By Dr Swati Jindal Garg
We have come a long way in rendering equality of opportunity to both sexes and more and more is being done to ensure that no woman is left out of the race. Recently, the Kerala High Court questioned why only girls and women need to be “controlled” or “locked up” at night and asked the state government to ensure they get the same freedom as given to boys and men.
Justice Devan Ramachandran said it was the job of the government to ensure that it was safe for girls to go out at night. These observations were made while hearing a plea by five women students of Kozhikode Medical College challenging a 2019 government order which restricted movement of hostel inmates of higher education institutions after 9.30 pm.
The Court further questioned why only women or girls need control and not boys or men and why a curfew of 9.30 pm was fixed for women in hostels of the medical college. It said: “Girls also have to live in this society. Will heads fall off after 9.30 pm? Will mountains collapse? The government has an obligation to keep the campus safe.” The Court asked if there was any hostel in the state where boys had a curfew.
It said that rather, it was problematic men who deserved to be locked up and not the other way round. Justice Ramachandran was candid enough to state that some people were blaming the fact that he had no daughters himself and that is why he was questioning the restrictions placed on women. He replied that he had relatives who were girls and lived in hostels in Delhi and such restrictions were not present there.
The state government, on the other hand, defended its stance by saying that the restrictions were in place taking into consideration the concerns of the parents of the girls. This did not go down well with the Court, which asked about other hostels in the state where there were no curfews. “Don’t children living there have parents?” it asked.
Reinstating that the freedom given to boys should be given to girls too, the Court said that the state and public authorities must endeavour to make girls and women competent to take care of themselves rather than locking them in.
This stance was similar to what GD Anderson, the great feminist writer, said: “Feminism is not about making women strong. They are already strong.It’s about changing the way the world perceives that.”
Much is being said by judges these days to promote the feminist way of thinking. Feminism is about giving women choice, it is not a stick with which to beat other women. The current uproar on the restrictions placed on women is not a new one. The Pinjra Tod (Break the cage) movement started by a feminist collective in 2015 and run by female college students all over the country had also challenged rules and regulations, which tend to tie down their freedom. It provided a counter-narrative to age-old patriarchal rules which fail to give space to women’s rights, religious and class diversity and to those who do not fall under the gender binary.
Initially, the movement was active in university campuses in Delhi, but it soon expanded and diffused to colleges and universities in other big cities and small towns. The movement that had started with an open letter to the VC of Jamia Millia Islamia regarding regressive gender-biased rules for the women’s hostel in the revised prospectus of the university took no time to spread. The main contentions of the activist in the movement was that the Jamia administration did not fulfil the demand of extension of curfew timing for the girls’ hostel to 10:30 pm, whereas earlier it was 8 pm. Instead, they had stealthily rolled the curfew timing to 9:00 pm. The updated prospectus also said that women would have to fill their accommodation renewal forms and required them to sign an undertaking which stated that the residents of the university hostel would bar themselves from taking part in any protest or resistance against the hostel or university. Doing so, it said would lead to cancellation of their accommodation. Students claimed that the rules were drastically altered without any consultation with the student community or residents. They also complained in the open letter that the V-C was never available for its students; instead, the administration made many attempts to break student unity and scare them to drop their demands. Women students also protested against the removal of late nights since 2015, but no one paid heed to it.
The students said that the authorities, under the veil of giving protection to female students, were trying to cage them into historical norms that were riddled with patriarchy. Hence, a group called Pinjra Tod was formed which today also has a presence in Delhi University, Ambedkar University, LSR, Hindu College, Punjabi University, Presidency University, etc. The group not only deals with doing away with curfew timings, but also raises its voice against conservative, patriarchal rules. These include colleges asking women to wear “decent” clothes, involvement of parents in menial issues, different rules for boys and girls in the same campus, etc. It has also helped establish sexual harassment cells in universities and colleges.
University Grants Commission’s regulations on May 2, 2016, declared restriction on women’s mobility as unjustified and added that concern for safety of women students must not be cited for imposing discriminatory rules for them in hostels as compared to male students. The notification went on to clarify: “Campus safety policies should not result in securitisation such as over monitoring or policing or curtailing the freedom of movement, especially for women students and employees.”
While hostels should have stipulated timings, these should be the same for boys and girls. “Not just our parents, but some students too want to learn to live a disciplined life and hostels play an integral role in that,” a student reportedly said.
From time to time, students, especially girl students, have raised their voices in protest to extend the “in-time” of hostels. Curfew timings and women are so linked that whether it is a college hostel or home, every girl is asked when she will be back for all the wrong reasons. Like Cinderella, every outing in a girl’s life is governed by the hands of the clock, but unlike Cinderella, timings in the real world are even shorter.
For many organisations, imposition of time rules are a compulsion, and hostel curfew times are justified citing security reasons. However, most miss the graver question: If women are assumed to be unsafe from men, then why is no curfew imposed on them?
The remarks passed by the Kerala High Court are not new. There have been other cases wherein courts have taken a proactive step to ensure women safety, the Nirbhaya case being the leading one. This case was the rarest of rare crimes. The incident was a landmark, particularly when it came to issues concerning the safety and security of women. It created a never-before awareness not only in metros, but in small towns too, putting pressure on the government to act. In fact, after the decision in the case came out, a Nirbhaya Fund was set up in 2013 by the UPA government, followed by changes in the Juvenile Justice Act and setting up of fast-track Mahila Courts.
Another landmark case pertaining to women’s safety was the Uber rape case where a 27-year-old woman returning home in an Uber cab in Delhi was raped by the driver after she dozed off. The woman filed a complaint and medical tests confirmed she was raped. The accused, Yadav, was caught from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. A long-drawn trial ensued which saw the intervention of the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court before Yadav was convicted on October 20, 2015. The case is important because criminal action was likely against Uber and it was also banned briefly in Delhi.
In another case, the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court put the issue of women’s safety, especially in Delhi, back on national agenda by asking the centre to consider passing regulations on app-based taxi aggregator services such as Ola and Uber. The observations were made by a bench of the apex court headed by Justice SA Bobde and comprising Justices R Subhash Reddy and BR Gavai who were hearing a plea for one-stop crises centres for women. During the hearing, the issue of safety and security of women while availing app-based taxi services also came up and it was submitted that as these services were intermediaries as per the Information Technology Act and hence not governed by Motor Vehicles Act, they were functioning in a vacuum.
Despite all these safeguards, women’s safety is not foolproof in India. For that, the attitude of men should be changed.
—The author is an Advocate-on-Record practising in the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and all district courts and tribunals in Delhi