Inside Discrimination: How One Young Woman Fought for Gender Equity in Higher Ed
A note on this 4-part series “Inside Discrimination”:
This is the first post in a collaborative series where equality champions across the globe who are at the dawn of their careers describe the mechanics of inequality through their lived experience.
double standard, gendered privilege
Just before 10:30 pm, I could see about 50 students rushing around the college campus. Some had water bottles in hand, others held packets of food, all were headed in the same direction. There were others though, sitting casually in groups, chatting the night away. Among the groups, the odd person here or there was quickly wrapping up their part in conversation, a few others were hurriedly exchanging materials.
All of the youth departing in a hurry had something in common with me; they were all girls. And they were hurrying to get back to the girl’s hostel at my college, because we had a 10:30 curfew, while the boys were just getting into the swing of their conversations.
I learned about this rule during the orientation at the girls' hostel. As freshers, our brains could only absorb so much new information at a time. There was so much newness coming at me—I did not note the injustice of this rule until I had a minute to reflect many months later.
But, sitting back home over the summer with nothing but my thoughts to keep me busy, I suddenly found myself wondering why on earth the girls' hostel had a curfew rule when the boys’ hostel did not? And how had I managed to suffer that injustice for the entire academic year without even realizing it...I had just accepted it.
Indeed, during that first year I had been aware of discussions regarding the extension of the girls’ curfew to 11:30pm or midnight during exams, or for practices before competitions. I recall the paperwork it involved, getting permission from the Warden during office hours. I now wonder if that one hour in the day spent getting the names and the authorization was worth the extra hour at night. Perhaps the exclusivity of getting to stay out for an extra hour gave this privilege a false sense of purpose.
The task was taken up by one girl from the group and her sacrifice of an hour was seen as a noble act for the greater good.
When I returned to college for year two, better acclimatized to my new world and with a clearer mind, I was shocked to discover all the gendered factors I had previously missed in the haze of adjustment.
In my cohort of 4 girls and 18 boys, I was often the only girl in a group project. More often than not, I found myself making the presentation while the two boys worked in the design studio on the prototype.
In bigger cohorts, girls made their own groups because boys did not want members who would be ‘useless’ after 10:30pm. This one thing - the curfew - was affecting my role in projects and my peers’ perspectives on my capabilities.
The college administration had to resort to reserving seats for girls in organizing teams for major college events because they were not being selected otherwise. Why should they be if they hadn’t spent nights planning and working the way boys had?
I got mad. I wanted to take action. I discussed the issue with my roommate, Arushi and she was immediately onboard. Talking about it made the problem real, we were awakened from our accepting trance.
The status quo was not working for us, it was working against us.
Arushi and I proposed the removal of the gender discriminatory curfew before the administrative authorities at the college. We faced significant backlash that we couldn’t have predicted, ”We have seen girls and boys indulge in inappropriate behaviour and it is difficult to keep a check on a vast campus” they told us...
Unprepared for this, we came face to face with the floating moral control practices, aimed at the sanctity of the vagina. We realized that our top-down approach was unlikely to work, and so we went to the grassroots. We collected girls from different cohorts and invited them to a conversation about the 10:30pm rule. There were a number of girls whose sense of self had already been affected by the rule, they told us,
“Boys can be outside because boys are brave.”
Others told us they were scared to resist the authorities - scared about the consequences to their academic futures and their personal reputations. And the authorities weren’t making it easy, they accused us of creating unnecessary problems, of making waves, they told us our actions could lead to suspension, that our parents would be called. We were unsure how our own parents would respond. We had many moments of self doubt and sometimes entertained the fear, but we didn’t give up. With renewed clarity, we continued to see the consequences of the injustice in our day to day lives and ultimately our indignation helped us to build confidence in our efforts.
We kept looking for supporters, we tapped into social media, we used word of mouth. We started to gain traction. We even approached the boys to join our cause, who initially gave us the push back that, historically, has been so prevalent when feminist initiatives take root —they suggested it was an anti-men movement not a pro-women movement.
