By Kahini Iyer
Picture this: In Kerala, the Indian state with the highest literacy rates, a college was given a lesson on gender equality by the High Court for the discriminatory and unfair rules it had set down for its women students.
If you’re surprised to hear that the matter reached the court, now might be the time to brush up on the Pinjra Tod campus protests. The movement started in Delhi University, back in 2015, when anonymous female students protested against the sexist and restrictive regulations of college hostels. They sent an open letter to the Jamia Millia Islamia vice-chancellor in response to the cancellation of women students’ right to stay out until late at night.
In the three years since, Pinjra Tod has transformed into a feminist movement that saw the participation of college students from across the country. The existence of an uprising such as this, is not entirely surprising, considering that it’s no secret that Indian women who stay in hostels or paying guest accommodations are often punished for choosing to live independently. They’re subject to double standards, barred from using the library or campus grounds in the evening, forced to stay inside their rooms after dark while the boys are permitted to roam freely.
Evidently, these discriminatory curfew hours stem from the assumption that women and men don’t deserve the same freedom. Like, the authorities at Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur who expect only the women boarders to adhere to a set of discriminatory hostel rules. In a recent welcome move, the Kerala High Court questioned these assumptions of the authorities, reiterating that a “girl has the same freedom as a boy”.
The High Court’s judgement that sets a precedent for challenging this everyday discrimination, was a response to a petition filed by third-year student Anjitha K Jose back in 2017. Jose had moved the court to strike down four of the hostel rules, claiming they were in violation of her fundamental rights. In its judgement, the Court partly upheld her petition, striking down two inexplicable rules, which stated that “no member of the hostel shall take an active part in political meetings, processions, or propaganda” and “No boarder shall be permitted to go for the first and second show pictures”.
The Court observed that the first rule was an infringement of the right to freedom of expression. While striking down the second rule, Justice Mustaque stated, “It appears that moral choice of the management is attempted to be imposed upon the Boarders. The moral paternalism is something to be frowned upon,” and pointed out that since it was an activity outside the hostel, it is up to the students to “decide whether they should go for the first or second show movies or not.”
The Court left the two remaining rules – the 6 pm curfew timings and the ban on staying in the hostel during class hours – up to the discretion of the college principal. Interestingly, the boys hostel isn’t compelled to follow even these instructions. On their part, the college argued that these rules had been signed by the parents of their students, but the HC maintained that the petitioner is an adult and that “her right to question cannot be compromised based on parental consent”.
The implications of these college rules go far beyond the campus. If a female student’s political expression is so limited from the time that they are students, is it any wonder that we still see a disparity between genders in Lok Sabha? There is no telling what thousands of young women could achieve if they weren’t forced to spend a majority of their hours locked up inside their hostel rooms. For both men and women, college is usually their first proper experience of adulthood. Beyond the education they receive in the classroom are the lessons they learn about the world — and right now, they’re learning that women are lesser beings who will not be treated fairly; that women are locked up to be “safe” from men, but should not expect their claims of campus sexual harassment to be taken seriously; and that we will sacrifice the potential of young women without a second thought, as long as we can keep them in line.
It’s precisely why the Kerala High Court’s judgement occupies a significant position in making these movements against gender-based discrimination in hostel rules an issue of national importance. There’s something to be said about the sanctity of a sexist rule being struck down legally. Even after the triumph at Sree Kerala Varma, the hostel curfew remains a sore point. Students wonder if they will be able to stay out late at the movies and political meetings that they are finally allowed to attend. But at least the ruling hasn’t left any room for ambiguity: We can hope to see a wave of change in numerous college hostels, led by women who are done being treated like second-class students.