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Last year, on the evening of September 15, a group of one hundred young women from some of New Delhi’s top universities took to the streets. They hoisted banners and posters and chanted “pinjra tod,” or “break the cage,” the slogan of their new campaign to end the curfew placed upon them at their schools. Earlier that month, university administrators at Delhi University passed a rule prohibiting female students from leaving their dormitories after 6:30 PM or in more lenient cases, 8:00 PM. Students who flouted the curfew were penalized with further restrictions or faced losing their spot at the coveted dormitories, which are provided only to those who score in the top percentile in the national high school exams.
After the sickening rape, torture, and murder of a 23-year-old girl on a New Delhi bus in 2012, relentless calls for greater security followed, with a number of positive outcomes: the government amended sexual harassment laws, laid out harsher sentence for sexual crimes, created fast track courts to expedite prosecution, and amended other protective laws, such as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, to ensure the gravest punishment provision for the offenders.
But in many ways—particularly the curfew—these changes reflect a pervasive, patriarchal mindset, one that continues to hold women responsible for their own rape. As a nationwide debate on women’s safety persisted after the gang rape, young women everywhere were discouraged from pursuing careers on account of their safety. “Women are equally responsible for crimes committed against them,” said Vibha Rao, chair of the Chhattisgarh State Women’s Commission, at the time. As the argument goes, the 23-year-old victim, who had been a promising student and was returning to campus with a male friend at 9:30PM after having watched a film, would still be alive today if she had simply stayed home.
According to Aditi Bhargava, a 21-year-old computer engineer, her parents had encouraged her to devote herself to her studies and attend college, but have asked her to find a job that would allow her to work from home because they feel it is unsafe for her to be out after 4 PM. “My male classmates have jobs that pay them a salary,” Bhargava told me. “I can’t take such a job because the offices of software companies are usually in the suburbs and I am banned by my family from travelling at night, even if it is an office car.”
THE MORALITY POLICE
In my visits to colleges across the country, I heard the same story from all of the young women I spoke with—how they were allowed to study but not work and how stricter curfews threaten what little freedom they have on their campuses. Chandini Patel, a student at Lady Shri Ram, one of India’s top all-women's colleges, told me that after the 2012 gang rape, dormitory curfews, which had already been in place, were further tightened from 8 PM to 6PM. “They locked the doors…saying that it was for our benefit,” said Patel. “Girls who broke the curfew were kicked out of the dorm and threatened with expulsion. After the rape, the situation for us and for girls across India became much worse than before.”
Indeed, the restriction has instead curbed young women’s access to libraries, laboratories, and other university facilities. Anjali Singh, who is studying history at Hindu College, explained to me, “We take the same classes as boys, and also the same exams, but the boys can take after-school coaching classes and use the library till midnight. We are locked in at 6 PM.”
Strict curfew hours also highlight the bigger issue of moral policing that students are constantly being subjected to. Female students recounted to me how they were interrogated on what they were wearing, where they were going, and even whom they were meeting. Patel views the curfew as an attempt to assert even greater authority over women. “Curfews and deadlines are not about women’s safety but about patriarchy and control,” she said.
That is why movements like Pinjra Tod are so rare are also so important. They fight not only rules, but patriarchal mindsets. It may, in fact be the beginning of India’s first feminist movement.
In a letter to the chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, the Pinjra Tod campaigners wrote:
These incidents of moral-policing seek to reinforce a certain Brahmanical notion of the “good” and the “obedient” woman who talks politely, wears “decent” clothes, does not “question” the administration, family or society, does not indulge in independent/transgressive “relationships,” marries into their caste and class—the qualifications are endless.
In the weeks that followed the new curfew, campaigners took to social media, posting on their Facebook page and tweeting, to mobilize students and spread the message. They held protests, spray-painted campus buildings with #breakthecage and #pinjratod, circulated petitions calling for the removal of the curfew, and presented letters to various government and regulatory bodies.
Although it took close to six months of campaigning, the efforts of the Pinjra Tod activists paid off. In May of this year, in response to a report on the curfew, the Delhi Commission for Women sent a notice to 23 universities and two institutes asking them to explain their restrictions on women’s freedom of movement. The commission also declared a plan to issue a set of guidelines on how to promote gender equality on campus.
After Pinjra Tod, other campaigns followed. In the past year, a series of similar movements have erupted across the country in varying scale and size. One week after Pinjra Tod was launched, students from the Sri Sairam Engineering College in the south Indian city of Chennai, took to the streets to protest a circular issued by the college authorities that restricted female students from wearing jeans and leggings and talking with students of the opposite sex.
Following the much publicized protests, the campus director was removed and new rules were put into place to protect women from harassment, such as replacing male on-campus supervisors with female ones and setting up an elected student union to represent campus needs.
Although India has made some historical improvements on gender issues, it has not yet had a coherent female-led feminist movement. Some of the most prominent women’s reforms have in fact been initiated and led by men. For example, social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy led a movement in the nineteenth century in Bengal to abolish sati, the custom of burning a widow alive on her husband's funeral pyre. He also pushed forth a ban on child marriage and promoted women’s education and legal rights.
In 1931, in British-ruled India, the Karachi Resolution, which was passed by the Indian National Congress, enumerated a number of basic rights, including universal suffrage. This led to a provision in India’s Constitution, enacted in 1949, that declared equality between the sexes and granted both Indian men and women voting rights after independence from the British. It was a gallant effort, but led exclusively by men. According to Martha Nussbaum, a prominent philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago, India’s constitution is “remarkably woman-friendly and an example from which America could learn.” Indeed, since independence in 1947, a number of feminist groups, which were led by women, have made great strides on the legal front by banning dowry and sex-selective abortions and by advocating for stringent sexual harassment laws. As a result, India now has strong, women-friendly laws in the areas of sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, female feticide, dowry, abortion, marriage, and divorce. But the problem lies in getting those laws enforced—and this requires changing the mindset of a deeply patriarchal culture. That can only happen with a feminist movement.
At this point, although movements like Pinjra Tod are small, they are the closest thing to a feminist revolution that India has evern seen. However fledgling, they are beginning to knock, albeit softly, against deeply ingrained patriarchal mindsets.