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t the time of writing this commentary, young Muslim university students in the Indian state of Karnataka are fighting for their rights to higher education while practicing the hijab - a headcover worn by some Muslim women in India. Their struggles began in early February 2022 after the principal of a college restricted six hijab-wearing students from entering the college premises citing violation of school’s dress code as a reason. Protesting this new restriction, the women approached the Karnataka High Court who ordered an interim ban on the hijab in educational institutions in the state, and upheld the same on 15 March 2022, remarking that the hijab is non-essential to Islamic practices. Public protests against the ban, and counter-protests for the ban from right-leaning student groups, continue to frame debates around Islam, women’s rights to education and Islamophobia to date.
While the rest of the commentary focuses on the role of Indian universities in gendered social reproduction and feminist struggles against it, the debates around the hijab ban in Karnataka raise critical questions on what universities are, their roles, and how they are deeply embedded in the socio-political contexts of India. On one hand, Indian universities reproduce inequalities of class, gender, caste and religion, and on the other, they are also active sites for struggles towards social and gender justice.
The commentary builds on contemporary socio-political contexts, yet exclusions in Indian universities are rooted in histories and legacies of coloniality. Universities during the British Raj (between 1858-1947) played critical roles in “maintain[ing] [the] colonial state apparatus” (Sarkar 2020). The institutional landscapes of colonial universities were shaped by the need to produce employable Indian graduates and by the inclusion of select few – mostly upper caste, upper class, men – in these roles (Béteille, 2010). These colonial legacies are carried forward in university systems in postcolonial India (Apoorvanand, 2018). The inclusion of marginalised communities such as women, Dalits, Indigenous groups and Muslims in universities continue to be sidelined. Furthermore, universities as institutions continue to remain key sites for the reproduction of unequal gendered norms, heteronormativities, and intersectional marginalities.
Gender in/exclusion also remains a key issue in contemporary Indian universities. Women’s enrollment in higher education has gradually increased with concerted policy efforts in post-independence India. In the post-liberalisation period (roughly 1990s onwards), universities have also played a critical role in emerging middle-class aspirations for women’s higher education and paid work (Chaturvedi and Sahai, 2019; Jaffrey, 2008; Vijayakumara, 2013). Yet women’s access to good higher education institutions (HEIs) and highly valued job-market related programmes like STEM continue to be limited (Sabharwal, 2021). These gendered fault lines deepen further along intersectional differences of class, caste, religion, and location (Desai and Kulkarni, 2008). Simultaneously, experiences of everyday forms of inequalities, harassment, and violence continue to dominate experiences of women in universities. For instance, a safety audit conducted by the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) found that one in four female students face sexual harassment in colleges affiliated with the University of Delhi (The Hindu, 2018).
At the same time, government-run universities have played an important role as sites for feminist organising, education, and research, especially through the establishment of Women’s Studies centers since the 1970s. These centers provide the impetus to “help to breach the academic isolation of the universities and make them instruments of social transformation” while “reclaiming space to conceptualise and articulate [women’s] knowledge and experiences from the standpoint of their lived experiences” (Poonacha, 2014: 23; Sharma, 2017). In turn, Indian universities emerge as paradoxical socio-spatialities within broader contexts of violations of Constitutional rights to non-discrimination and equality, while remaining linked to key ecosystems that challenge dominations of marginalised groups.
Within this backdrop, the following commentary examines the role of universities as socio-spatialities for gendered reproduction and feminist actions. I focus on the role of on-campus university housing in reproducing gendered control over young women in Delhi. The commentary also provides glimpses of how feminist actions take form and potentially shape institutional spaces of universities by examining the visions and practices of the Pinjra Tod collective in Delhi.
Gendered control and everyday life in on-campus hostels
Delhi holds a special place in the educational landscape of India. With its five top-ranking public universities and numerous private HEIs, the city responds to classed and gendered aspirations for education, and also provides opportunities for employment for university graduates in its fast-growing service economy. In turn, large numbers of women migrate from across the country to Delhi where the HEIs stand out in terms of quality within the regionally unequal higher educational landscape in India. A majority of the women enrolled in the HEIs, especially migrants, depend on university-run and private hostels for their housing needs. These hostels, in turn, become the immediate socio-spatial context which determines women’s everyday life. Here, I bring attention to the case of the University of Delhi which has 80 affiliated colleges, out of which 22 are women’s-only colleges. Most of these colleges provide hostel facilities for undergraduate students, while there are separate hostels for postgraduates (Masters and PhDs) and women working in the university.
