Moral choice can’t lead to rule imposement on female hostelers: HC of Kerala

Moral choice can't lead to rule imposement on female hostelers: HC of Kerala

Equal rights have been provided to men and women in India by as per the constitution of the country, yet gender discrimination against the perceived ‘fairer and weaker sex’ remains. From homes to workplaces, this prejudice against women seems to have permeated multiple levels in this era and continues to be a torch-bearer of patriarchy – affecting their personal and professional lives, health and development, going so far as to mar even their self-esteem and their very sense of identity.

In these contemporary times where women are more emancipated than ever, yet violation of their fundamental rights continue all across the country, a recent incident in Thrissur, Kerala seems to be stoking a new wave of women empowerment by clamping down on campus policies designed to curtail the movement and independence of women. In the centre of the controversy lies Sree Kerala Varma College which got entangled in a legal web for having attempted to pass off its discriminatory policies against women as “safety protocol”.

Facts of the Case

Sree Kerala Varma College women’s hostel, Thrissur, had laid down a curfew of 6:30 PM which proved to be inconvenient for women as they were unable to attend any political meetings or go for the first and second shows of movies. Consequently, two women from the college filed a petition for the extension of the timings which the Kerala High court agreed upon. Before this petition was filed it the High court it was also sent to the college administration a year and a half ago. The college administration however, had a meeting with the parents wherein they tried to induce fear in the parents via apprehensions of gang rape and murder. As a result, the concerned parents did not consent to the proposed extension timings and signed an agreement to that effect. Consequently, the students’ petition was denied.

Incidentally, students were also not allowed to go outside the hostel on Sundays and were required to take permission prior to even studying late night on the campus. Conversely, similar rules had not been imposed on the boys’ hostel.

Advocate Surya Binoy, the petitioners’ counsel stated that the college administration and the hostel regulations had violated Clause 3.2. (13) of UGC (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2015, which stated, that “Concern for the safety of women students must not be cited to impose discriminatory rules for women in the hostels as compared to male students”.

In the light of these arguments, the Kerala High court struck down all the restrictions enforced by the college management which barred the girls from venturing outside for political meetings and first & second show movies. Irrespective of whether the parents had signed the hostel instructions, this was a fundamental right of the students and cannot be violated in the garb of parental authority or moral paternalism. And while the management had the right to fix a return time for students, the court emphasized that such timing ought to be reasonable and only for the purpose of maintaining discipline in the college.

Additionally, the condition that no member of the hostel should take part in political meetings or propaganda, was also struck down by the court citing that having political views or opinions formed a part of the freedom of speech and expression and was fundamental in nature. If anything, it could only be restricted by the college management and not absolutely negated.

Post the judgement, curfew timings were replaced from 6:30 PM on weekdays and 4:30 PM on weekends to 8:30 PM on all days of the week.

Patriarchy in the garb of Safety

As bizarre as this rebellion may appear to the more traditional, senior generation heading most of the educational institutes in the country, this is not the first time the youth across multiple universities has protested against patriarchal, regressive rules curtailing the rights and freedom of women.

The Sree Kerala Varma College incident closely resembles protests that broke out against cancellation of late nights for women hostelers in Jamia Milia University in 2015. Touching yet again on the subject of discriminatory curfew for women, the latter case heralded the Pinjra Tod: Break the Hostel Locks campaign that spread like wildfire across campuses throughout the country and compelled university administration and parents alike to rethink the concept of women’s autonomy – beginning a slow-burn walk towards rectifying and overthrowing many of the antiquated “rules” binding women.

Close on the heels of Pinjra Tod a significant change in discriminatory and gendered campus policies came about when The Hindu college of Delhi University found itself amidst fiery protests for mandating women to “dress as per the norms of the society” inside the hostel campus – a stipulation which found its way right into the prospectus for the said year. The college had also fixed stricter timings for girls in addition to higher fees that were imposed on their male counterparts – all collectively deemed restrictive and regressive by the students as well as the university staff.

Thankfully, the Universities Grants Commission (UGC) intervened and introduced a new set of rules to be adhered to by all varsities and colleges affiliated to the two regulatory bodies – UGC and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). As a consequence of this move, all bizarre rules instituted for the “safety of women” and discriminatory to them were banned. Campus policies which resulted in over-monitoring or impinging the freedom of movement, particularly for women staff and students were criticized heavily.

Needless to say, these rules reek of patriarchal diktats aimed at “correcting” or “keeping in line” women, lest they venture out into the world and exercise their political or personal views, but more importantly, their sexual agency – and all of this is perpetuated under the garb of ‘women’s safety’. Dress codes and dissimilar codes of conduct that prevent girls and boys from even being seated near each other or develop camaraderie with one another not only create gender binaries in a society already grappling with countless cases of sexual harassment of, and violence on women, but also conveniently infantilize women while quietly taking away responsibility from the men.

Rather than focus on why the streets are unsafe at night for women or why women should have to feel threatened to exercise their choice of attire – which incidentally ought to be aimed at directives for men to act responsibly and respect the other sex as an equal member of the society with equal rights as them – the focus is unfairly on women instead to prove themselves innocent, keep themselves “clean, pure and obedient”, as many are wont to think. This inevitably strips away from the duty of the State to provide for, and ensure the protection of women, but also unjustly burdens women by necessitating that they “adhere to the norms in the society” to prevent any untoward incident that might harm their dignity. How different is this from rape investigations where the rape victim is faced with years of stigma and harassment at the hands of the society that believes she may have behaved in an unfavourable manner to warrant the crime?

What the country and primarily, our educational institutions require at the moment is an honest and open discourse on the rights of women, their sexual independence and the fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the constitution of the country. Given the changing dynamics of the two sexes across all pockets of the society, universities can and ought to set an example by making both men and women a part of the decision-making process (rather than their parents) in framing hostel rules and their implications, respect their identities as individuals in the framework of the society rather than as a collective property of a deeply male-dominated society and allow them rights and privileges due under the law of the land.

Lest we want to move back into a world where women were absolutely dependent on men and the larger patriarchal system for their survival, sustenance and growth, the government and other public bodies that represent some of the highest tenets of a developing, progressive nation must ensure that women are given their rightful place in the society – be it a home, an office or even a place of study and educational discourse.