notes on them. Inspired by a German artist, this bizarre campaign too came with a feminist message: “Imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they are with periods.”