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Rohtak may not be a prominent city on the map of India but is, all the same, an important city and major hub of education in Haryana. In the very recent past it was witness to an unprecedented development on the campus of one of the foremost universities of the state, once again forcing one to think about the struggle of women, especially young girls, for gaining their own rightful space in this society.

The girls of this university, having repeatedly failed over the last few years in their attempts to get their hostel-timings changed under different dispensations, sat on a dharna for around seven hours right across the night up to around 1.30 AM, before they got the authorities to extend the time of entry into their hostels in winter from 6 PM at present, to 7 PM. In the summer it is now going to be 8 PM. Even across various girls’ hostels, their movement was restricted beyond a certain point in time. Only now have the timings for inter-hostel movement also been changed in consonance with the girls’ demand. Also, earlier, because of the restricted timings, the girls were deprived of the opportunity to be a part of the audience in cultural programmes held on the campus in the late evenings and into the night, unlike the boys whose hostel timings are not a limitation for them. Coming as it did days after the departure of prominent human rights’ activist Asma Jahangir, one felt as if these girls, imbued with her spirit, were paying a tribute to her with this struggle leading up to this small but significant victory.

Post the 2012 Nirbhaya episode in Delhi, the issue of freedom of women to move around, especially at night, without fear of harassment, molestation and sexual assault has been constantly in the limelight. The ‘Pinjra Tod’ movement that began in the colleges and hostels of Delhi in 2015, voiced the protest of girls against the restrictions imposed on them, especially with regard to the rules governing their entry and movement in hostels. It spread to many cities and was a sign of the increasing awareness in young girls about their right to public spaces even at night. The ‘pinjra’ was the cage that hostels had become for them, with their movement restricted because the timings were such that they had to be back in theirs hostels by a certain fixed time, reportedly 8 pm for some, if not all, institutions. In September 2017 a case of molestation of a girl in Banaras Hindu University came into the limelight and, once again, the issue of the timings of girls’ hostels cropped up.

The normal, routine response to the demand of girls for extension in timings is the security-concern. The fact of the matter, though, is that within the campuses of educational institutions, the institution has to be responsible for creating an environment that makes girls feel safe and secure, irrespective of the time of their movement. Beyond the boundaries of an institution, it has to be the concern of the law and order machinery – and much more than that, the responsibility of the society at large, to see to it that women feel safe and secure at any point of time, be it day or night.

Girls need to be provided the environment that is rightfully theirs, for it is no less than our Constitution that provides them the right to equality at par with the males. However, until and unless the larger issue of how girls are treated, with what mindset they are looked at and how their claim of equality is dealt with is addressed, their movement will continue to be a contentious issue. Women will rightfully claim the streets and public spaces at all hours of the day and night at par with the males, and the authorities, governed and guided by the socio-cultural scene, will continue to hold forth with security concerns. This issue, of the social mores and traditions, especially in the context of certain sections of society including women, coming in contradiction with the rights given to them by the Constitution, needs to be continuously addressed on an ongoing basis.

Education being a powerful means of inculcating and nourishing ideas and ideals, schools, colleges and – most of all – universities are the foremost spaces where concerns of gender-equality need to be addressed and mindsets changed. The traditionally defined roles of a woman need to be continuously questioned, challenged and re-defined. The mould needs to be broken and constructed anew. The irony is that colleges and universities do have Women’s Cells and Women’s Studies Centres that can play a very positive egalitarian role in this regard – and yet, girl-students face a discriminatory attitude as compared to their male counterparts on the campus. Seminars and workshops around women’s issues are organized, but how much of an impact they have on the ground is a moot point. An additional factor is the need – most of all – to change the mindsets of males, beginning from within homes and then in schools and colleges. Equally important, however, is the need to transform the way many females look at themselves, still trapped as many of them are, by the old stereotypes of their role within the family and society.

Most important, in educational institutions, it is the vision and understanding of those at the helm of affairs that counts a lot. They need to display a progressive, enlightened – even bold – attitude towards the issue of women’s freedom and empowerment. And the first pre-condition for this is an openness of mind and an attitude of understanding – if not empathy – towards women. Once those at the centre of decision-making processes are convinced of the need to open up the spaces for girls, looking at them as equals in rights with boys, half the work will have been done.

With this perspective of equality of sexes in place, one would not come across patently self-contradictory claims, as is the case now. For instance, a claim about the library being open for students till, say midnight, can very easily be proved spurious as one realizes that the facility is not available to girls in the hostels of the institution, given their timings of entry into the hostel. At another level, this would mean that it is open for girls living at home with egalitarian parents, who allow their daughters to access such facilities even at night but not for girls in the hostels within the campus.

Such parents and girls, very small though their percentage be, are indeed the ones whose numbers need to grow. To give confidence to girls that they should – and can – fend for themselves, and to give them this confidence right from their childhood, would, indeed, be a game-changer. And as the girls grow in age, to have confidence in them is the next stage. But this, again, would perhaps be possible only if parents have gone through their educational paces in a space where issues of gender equality are seen in an egalitarian light that reflects sensitivity and enlightened sensibility towards women. Educational institutions, curricular frameworks, across-the-board syllabi details are where the change has to begin, for Education is, in many ways, the hub for socio-cultural change.

Till the time this can happen, girls will have to claim and reclaim spaces for themselves. They will have to – as they are, indeed, doing increasingly by the day – take courage in both hands and work towards change along with all progressive, sensitive, enlightened males. For now, one only hopes the victory gained by the girls in Rohtak is sustained, and they don’t have to fight the same struggle again a few months down the line in case the timings are again slid back, whatever the reasons for that.

The author is a freelance writer and translator based in Rohtak (Haryana) and has been actively engaged with organisations working in the fields of literacy, education, women’s issues and for progressive values. Contact : email – ramneek.mohan@gmail.com

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Haryana is known for one of the lowest sex ratio states and domination of male is rampant. The Rohtak college and school girls are courageously protesting this male hegemony with determination