It was a fight to the finish for the students of Government Engineering College, known as CET, in Thiruvananthapuram, and they have finally got their just reward. On Thursday, they tasted victory after a days-long struggle to lift a curfew that existed for female students of the college from time unknown. For outsiders, the victory was the result of a three-day protest staged by the students inside the campus. But for the 12 women and six men of the college, the fight lasted three months.
Women studying in one of the oldest and most reputed engineering colleges in the state were not allowed to go outside the college hostel after 6.30pm. They were allowed to use the library till 6.30pm while stepping outside the hostel premises after that, was unheard of. As is common in most of the ladies hostels, the women who dared to go out after 6.30pm were asked questions like who they were hanging out with, what they were doing, etc. with the sole aim of victimising them. The male students had permission to be outside till 9.30pm.
The students decided to protest against this discrimination and end it once and for all. And it was a group of 12 women and six men who took the lead in this campaign.
Azadi: Educate, Organise, Agitate
They formed the platform Azadi three weeks ago to fight for gender equality inside the campus, though the groundwork had begun three months ago.
Why the name Azadi? “Because if we say gender injustice, then we were likely to face the question of who would bear the responsibility of providing safety for women. If we bring in the wider aspect of freedom for women, then everyone would feel responsible themselves,” 21-year old Mohammed Shameem Ali, a third-year student tells TNM.
The students were particular that Azadi should last long and shouldn’t meet an abrupt end. Four years ago, the students of the college had formed Break the Curfew Movement for the same cause, but failed in achieving the goal after the intervention of the Parent Teachers Association (PTA), who the students say, panicked the parents into asking why their daughters needed freedom.
“Azadi was conceived without affinity to any political party. We had incorporated like-minded people irrespective of the colour of their flag; red, blue or white. The only group that we desired shouldn’t be a part of us was those who have a fundamental agenda. Also we had the support of the Students Federation of India (SFI) which holds power in the college union,” he says.
What they have done so far
For the past three months, the students had been constantly seeking to expose how the curfew is discriminatory and against gender equality. They examined whether the curfew is existing everywhere and where it doesn’t exist. The UGC guidelines, according to the students, state that if there is no gender safety, the institutions should provide it.
The students also met Gender Advisor to the government Dr Anandi TK. She advised the students that it is for the principal to decide on it as head of the institution while the government guidelines clearly stand for gender equality. Dr Veena JS, an expert on the subject told them not to shy away from speaking on body politics.
The students conducted corridor-to-corridor campaign in the college which slowly brought about increased participation of the other students.
They also filed an RTI asking the college principal Jiji VV about what time the hostel officially shuts. “His reply was that the hostel works rounds the clock. Then we modified our question and filed the RTI again. We received the reply for the second RTI on Friday only,” Shaheem says.
Not safety, but moral policing
Shameem says, “We knew their concerns were not safety; but moral policing. The college as well as the hostel authorities would question the female students if they came late and they had done something wrong."
Inside the ladies hostel, there were locks from corridor to corridor. The students say that in the name of safety, the authorities were locking up the women inside.
The protest of the students began in earnest on Monday. PTA Vice President of the college during the protest days called up the parents of the students who were at the forefront of the protest only to tell them that their daughters are leading an immoral life inside the campus. This caused a huge problem within families. During the protest days, though the women tried to have a discussion with the principal, he asked them to get out of his room.
Taking the protest to the next level, the women didn’t enter the hostel on the second day of protest. The authorities took the stand that they would allow them to enter only after they gave an explanation which the students were unwilling to give.
The next day, on Wednesday, around 100 women got out of the hostel in the night, some of them played carrom, some played badminton. The security guards, who would otherwise be very strict, were silent for even they knew how determined the students were. The students sat outside the hostel till Thursday morning. The PTA Vice President this time called the parents of Aswathy, one of the students who was leading the fight to tell them that their daughter was leading an immoral life.
“But I was not ready to step back. If I had, it would have affected the campaign. I had studied in a polytechnic before joining CET and had been part of protests there. We were firm that we won’t step back until a decision is taken. There were those who trusted us, we had support of PG students. My father was hospitalised after hearing the remarks from the PTA Vice-President, but I had to be bold,” Aswathy says.
On Thursday morning, the principal had a discussion with the students following their strike over the character assassination of Aswathy. All the students took part in the strike.
The principal was forced to meet Technical University Vice-Chancellor in-charge Usha Titus. On her request, the Higher Education Principal Secretary issued the order lifting the curfew.
The students are getting numerous phone calls from other colleges where the curfew exists. “But our happiness is not complete. Azadi has to be taken forward, we have just started. We have to implement the freedom fully and make sure that it lasts forever. The freedom from those who measure the size of the dress, from moral policing, it should be complete. We have just begun,” says Anjuradh, a third-year student.