By Leila Gautham
This article delineates my own experiences of three years as a student in St Stephen’s College and as a female hosteller in the college’s ‘residence.’ It consists of four sections that collectively present a narrative of rules surrounding girls’ blocks and the student movement in 2013 questioning these rules. Like all narratives, this is a personal one and reflects observations and inferences that might not be shared by others.
The rules regarding the girls’ hostels at St Stephen’s College will sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s studied in Delhi University (and any other institution of higher education, with a few honourable exceptions). I shall proceed to list them out, as they now stand:
- Female hostellers are required to be inside their blocks by ten o’clock at which time they are physically locked in. Entering after ten o’clock results in severe rebuke and a visit to the principal’s office, after which he may take any disciplinary action as he sees fit.
- Girls are permitted to take six days of ‘night-outs’ in a month, and the permission process involves getting a letter from one’s local guardian (if one is visiting the local guardian). If one is not visiting the local guardian – and instead, say, staying over at a friend’s house – one has to get a letter from one’s parent stating the address and giving permission. This letter is scrutinized by both warden and dean and has to be submitted three days in advance.
- To highlight the extent of the ridiculousness, such permission letters have to be given even when a girl leaves college for the holidays (a letter from her parents that she is ostensibly returning home). In fact, even after finishing my BA and leaving Stephen’s I had to give such a letter.
- Taking night-outs on weekdays is discouraged: one is asked the ‘reason’ why one is taking the night-out, if it is advisable to miss classes, et cetera et cetera. Needless to say, as boys have to hand in none of these letters no such questions are asked of them, should they choose to absent themselves at night.
To summarise, female hostellers are subjected to an entirely different regime than their male counterparts – definitely more cumbersome and burdensome, and to some at least, deeply frustrating, humiliating, and demoralizing. Accounting for cultural and ideological differences and respecting the non-homogenous views of my fellow female hostellers, I can only say that I found it to be a disturbing loss of my own autonomy. I also found a gaping contradiction in my own life as a student, where, on the one hand, I could be as radical as I wanted and discuss feminism and neoliberalism in the classroom, but could not be trusted to make decisions about my own safety.
Broadly, one could say that it was these concerns of lack of autonomy for female
students as well as unequal access to public spaces that prompted a movement in the student body from March to June in 2013.
Discrimination was appearing in more and more blatant ways: girls were being asked as to where they were going, why they were going there. Girls who were going home and were being picked up were asked to meet the warden with their male escorts so she could verify that it was indeed their ‘brother or father’. Parents had to send text confirmations to the wardens. These demands made of the female hostellers were entirely arbitrary, unbacked by formal rules, but with the clear support of the administration and the principal. One was told that disobeying would lead to drastic consequences and questioning was not encouraged. Beyond the rhetoric of ‘safety’ and ‘decency’ (so odd to find a discourse eerily similar to the morality of the RSS in a Christian minority institution!) no answers were given.
And a group of students took it upon themselves to demand these answers. Nightly meetings were held, class-to-class campaigns conducted and a vast number of pamphlets and other writings disseminated. A sample:
“Are we going to be passive adherents to the new rules that are imposed on us, indifferent bystanders who consider them unacceptable but don’t believe in voicing their opinions? Or are we students who believe that education and learning empower us to understand that this isn’t about our safety but a way of curbing our space and taking away any agency that one may possess?”
Or this (interrogating the discourse of privileges as emphasised by the administration – as in, you are privileged to be part of this college, you are privileged to have a hostel seat, you are privileged to have a microwave in your hostel even though you are locked in):
“The privilege of being under surveillance. The privilege of a pre-decided academic routine for my studies. The privilege of the knowledge that greater freedom is available right outside. The privilege of difference, as between apples and oranges, eggs and stones.
The privileges have been far too many. Now for some rights. To set some privileges right.”
Negotiations were held with the student’s union as well to hold a general body meeting (GBM) with the principal on the specific issues of the girls’ blocks.
Apples and oranges, and eggs and stones
In the GBM, many students came prepared with arguments as to how the present system treated girls and boys unequally. We were stunned however, when they principal cheerfully acknowledged that yes, they were being treated unequally, and of course it had to be that way – girls and boys were as different as ‘apples and oranges’ and ‘eggs and stones.’ Reverend Thampu went on to give many more illuminating analogies – of one’s family locking the door at night, of an airplane were the doors were sealed, and so on, in order to explain to the students why locking female students in at ten and subjecting them to a set of rules so different than for male hostellers was perfectly justified.
Following the GBM was a complete crackdown by the administration on a scale none of us had anticipated. CCTV surveillance was deployed with a vengeance. Interviews were held for residence seats and every single hosteller had to present themselves to be scrutinized by the principal as to whether they would receive residence or not. Naturally, a number of people were thrown out, many of whom had participated in the movement. The atmosphere took on a kind of sick fear (rather reminiscent of the Nazi regime): students complained about other students in order to get seats, wardens gave the principal names of girls they didn’t like and – while I joke about this – at that time, everyone was truly terrified. We didn’t know if our parents would be called, if we’d be thrown out of residence, or if we’d be suspended. It was a week before the exams, and we were hunting for flats and PGs to stay.
But what killed the movement even more effectively than administrative retribution was the resentment and anger of fellow students. The campaign of fear and intimidation unleashed by Reverend Thampu radiated well beyond those involved in the movement – it affected the entire student body. Students felt furious about being threatened and harassed for what they saw as a consequence of the movement against discrimination. Even now, talks labelled ‘feminist’ or groups discussing these issues are treated with no small degree of skepticism/suspicion/derision.
St Stephen’s is a sick place in many ways. I use such a strong phrase deliberately. The metaphor of disease is very useful in describing an institution that practices sexual discrimination with such deep determination. In a context where gender and violence is gaining greater space in discourse, the college administration refuses to pay any sort of attention to issues that both students and teachers raise. It refuses to be self-reflexive. It refuses to acknowledge that patriarchy is a real issue. I have heard statements like: “If the girls’ blocks are open, we’ll have to open a maternity ward,” or “feminism is a disease that’s spreading far beyond where it should stay.” A recent development has been that the Gender Sensitization Committee of St Stephen’s College (at one point, it had filed letters to the principal against his comments in the GBM) is disbanded to be replaced by a committee headed by members nominated by the principal.
The other reason it’s a sick place is the administrative regime. Consequences to rule-breaking are arbitrary inviting punishment that depends on the whims and fancies of the principal Reverend Thampu. He does not consult a single person (a case in point is the recent suspension of a student for asking him a question regarding the banning of paper cups – the suspension was handed out on the spot without the boy’s head of the department or professors being consulted).
Ideologies such as those glorifying St Stephen’s are dangerous. It allows the creation of a space that stifles questioning and interrogation of its beloved traditions and customs. It allows a megalomaniac to treat students’ lives and values with complete arbitrariness, simply because everyone is thankful that they’ve gotten in to this hallowed college and wants to leave with a degree. It silences the most marginal voices under the all-prevailing twin discourses of ‘academic excellence’ and ‘quintessential Stephania.’
Of course, the issue of fascist administration is one that is reflected in the university level and after general elections 2014, at the national level as well. The culture of patriarchy is even more diffused and entrenched. Perhaps what enabled this movement (and many others) was the space created by the December 16 protests. What’s happening in my college – and in the university at large – is a whole set of autocratic, violent measures to discipline students and faculty. This will no doubt generate pockets of resistance. It’s important that these become broad-based.
The author is an aluma of St.Stephen’s College and has recently passed out from the college.