Be safe or be free?

Be safe or be free?
Indian student activists Shambhawi Vikram (left) and Shriya Subhashini (centre) speak to fellow students as they distribute leaflets outside Delhi University's North Campus in New Delhi. Wary of the city's disturbing reputation for sexual violence, universities force women to return to their dorms as early as 7:00 pm -- while their male counterparts can stay out much later.
PHOTO: AFP

Zoology student Rani Choudhary, 20, left her family home in the Indian state of Bihar for the bright lights and freedom of the Indian capital.

But like most female students in New Delhi, she is barred from leaving her dorm at night except with the express permission of her father, thanks to a curfew designed to safeguard her in the city dubbed "India's rape capital".

Aware of the city's disturbing reputation for sexual violence, universities force women to return to their dorms as early as 7pm, while their male counterparts can stay out much later.

But under the Pinjra Tod ("Break the Cage") campaign, which was launched in August, female students are fighting back against what they say is outright discrimination.

Miss Shambhawi Vikkam, one of the leaders of the movement, said: "You are supposed to go and be back at 7pm, at 7.30pm and 8pm, while your friends studying with you, boys, the men in your class, they can (go out at) night and they can enter the hostel by 10pm or midnight.

"And even if they have rules and regulations, it doesn't really apply so strictly," said the 23-year-old arts student at the University of Delhi.

At a night-time protest in the capital, about 100 young female students gathered outside a subway station singing as they held up placards proclaiming: "No more curbing late nights."

For many, the desire for independence is also in conflict with family attitudes in the deeply patriarchal country.

Miss Choudhary is theoretically allowed out until 11pm four times a month and is permitted to spend five nights away from her dorm, but she said it is impossible in reality.

"I need the permission of my parents and I know that my father will never allow me to go out at 10pm," Miss Choudhary said.

Concern for the safety of young women is the main justification for the curfews put forward by the heads of university residences.

Dr Mukesh Ranjan, a spokesman for Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, said a plan to reform the curfew was "under consideration".

"(Safety) measures are the need of the hour. We have to be very mindful, there are global concerns over safety of women in India," he said.

Ms Swati Maliwal, president of the Delhi Commission for Women, has promised to help the women.

"I've requested the students to list all the discriminations they suffer from and I will work with them," Ms Maliwal told AFP.

"But Delhi is very unsafe for women and the first priority is to make Delhi safe."


This article was first published on Nov 23, 2015.
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