Women students of College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, are fighting to have the same hostel rules as their male peers. They have argued, with perfect reason, that the women only night curfew in this co-ed institution is discriminatory. By confining them to their hostel after 6.30 pm they are denied equality of academic opportunity. They have no access to libraries and labs that are open late, forcing them to do less challenging and diverse projects and excluding them from teamwork. The CET college principal is quoted in the media as saying that the curfew rule had been followed for 75 years and any rule changes had to have the agreement of students’ parents.

This absurd statement sums up the constraints on the autonomy of young women in India and the lack of concern in institutions of higher education with the discrimination they are subject to. It underlines the fact that even for educated young women, their constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms as adults citizens are not worth the paper they are written on. In the main what rights and freedoms they enjoy are negotiated by their parents and families.

Women’s hostel curfews and other restrictive college rules across the country (many women’s colleges do not permit any students to leave the campus during “working hours”) survive because most parents of young women want them. The rules, universities, colleges and parents agree, are “for their own good”, designed to protect young women. Breaking the rules carries the threat of being thrown out. Colleges and universities ‒ private and public ‒ exercise coercive power over young women, on behalf of their parents. Both, partners in a social compact designed to control them.

Why else would the woman principal of CET, herself an IIT qualified engineer, hold that 75-year old rules that restrict women’s opportunities are sacrosanct, unless a majority of parents suggest otherwise? Why would premier institutions like Delhi’s Lady Shriram College persist with restrictive hostel regulations almost unchanged for 50 years? Why would the IIMs and Dehi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University be nearly the only exceptions to the rule?

Tough choices

Unlike the students at CET, women in India have rarely challenged college or university rules that restrict their freedoms and deny them autonomy. Indeed, even the young women at CET have cast their demand for equality as a demand for equality of academic opportunity and not for greater freedom. This is because more often than not women face a choice between getting an education or not getting an education, getting the education they want or being forced to settle for something else. For many just being permitted to attend university away from home is an unexpected freedom, and so challenging rules that would take away this freedom is not an option they would exercise.

Universities and colleges, when they talk of empowering young women should consider this: college-aged women in India can vote to change a government, but they cannot vote to change the rules that restrict their freedoms in universities and colleges. The young women at CET took a small step forward, to Break the Curfew. We must hope that more women, and more universities find the courage to so.