Pinjra Tod: Breaking the Shackles of ‘Protection’
Recently a group of students and alumni from Delhi’s universities came together under the banner of ‘Pinjra Tod’ (Break the Cage) to fight regressive hostel rules, surveillance tactics and moral policing that have long been the foundation of women’s hostels and dormitories across the country. In place of this false protectionism, which is in fact only policing, they demand safe and affordable hostel accommodation. This initiative, to my mind, is not merely timely, but of utmost relevance in the present moment.
Imprisoning Women Through Language
Historically, women’s hostels in India have been a means of imprisoning girls and women. This requires no great analysis and is merely a corollary of the manner in which women’s lives are conceptualised as always already at risk, or too risky – in other words, women being seen as merely sexual objects. The hostel, seen as an extension of the home, mimics both the anxieties and the controls of the family, and indeed in many instances also claims to be a substitute of the familial for women living away from their homes.
Ironically enough, the language and terminology of hostels belie, or perhaps unconsciously underscore, this and are homologous with prisons! Typically, ‘wardens’ manage women’s hostels; students and women living in it are frequently referred to as ‘inmates’; the rules and conditions, especially regarding timings, visitors and ‘nights out’ are restrictive and unreasonable. All of these remind one only of jails.
The Authorities Themselves Are Sexist
What was most revealing about this experience was not so much the absurdity of hostel rules – which these were – but the attitudes of the authorities with reference to the students and young women in general. On the one hand the general consensus, vocalised quite explicitly, especially amongst the older colleagues was that young women ran amuck if “let out”. On the other hand, the college was adamant that either the women students’ parents or local guardians needed to take responsibility should they be endangered in any manner (this extended from their health, to being at risk from any form of violence).
The hypocrisy and double standards of the ‘protectors’ was clearly evident – the rules that forbade women from staying out late, leaving the college alone, or having as many weekends away as they wished (amongst many other demands) were merely to police them. Yet in matters of real concern, the authorities clearly had scant interest and certainly wished to take no responsibility towards ensuring the well-being of the students, many of whom were living in a city far away from their homes.
The recent UGC directive, intended to address the needs of students’ safety in institutions of higher education, similarly underscores, and rather unabashedly let me add, the conception of students’ housing as prisons, and their lives as that requiring careful monitoring and surveillance. Even though these guidelines maintain a language of gender neutrality it is obvious that these are directed towards girls and women.
Who’s ‘Protecting’ the Men?
No institution, certainly of higher education, in India has barricaded boys or men in, nor are there, as far as I am aware, any codes of conduct or curfew hours that are prescribed for them. Indeed, if the histories of ragging, bullying and other forms of intimidation within men’s hostels is anything to go by (of the poorer, younger, and imagined ‘weaker’ in any sense – caste/community/sexual orientation) then timely interventions might well have been useful. On the contrary, the conceptualisation of residence halls in colleges and universities as extensions of the domestic have underscored the patriarchal nature of not merely the family, education or access to public space, but of citizenship itself.
The compact between authorities and the family is therefore unsurprising – the successful, and legitimised, maintenance of structures of surveillance cannot succeed without the language of protection and safety that are integral to household structures. The deep injustice that is at the heart of this will always leave women more disadvantaged.
What ‘Going Ahead’ Will Mean
In their struggle ahead, clearly the Pinjra Tod collective will need to address both structures of authority in educational institutions, as indeed the larger patriarchal values that provide meaning to the Indian family. Additionally, I would suggest that this is an opportune moment to address the larger questions of safety and justice for women in cities. In this regard, there are at least two areas that seem critical.
One - the rights of safety and equitable working conditions for women workers on campuses. In this era of rampant contractualisation, and decline in tenurial jobs, the everyday conditions of work for most women are abysmal. Many work unfair hours, have no means of safe or easy transport to return to their homes far away from places of work and certainly combat any numbers of challenges to continue as workers. The second – the increasingly fraught dynamics within hostels and campus residential spaces that is in urgent need of attention.
In a climate of increasing caste violence and communal polarisation, there is great need to ensure that places of residence will be truly safe for all, and will not in turn become spaces for intimidation. Indeed, I would imagine that only by opening up such difficult questions can a movement such as this truly succeed.
(G Arunima is an Associate Professor with the Centre for Women’s Studies in JNU.)