It was nearing 3 am on August 3, a Sunday, and 20-year-old Geetha* was seated at a deserted bus stop in Trichy. Accompanied by a male friend, she was merely one hundred metres from NIT Trichy – a highly reputed central government institute in the district – where she is pursuing a graduate degree. Thirty-two-year-old Manikandan – a history-sheeter pretending to be a member of the home guard – approached the duo, and angrily demanded to know why they were seated there. He then proceeded to assault the friend and drag Geetha away under the pretense of taking her to the police station. Manikandan took her to a secluded spot and raped her.
Manikandan was arrested following the crime and the survivor is recovering. The incident meanwhile has brought into focus discriminatory restrictions for women in educational institutions – and how they end up enabling sexual crimes.
While the investigating officer in the current case – Assistant Superintendent of Police Praveen – claims that that the survivor was waiting for a bus with her male friend, highly placed police sources say she had come back from the night show of a movie, and like several others who studied there, was waiting at the bus stop in order to enter the institute after curfew at 5.30 am. According to multiple current and past students whom TNM spoke to, NIT Trichy has a curfew of 9 pm on weekdays and 9.30 pm on weekends for women students – and any student who tries to enter the hostel after curfew is allegedly humiliated. When TNM contacted** (refer below) the college, however, officials said that a curfew was in place but that students could enter the college at any time. "If the student wanted to come, there were guards who would have let her in," says an official at the institute.
But students at NIT Trichy refute these claims. "If we are late and even in a group with just women, the guards question our character, accuse us of immoral behaviour and make abusive comments," alleges Raveena*, a current student at the college, "They ask us which man we were with all this time. They then take away our cellphones and identification cards as punishment and even threaten to call our parents."
Students further allege that curfew is responsible for the loss of opportunities for the female population on campus. "The struggle is not just about getting back into campus, the curfew also affects our activities in the college itself," says Raveena. "Female students cannot stay back for club activities or to participate in the planning of college festivals because we need to get back to the hostel by 9 pm. As a result we do not get leadership roles in clubs. The male students meanwhile have no such limitation and their participation in festivals helps them do better in campus placements," she adds. Students also point out that men have access to libraries and computer labs through the night while women do not.
Given the growing list of complaints and the shocking crime near campus, the alumni association of NIT is planning to submit a memorandum with suggestions on how to improve student safety in and outside the campus.
“We will be meeting the college director on Friday (August 16) and submitting the memorandum. A lot of alumni have had a discussion on this and we are suggesting that security and wardens must be educated on how to treat students,” says Krishna Sai, an alumnus. “As far as the curfew is considered we believe that not having one will improve the situation. We have discussed the same with the Director already. Currently students are allowed into the institution after curfew but they way they are treated is problematic. I will be joined by members of the alumni and student council in our discussion,” he adds.
Why curfews are problematic
Across the country, curfews are a norm in educational institutes that offer hostel facilities and while women are expected to follow a strict schedule, the timings are more relaxed for men.
At Sastra University in Thanjavur for instance, while rules state that students are expected to return to their hostels by 6.30 pm, this applies only for women, say alumni. Men are allowed to stay outside the hostels till 9 pm. Even at an all-women’s college like Stella Maris in Chennai, students residing in the hostels are expected to return at 7 pm to their rooms unless they have prior permission from the warden.
“It is the institution’s responsibility to ensure the safety of its students and a curfew is a part and parcel of this process,” says Dr.Chitralekha Ramachandran, a retired professor from Stella Maris. “We cannot control what happens when they leave the campus and when we are entrusted with a ward by the parents, we need to take necessary measures to protect them. But at the same time, these curfews should not affect the education of the student,” she adds.
Chitralekha points out that co-educational colleges have a responsibility to provide equal opportunities and access to men and women. “While safety is important, it cannot lead to gender-based discrimination. The rules and timings can exist but cannot be different for men and women,” she says.
Chennai based advocate Nagasaila D meanwhile argues that lesser restrictions will lead to more safety and not the other way round.
“By introducing curfews in educational institutes, you are putting students at more risk,” she says. “Yes, there are certain temptations – drugs or alcohol for instance that the college has to monitor and keep a check on. But repressing the students is not the solution for this, what the management need is healthy dialogue with the students and an atmosphere of trust and security,” she adds.
Nagasaila points out that professional colleges cannot differentiate between men and women as far as the treatment meted out is concerned. She adds that discriminatory practices do not prepare women for the real world.
