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Pinjra Tod: Breaking the Sexist Rules of Patriarchy One Institution At A Time

Posted: September 25, 2015

The ‘Pinjra tod’ campaign is here to question the sexist rules of girls hostel. The rules that work perfectly to perpetuate the patriarchal structure of which girls were born.

The tyrannical rules of hostels for girls are enough to strike fear in the hardiest of us. No late nights, night outs are not even an option, if you are late before they lock you up like chattel, you could get in serious trouble. Attempts to scold and shame you are a mild response, you could be without a place to stay for the night or you could simply no longer have a hostel to stay in. This has long been the norm for hostels, including hostels at liberal arts colleges that pride themselves on their feminist approach.

First, let us take a minute to understand why these rules exist. These rules work perfectly to perpetuate the patriarchal structure of which they were born. They treat women as property, as people who can be protected by locking them up. They put the burden of women’s safety not on society but on the women. These rules reassure families and guardians that even though away from home, the girls have no way of ‘getting into trouble’ – going to parties or movies or gasp, having a sexual relationship. They are safely locked in the hostels. They reinforce the idea that all the danger women face are in the outside space, that honor rests in women’s bodies. They safeguard that tumultuous passage from adolescence to adulthood, from the parents’ home to the husbands’ home, when our society collectively fears that these young women’s independence may cause our social norms to crumble.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of hostels is fantastic. The idea of moral policing is not. The idea of hostels represents progress.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of hostels is fantastic. The idea of moral policing is not. The idea of hostels represents progress. They allow young women to be away from home for education and work, both of which have and continue to be denied to a large proportion of Indian women. They enable women to move outside of home and live away from their home towns and cities. They lead to friendships and support networks. They prompt them to write soppy odes to home-cooked food and love for their siblings. But they continue to have discriminatory rules for men and women. Typically men’s hostels don’t restrict their movements. When questioned about their regressive policies, college and hostel authorities often trot out the response: this is in the best interest of girls and women.

Stop. Stop for a minute and think about all the things society tells you that are ‘in your best interest or good for you’: take up feminine hobbies, don’t run around with boys, get married first and then focus on your career, have a baby since your biological clock is ticking, don’t go out at night, don’t dress this way, be nice to your mother-in-law, don’t argue with people, don’t tell anyone about the violence and abuse at home – these should stay in the family, do this and don’t do that, we know what is best for you, you will regret not listening to us later. Think about all the ways in which society tells you to tame yourself, to repress your spirits and to make sure you behave the way we expect ‘good Indian women’ to behave. The rules at hostels are simply an extension of this thinking.

Can you hear my screams of frustration?

Graffiti on walls of colleges across Delhi University is asking young women to break the cage and oppose the sexist rules as are posters at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

By this point, you may have heard of the Pinjra Tod (break the cage) campaign. The name couldn’t be more apt. Graffiti on walls of colleges across Delhi University are asking young women to break the cage and oppose the sexist rules as are posters at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Much to the dismay of patriarchy and its implementers (most of whom are wilful, but some are accidental). Of course the keepers of patriarchy are hardly taking this lying down – they are tearing the posters off and threatening to beat up the campaigners (I wouldn’t expect any less). When our women don’t listen, we like to beat them just to make sure they remember their place (a sarcmarc would be a handy piece of punctuation at this point). The Pinjra Tod campaigners who were threatened have lodged an FIR and shared the threats to make public what they are facing. They have also launched an online petition to the Chief of Delhi Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal, to assess sexist hostel rules and stop the moral policing.

I can only imagine the heartache these demands are creating for all the hostel wardens and college deans. It is very likely that in most cases good intentions and notions as well as the expectations of families, underlie these rules. None of that changes the fact that the rules aim to aggressively police girls and women’s behavior and are blatantly sexist. So I welcome the discomfort this is creating. Educators and staff, parents and families as well as young men and women, need to use this moment to ask questions of themselves. It is not an easy task, if only because of the reality of harassment that plays itself out on the streets and the sustained violence against women. These are difficult conversations to have when as a society we are still grappling with beliefs such as ‘men will be men’ and women need to protected and honored. But these are also critical conversations to have if we truly intend to make this an equal country for women.

Cover image via Facebook

I think of myself as a feminist development practitioner with a strong interest in issues

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