The all-male Student Senate did not consider it a topic worth bringing up in any of their meetings. They wanted us to focus on the removal of the curfew rather than to point out how the curfew was contributing to gender inequality. “What if they put an entry time for us as well?”
It was the voice of privilege that we heard from these groups of boys.
But we fought on, and our supporters grew, it became bigger than ending the rushed departures at 10:30pm. It wasn’t about 10:30pm at all; it was about injustice. It was about the consequences of that injustice on our lives and our future careers. The administration often asked us at the end of hours-long discussions, if we would want the entry time to be extended to 11pm or if we would be happy if they made the permission form simpler. We said no, our movement had a bigger consciousness and a bigger goal.
challenging the truism, asking: “is that true?”
We had our first official meeting with a committee formed by the Director. Interestingly, all the male faculty members of the committee had somehow excused themselves from the meeting. It became a closed-room discussion on stereotypical gender roles and attitudes. “What will you do if a boy gets drunk and starts chasing you? What will you do if the guards say something to you? Will you then come running to us?” It was humiliating, we were angry, frustrated tears flowed. It was a battle of wits between two generations, between two genders.
The college just took boys’ potentially inappropriate behaviour as a truism. The risk of their inappropriateness was our problem - only solved by locking the girls away.
The psychological consequences of the rule seemed irrelevant to them.
“Why was a woman out after 9pm?” - The statement of the accused from the infamous Nirbhaya rape case that was used as a justification for the rape - did not seem to hold water in our discussion. The fact that women from this institute would probably neither identify, nor stand against gender discrimination in the future and would never learn to take care of their own safety, didn’t seem important enough as well.
Older women— socialized to this ethos— spoke about their own accounts of avoiding interactions with boys in their youth, to reassure us that it was a normal situation that came along with being a girl.
They said they would happily offer internet access and facilities to further equip the girls' hostel.
“Ma’am, if a rabid dog is out on the streets, would we lock ourselves inside or lock the dog up instead?,” asked someone from our group, frustrated with the inflexible and erroneous argument. In reply, the administration justified, “Boys are difficult to keep under control so we are trying to protect you instead.”
The gender equality movement has been one of the longest-running struggles that my college has seen.
To date, little has changed from an administrative perspective, only the authorities have started using gender neutral language regarding the enforcement of the rule, calling it an “entry time rule” for all students. However, in practice, only girls are penalized for breaking this rule.
What is changing though, is the perception of students about the rule; there is a growing acceptance that the curfew is gender discriminatory and thus, unfair. Gender equality meetings in 2016 were held in the girls’ common room, with a handful of girls, mostly our friends. The meetings in 2019 were held in an open canteen, with a group of girls and boys from different cohorts, some of whom were new faces.
riding the waves of change
Now, there are times when I can see a security guard approach a group of students asking the girls to leave for their hostels and I’m heartened to see that before I can stand and have a word, I hear both the female and male members of the group not only express the gender neutrality of the curfew but also give a lesson or two on gender equality.
We may have failed to convince the college authorities to make a change, but we’ve at least begun to change the narrative of our peers who are indeed the future of this country.
We have to keep up the fight. There are versions of this fight all over my country, all over the world. One argument at a time, we are re-educating the next generation; one conversation at a time we are opening people’s eyes to the invisible consequences of unjust practices that have become norms.
The fight isn’t about being rushed to bed at 10:30pm. It’s about missing out on achieving our full potential as human beings. It’s about equal rights, equal opportunities and equal treatment.
Sign Meru’s petition: “Stop placement drives at colleges with sexist rules #EmployEquality” HERE.
HUMAN CENTRED DESIGNER & AGENT OF CHANGE
The planet is full of purpose-driven people. Meru is one of them. She is a Design Researcher with an interest in human centred design. She believes that it is important to understand people in order to understand their problems. Understanding their problems leads to suitable solutions, and when these solutions are embraced, we can create social change.
Meru has explored the fields of Design Research, Product Design, Service Design and Organisational Design and is tackling system-level design challenges in the area of social impact. She is also a poet and athlete.
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