“With curfews in place, women don’t learn how to assess a situation and a person. For instance, the survivor here trusted a person who said he will take her to the police station just because he seemed to be an authority figure. She and other students should have been taught not to blindly trust someone even if they really are the police. Why should a male officer take a female to a police station? How is this safe?” she asks. “It is important to treat them as adults because ultimately it boils down to power, status and authority. Even the men on campus will see their female counterparts as lesser beings if they do not have the same rights as they do,” she adds.
Women’s rights activist Brinda Adige meanwhile states that in the name of curfews, institutions are preventing women from occupying public spaces.
“This discriminatory practice basically places the burden of safety on the woman. The institution is saying, if you don’t follow these rules, it is your fault that your were sexually abused. This is clearly victim blaming,” she explains. “The message the institution is giving is – as a woman you are provoking men, merely by existing in a public space, and therefore your movement must be restricted,” she says.
The activist states that such practices are clearly against the basic right guaranteed by the Constitution to women – the right to equality.
“Instead of imposing curfews for women, governments and institutions must make public spaces safer for them. Why can’t they have better lit and safe bus stops? Why can’t there be better security at public places? Safety cannot be the prerogative of women. It should be the first priority of decision makers in institutes and governments,” she adds.
Human rights lawyer Sudha Ramalingam however states that a change in the current system can only come with a revolution against moral policing. “The only way to address this issue is to attack moral policing as a whole,” she says, “All stakeholders have to vehemently oppose it.”
And similar curfews have indeed met with protests in the past, where the existing system were successfully overhauled.
Students of a Government Engineering College, known as CET, in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) fought with the administration for three months and held protests on campus, till a discriminatory curfew for female pupils was lifted in February this year. While male students could access college facilities till 9.30 pm, female students were directed to return to their hostels at 6.30 pm.
NIT students meanwhile tell TNM that multiple appeals have been made to the management regarding the existing rules.
Fight to remove curfew
In 2016, women students in the college wrote to the administration against the discriminatory curfew in place and against harassment by guards. Quoting from UGC guidelines, they wrote, “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. Campus safety policies should not result in securitization, such as over monitoring, or policing, or curtailing the freedom of movement, especially for women employees and students.”
In addition to this, they highlighted that discriminatory practices followed by the institution, according to AICTE rules, could lead to withdrawal of their approval.
"But this had no effect on the college," says an alumna, who drafted the letter and sent it with 2,000 signatures to the Directors, Deans and professors in the college. "We were accused of forging signatures and trying to brainwash students. And now their rules, which they claim is to protect female students has led only to more harm," she alleges.
According to alumni and students, the curfew has existed for close to two decades and is used to limit the movement and freedom of female students. And even if the reason for their late entry was due to the inability to find transport or other pressing reasons, the women were not spared the 'slut shaming'. Threats of expulsion too were allegedly common place. As a result, the females student took to spending the night out rather than facing the wrath of the guards.
"We would rather stay outside the campus the entire night than come back and face the slut shaming," says Kavya Sukumar, a student from the 2006 batch. "The times I stayed in Trichy was mostly in my third year and it was all either because I was late to reach the city or to leave it. I would hang out at hotels, nearby railway stations or even bus stands. I felt safer there than going back to college and get yelled at," she adds.
After the rape
On Wednesday, the NIT Director held a meeting with the women students and stated that additional security measures will be introduced on campus. But this is an eyewash, say students. Twenty-three-year-old Sujitha, an alumna of the college, says, "Students don't even feel safe within the college. When I was in my third year, I was talking to a male classmate and six guards in a jeep came, yelled and forced me to go back into the hostel.”
After the incident of rape, students tell TNM that professors have taken to further emphasising the existing curfew and claiming that it has prevented more such crimes.
"People in our college will obviously assume that it is the survivor's fault she got raped because she skipped curfew. They believe girls aren't allowed to go outside after 9 pm or they will be sexually harassed," says Kavitha*, a current student. "When we have jobs in the future and there is some late night work left, should we leave it unfinished? Is this how the college prepares us for the real world?" she asks.
When TNM reached out to Trichy DGP V Balakrishnan for comment, he stated that any rules in place, must be to protect women. "Colleges need to look at their rules keeping the safety of women as their priority. If they need to recalibrate their existing ideas, it must be done." he adds.
*Names changed to protect identity of students
***Following the publishing of this story, NIT authorities who had earlier said that there was no curfew, stated that there was a curfew in place. However, they maintained that students are allowed to enter the campus even if they arrive past the curfew.