While women living in these hostels aspire for personal growth and certain levels of autonomy and agency as adults, the hostels are run as gendered spaces with specific sets of regulations over mobility, living conditions, and urban life (see also Zahan 2020). Hostel regulations, communicated through brochures, include temporal, spatial, bodily, and social controls like night curfews, demands for parental approvals to travel elsewhere in India for academic and personal purposes, strict dress codes, and restrictions on socialisation with men, including family members and other men who are visiting the hostel premises. These regulations are combined with more mundane aspects of co-living such as meal and prayer times mostly following Hindu traditions.
These hostel rules relegate women to a position of dependency and infantilise them by effectively disenfranchising them from taking control of their everyday lives. Furthermore, hostel rules like night curfews restrict women from accessing university facilities like libraries and laboratories, thus producing unequal educational access and opportunities. My personal experiences of living in similar hostels in Delhi and elsewhere reveal deep and lasting impacts of these gendered regulations on young women. Restricted to specific spatialities-temporalities in the city, young women often find themselves in binary positions of conformity or contravention with these rules. As hostels closely surveil women’s conformity to these rules, young women find it difficult to oppose them in the fear of punishments such as expulsion, denial of housing, and/or informing the parents or local guardians of their ‘violations’. Furthermore, those who get reprimanded for inconsequential violations of these rules continue to face shame and fear of institutional and social repercussions. Stories of women’s violations of rules and their consequences circulate hostel spaces as affective reminders and controls for other women. These institutional spaces and practices are “forms of coloniality” (Bhabra, Gebrial and Nişancıoğlu, 2018: 1) that build on and reproduce historically rooted social inequalities, exert control, enforce conformity, and define marginalised communities’ (here mostly migrant young women’s) socio-spatial and educational experiences in numerous ways.
Socially, the gendered hostel rules are considered as part and parcel of the hostels’ services towards the ‘protection’ and ‘care’ of young women in the city. Women are considered out-of-place and in need of protection from the overtly misogynist urban settings. This logic of protectionism also finds legitimacy on grounds of high levels of violence against women and social discourses around young women’s vulnerability in Delhi. Delhi has reported the highest number of registered cases of rape among the metro-cities in India in the last five years, with 13,982 registered cases of crime against women in 2021 (National Crime Records Bureau, 2021). In turn, hostel rules are considered ‘essential’ to keep young women ‘safe’ by controlling where, when and with whom they are in the absence of parental supervision. Women’s hostels also charge almost double fees compared to men’s hostels for their ‘services’, reinforcing classed exclusions as well as the deprivation of housing and educational access to lower class women (Tiwari, 2017).
Contrary to women’s hostels, men in on-campus hostels are not regulated by these rules and enjoy unrestricted access to university and urban spaces. Historically, men are seen as default and legitimate users of urban and university spaces (John, 2012; Tilak, 2015). In fact, men’s hostels engage in activities that promote gendered oppression and misogyny on university campuses. For example, a men’s hostel organised a virginity-tree prayer on Valentine’s Day – an invented ritual of worshiping a fictional Bollywood character “Damdami Mai” who is considered as the epitome of female sexuality and male desire – in the hope of forming an intimate romantic relationship with women. Similarly, on Holi – the festival of colour – women are restricted from leaving hostel premises to ‘protect’ themselves from the aggression of men who play Holi on the streets of the city. In short, everyday and exceptional forms of misogyny and gendered inequalities are deeply ingrained in the university system through formalised hostel rules and informal rituals. Seemingly, while the Indian feminist movement has found firm grounding in university spaces, universities have yet to conceptualise their institutional stand on gender equality, especially for young women.
Challenging institutional controls over women
Within this context, Pinjra Tod (PT) – translated as ‘Break the Hostel Locks’ – emerged as a feminist collective in 2015 and raised questions around issues such as institutionalised gendered control through hostel rules for women, access to affordable and accessible on-campus housing, inequalities and discriminations on university campuses, sexual harassment, state austerity and privatisation of higher education. PT articulates their stand on gendered controls in hostels as assaults on women’s rights to the city, mobility and selfhood. A statement given by PT during protests against curfew times in a hostel in 2018 articulated: “When we demand the right to mobility, it is a demand for our selfhood and survival, for our dreams and our futures. It is for our right to access the city and its opportunities”. The collective thus problematises the normalised and rationalised institutional controls within the broader context of the city, as the hostel rules impact women’s capacities to engage not just with the university but also with urban spaces and societies as full socio-political actors and citizens.
