Why you should care
Because cities are more than maps — they’re sites of politics.
Until this year, law student Chandni Chawla didn’t take the bus after 10 p.m. Chawla attends school in Pune, a cosmopolitan educational hub, and she and other young women studying in the city have been living under the shadow of old-fashioned-seeming regulations: no shorts, not even in the gym, and curfew hours beginning just after sunset.
But at 10:30 p.m. on January 9, Chawla and several other women headed to the city’s main bus station, many of them breaking the curfews of the women’s “hostels” where they reside. (Students at most Indian universities do not stay in American-style dormitories but, rather, in gender-segregated hostels or off-campus in “paying guesthouses,” where the personal morals of landlords and landladies are law.) It hardly seemed a revolutionary act, several women sitting on the bus under dim lights. Yet for these women, and many more like them across the country, it marked the start of a quiet protest movement in the vein of the Take Back the Night protests that swept America in the 1970s.
While not every gathering falls under the same banner, one can find events like Chawla’s in many major Indian cities today, from Mumbai to Bangalore to Delhi. In the nation’s capital, protests are cropping up under the banner of Pinjra Tod, which translates to “break the cage.” This fall, 500 female students at Aligarh Muslim University signed a petition calling for the resignation of a provost of one of the hostels due to similar incidents of discrimination. Among them is a two-year-old group called “Why Loiter?” in Mumbai, founded by actor and writer Neha Singh, which takes its name from the book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, coauthored by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan. Phadke, chairperson of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Culture at the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, writes us that these questions are particularly acute among the middle class: “Middle-class women have some legitimacy in public space in the daytime but not at night.” Roughly twice a month, 34-year-old Singh and her group walk through the kind of streets one would generally be told to avoid, wandering and sipping streetside tea.
Unfortunately, the norm is not to step out after a certain hour, and that instills more fear.
—Rakesh Maria, former Mumbai commissioner of police
The lives of women after dusk have become a regular topic in the media since December 2012, when five men brutally gang-raped and murdered a 23-year-old woman. After the death of Nirbhaya — as the victim was symbolically called — “solutions” to the problem of women’s safety have been peddled like Cracker Jacks. An expensive revolver named for Nirbhaya was created for women to keep in their purses. CCTV cameras and more security personnel were demanded. But in many areas of the country, the response swung more conservative: Don’t stay out late, don’t wear jeans and don’t be seen with boys, the mantra goes. “Until women come out and experience the freedom and safety at night, the fear of stepping out cannot be dispelled,” says Rakesh Maria, former commissioner of police of Mumbai. “Unfortunately, the norm is not to step out after a certain hour, and that instills more fear.”
There’s been some impact: The Delhi Commission of Women issued notices to seven colleges demanding an explanation for why curfews for men and women differed: Men’s hostels often have no curfew at all, while some women’s buildings expect ladies to return as early as 7:30 p.m. Some reports show that even major universities haven’t prioritized equal housing access for men and women. (J.M. Khurana, the dean of student’s welfare at Delhi University, was nonchalant about the lack of fewer hostels for women. “Thirty years ago, there were more male students,” he says. “We can only do as much as government resources allow.”) Any movement to change university practices, notes 27-year-old Natasha Narwal, a former student at Delhi University who resisted these curfews when she was studying and is now part of Pinjra Tod, will have to pressure colleges to reach into the tangle of private guesthouses too. In other words: The protests alone, the campus lobbying, none of it is enough unless wider societal attitudes toward women shift.
Meanwhile, in Pune, Chawla and her classmates at the Indian Law Society Law College have discussed legal avenues against the university, such as filing a writ petition on the basis of Article 14 of the constitution, which ensures the right to equality for all. But they are aware of the implications. “We want to graduate on time and do not want our careers to be hampered,” she says, adding that many students had postponed taking action, figuring they could do more as alumna. But after graduation, the urgency faltered.
Something else might continue after graduation, though: the fear. Priyam Saikia, a student at Miranda House in Delhi, had dreamed of a relatively free life in Delhi, far from her hometown of Tezpur in Assam, a town that falls silent after 7 p.m. But not only is she required to be back at her hostel by 7:30 every night, she also thinks the rules are training women to be even more afraid. “I know other women who do hesitate to step out after 8 p.m., because they have been brainwashed to believe that curfews at a certain time are for a reason,” she says.