On India’s Campuses, Female Students Speak Out About ‘Deep Rooted’ Gender Discrimination

Religion Fellows 2013

By Nida Najar

April 22, 2013

Also published at The Chronicle of Higher Education

In a cramped room on the sprawling campus of Ramjas College here, some 40 female students gathered recently to discuss a problem they say they face almost daily: gender discrimination.

The students, mostly undergraduates from Ramjas and St. Stephens College, complained about a general apathy toward female concerns and what they consider overly strict enforcement of campus rules for women, especially for those who live in dormitories, or "hostels" as they are known here.

Sania Hashmi, a third-year student at Ramjas, complained that the matron in her dorm harasses her if she is even slightly late for a 9 p.m. curfew—which many at the meeting said is rarely enforced for male students.

Abhija Ghosh, a graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University who presided over the meeting, recalled how she faced similar problems during her undergraduate days at Ramjas. "Infantilization only happens in the case of women," said Ms. Ghosh about the university culture. "It's a structural, deep-rooted gender problem."

Such issues have come to the forefront in India since December, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang raped and beaten in a moving bus in India's capital. She died of her injuries less than two weeks later. The assault, which gained worldwide attention, triggered mass protests over the treatment of women, and questions about how the police and the courts respond to such crimes.

Indian students take part in a protest days after the death of a young woman who was gang raped on a bus in New Delhi. Unnamed in news articles, she was called Damini, meaning "lightning," by activists.

Raveendran, AFP, Getty Images

In March, India's Parliament passed a law requiring tougher punishment of sex crimes and expanding the definition of both rape and sexual harassment. The University Grants Commission, India's higher-education regulatory body, asked universities to evaluate the safeguards in place for female students, like outdoor lighting on campuses. The commission also set up a panel to evaluate how reports of sexual harassment are handled on campuses. It is expected to release its findings soon.

While some have applauded the steps the government is taking, many female students and academics say the pervasiveness of gender discrimination on campuses make it very hard to stop. What's more, some say that the Delhi rape case is being used in some instances to limit women's rights in the name of safety.

"Certainly in India I think the patriarchy is very deep-rooted in the universities," says Vinita Chandra, an associate professor of English at Ramjas who attended the recent meeting. "I think that what has happened after that rape is that institutions that are patriarchal intrinsically have used it as an excuse to exert more power over women."

Though women make up 48 percent of India's population, only 41.5 percent of the student body at Indian colleges is female. While the number of women attending college has increased in recent years, they tend to gravitate to institutions that focus on the humanities, like Ramjas and St. Stephens, which are both part of the University of Delhi.

While the enrollment of female students has increased at those institutions, campus culture is harder to change. The University of Delhi initiated a policy on sexual harassment in 2004, setting up committees that would hear students' complaints. Unfortunately, because of the culture of silence that surrounds harassment and sexual assault, very few women come forward.

'Different Worlds'

In general, the perception is that administrators are indifferent to such problems. Nagpur University, in Maharashtra, came under fire last year for failing to take action against its principal, or president, who was accused of harassment by a female professor.

At St. Stephens, a faculty member complained last year in a court hearing that after reporting that she had been harassed by her department chair, administrators ignored her. Valson Thampu, the principal of St. Stephens, says the college's complaints committee looked into the allegations and "found that there was no element of sexual harassment."

There are scant data on how prevalent sexual harassment and assaults are on campuses. But as for the causes, some speculate that as colleges in Delhi and other Indian cities attract more students from rural areas, traditional values are clashing with modern, urban ways of life.

"The problem is that there's so many different worlds in a classroom," says Shahana Bhattacharya, an assistant professor of history at Kirori Mal College, which enrolls many rural students. "With people who come from such different universes in a city like Delhi, there is misreading of cultural norms and signals. Some girls will be smoking and wearing skirts, and there will still be people who read it a certain way, and that leads to harassment."

Ms. Bhattacharya, who sits on a committee that hears cases of sexual harassment at the college, says that female students, who often have to fight to get access to education, sometimes don't report problems because they worry their families will pull them out of college.

At Ramjas and St. Stephens, female students say they face an authoritarian atmosphere.

Students at Ramjas complain that the December rape has been invoked to justify a strict enforcement of certain dormitory rules, like the curfew. At St. Stephens, students said that they were now forbidden to wear shorts.

One St. Stephens student at the recent meeting, who asked to remain anonymous, said students had tried to organize protests against unfair treatment of female students. However, she said administrators told them they risked losing their places in the residence halls if they did.

Mr. Thampu, the St. Stephens principal, declined to comment either on the student protests or the dress code. Nandita Narain, chair of the mathematics department at St. Stephens, says colleges are often wary of any type of organizing around a social issue. "If the girls have a meeting, that becomes the democratic nerve center of the college. All kinds of other things start getting questioned."

The Glass Ceiling

Female faculty members like Ms. Narain are often sympathetic to undergraduate concerns because they too face a male-dominated atmosphere within the academic workplace, especially at the management level.

"There are less women in the top-level posts," says Manasi Mishra, head of research at the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based think tank focusing on women's issues. "The glass ceiling exists, and no one can deny it. Women don't want to relocate for jobs. They often compromise with family issues, taking care of a child instead of managing their careers."

Female professors also complain of challenges with their male peers.

Ms. Chandra, of Ramjas, recalls a time when she and her female colleagues would eat lunch in the staff room, as most professors did.

"One day I got a phone call from a colleague, and he told me, 'When you sit and laugh loudly in the staff room, men don't appreciate it,'" she says. The professor says her efforts to openly discuss such issues have been derided.

"I've been insisting on a gender-sensitivity program for faculty," she says, and the male professors have "absolutely refused."

Still, many say that because of the growing middle class in India and the value education is awarded in Indian society, more women will enroll in college and seek jobs. Eventually, they say, campus culture will change.

"The rules have not taken into account the changing times and the changing demographics of the student population, and they also have not been challenged or countered for long," says Ms. Ghosh, the Ramjas alumna.

"There's a lot of things going on on campus, and it's at the brink of change."

Nida Najar is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She is a 2013 Religion Fellow reporting from India with the International Reporting Project.