PT depends largely on peer support and uses horizontal forms of organising women and their individual experiences into collective forms of struggles. This process is self-reflexive, based on critical discussions and debates that feed into PT’s collective action. Decisions are made after deliberation among core members wherein experiences, visions and goals of PT’s members are taken into consideration. These deliberations are held before and after public demonstrations to incorporate a continual process of speaking, listening, action and learning. PT also engages in intersectional politics that recognises differences among their members. The collective uses different strands of feminist thoughts such as Dalit feminism in order to collectivise around issues of intersectional inequalities. In doing so, PT creates communities where women students feel a sense of belonging, connection and social capital critical for urban living. At the same time, these practices enable PT to form open and constructive connections and deliberations with other marginalised groups and form solidarities for issues such as labour resistance in the city (see also Zahan 2020).
PT’s political actions take multiple forms at different scales: engagements with university administration, hostel administration, government bodies set up for gender and women’s welfare, public demonstrations, and public hearings with representatives from political parties. Through these tactics, PT engages with multiple social and institutional actors who explicitly and implicitly contribute to the gendered regimes of hostel rules through their spatialised management of the city. For instance, PT’s protests in public spaces outside university campuses expose how exclusionary urban geographies are produced by universities and dominant actors at the expense of women students. Public protests, in turn, help PT to not only gain visibility but also garner public responses to supposedly ‘private’ matters of women’s hostel life. In this process, PT exposes how control over women in ‘private’ hostel spaces is indeed a public matter requiring a collective solution.
While PT does not publicly state whether their movement is influenced by Lefebvre, PT’s articulations come very close to the Lefebvrian notion of the right to the city as a right “to urban life, to renewed centrality, to places of encounter and exchange, to life rhythms and time uses, enabling the full and complete usage of these moments and places” (1996: 179). Through their actions, PT establishes opposing discourses to that of the ‘protectionism’ and ‘care’ of hostel authorities. By extension, their actions chart new visions for young women as a collective to engage with the city where multiplicities of gendered experiences can find their place.
The case of the PT collective in Delhi and the dissenting voices against the hijab ban in Karnataka represent historical trajectories of Indian universities as key sites of exclusions and collective struggles. The collective voices complement each other in their desires to transform the terms of university education and institutional spaces for young women. These collectives centre intersectional differences and pluralities as building blocks for Indian universities in opposition to dominant and exclusionary social framings that specifically target young women. Collective political actions reframe crucial institutional and ideological spaces for engagements and debates around feminist-oriented justice, while producing political tools to imagine, ground and foster alternative futures. The spaces produced by collective struggles further provide potential blueprints to question the skewed authority of universities as spaces of knowledge production and social justice, especially for marginalised communities.
Despite the potential of collectives like PT, they garner complex responses from different sections of the university community and the urban society. Women students continue to live under gendered control and surveillance in these hostels. The university is yet to reconceptualise and reformulate their institutional regulations in tune with the demands and visions of PT. In fact, certain hostels have imposed “no participation in protests” clauses as part of their regulations in subsequent years. These instances indicate that women’s activism and desires for change are often considered out-of-place within the institutional spaces of universities.
PT is often and at best understood as a radical movement that disrupts the gendered social order instead of an articulated and concerted movement for gender justice. While more formalised politics hold considerable sway over university spaces, like through students’ unions controlled mainly by men from dominant castes, PT is often pushed to the peripheries as a collective independent of the unions. The heavy presence of the police, barricading of protest sites and protesters in marked spaces, and violent disruption of on-going protests by right-wing student union representatives are some of the responses that PT protests have received from both university and city administrations. The recent resurgence of right-wing politics at the national level and its influence on universities (Taseer, 2016) reinforce gendered ideological debates around young women’s place in the university, city and the Indian society. In that, young women are pushed away from the public sphere, restricted from dissent, and marked as against ‘National’ interests, as seen in the cases of PT and the hijab ban in Karnataka.
These contestations force us to rethink the roles and meanings of universities in the city and in the Indian democracy. As institutions embedded in socio-political, historical, and economic systems of the country, universities are bound to appear as sites of contestations. Yet, universities must also provide spaces for public debates, contestations and above all spaces for marginalised communities to claim their place in the society through universities where they have been historically excluded. In considering how the university positions itself in relation to women’s gendered living in hostels and collective activism, universities need to reposition themselves as advocates of gendered social reform instead of remaining as sites of gendered reproduction and activism. In turn, the role of universities must not just be to confer degrees and produce employable graduates for the neoliberal market, but rather to become robustly oriented towards democracy, historical justice and decolonisation since they serve as primary sites of (gendered) micropolitics.
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Dr. Syeda Jenifa Zahan is an Urban Studies Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Interuniversity Department of Regional and Urban Studies and Planning, Polytechnic of Turin, Italy.