In August 2015, an anonymous open letter was sent to the Jamia Millia Islamia vice-chancellor protesting the cancellation of women students’ right to stay out until late at night. It led to students across Delhi coming out on to the streets. They wanted to speak out against institutions that confine women. And Pinjra Tod, the movement, was born.
In a little more than a year, the campaign to push curfew hours has challenged the ways in which the movement of female students is restricted in the name of safety. Unlike other feminist campaigns and movements, Pinjra Tod has been attentive to gender-based discrimination and its relation to other forms of discrimination based on caste and class.
In 2016, women from educational institutions across the country joined Pinjra Tod to speak about their suppression, taking the fight against curfew hours much further, challenging deeply entrenched attitudes about women’s bodies—be it a ban on wearing shorts in some hostels, or being forced to wear a dupatta over laboratory coats, or the lack of enough accommodation. In 2016, Pinjra Tod challenged it all, facing the brunt of disgruntled institutional heads and harassment, allegedly by male students associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad—the ABVP has denied any involvement.
Subhashini Shriya, who recently completed her law degree from Delhi University and has been part of Pinjra Tod from its inception, believes its biggest achievement has been the circular issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC) last year on the prevention, prohibition and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment of women employees and students in higher educational institutions. “In November, Miranda House conducted elections for the appointment of the (internal complaints) committee, but the election was announced just one week in advance, such that the voting turnout was low," she says.
While the UGC circular mentioned punishment and penalties, there was no provision to hold accountable institutions with a previous record of not paying heed to sexual harassment. Shriya adds that when the campaign had begun, there was fear of retribution, and some students faced the wrath of irate teachers and institutions. But in the last one year, Pinjra Tod has been recognized as a movement, and students are less fearful.
In 2016, Pinjra Tod continued to walk the streets at night, especially through the streets in Delhi where most of the hostels are located, shouting slogans, demanding locks be broken. They documented their processes through photographs and video and shared them on social media, inspiring women from lesser-known colleges in other parts of the country to share their experiences. The anger was out on the streets, outside campuses of colleges and universities in Patiala, Thiruvananthapuram, Raipur, Cuttack, Chennai, Aligarh and Thrissur.
According to Shilpa Phadke, one of the authors of the book Why Loiter? Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets and chairperson of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Culture at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, the presence of middle-class women on the streets at night fractures the lines between supposed “good" and “bad" women.
A Facebook post by Pinjra Tod stated that male students aligned with the ABVP began to scream “Bharat mata ki jai!" and one even flashed a Rs100 note at one of the women during the night demonstration and street play series in Delhi in September. On their Facebook page, Pinjra Tod activists wrote: “This binary of the ‘good woman’ and the ‘bad woman’ is the same as ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’. (We) Refuse to live by their patriarchal, casteist diktats…" Pinjra Tod designed a poster that said: “We won't be Mother India. Nationalism cages women."
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The reason Pinjra Tod is unique, says feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, is that it has been responsive to movements that challenge other forms of discrimination based on caste. Its participants travelled to Gujarat when Jignesh Mevani raised the issue of discrimination against Dalits. “They have localized the movement to reflect South Asian patriarchy, which ties in with elements of caste, class and the politics of reproduction," Chakravarti says.
Though the movement made itself heard, expansion and consistency took time. It had no formal structure or set leadership; it is yet to have a face that represents the campaign. Chakravarti, who taught at Delhi University for four decades, says every batch of female students would be jostling for space and their campaigning would be limited to the time they were students. “It was the teachers who would sustain the campaigns, by providing the history, context and continuation to it. But Pinjra Tod has spread to other institutions because of their sense of a feminist collective that can be replicated, as opposed to a rigid leadership. Their core team intends the movement to be issue-driven rather than leadership-driven," says Chakravarti.
“The metaphor of the cage (pinjra) is reminiscent of the language used in literature by women since the 19th century," she adds. “The word evokes the easily recognizable attempt to continue the patriarchal social order. This evocation has hence travelled far, and has opened a way of resistance that resonates with a lot of Indian women."
Other similar groups
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■ A few women across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad coordinate “Girls at Dhabas" to raise noise about women’s participation in public space. The idea of going to ‘dhabas’, which function as sites to relax or do nothing, may not scream out that women are not allowed there, but often men outnumber women at ‘dhabas’, and other public spaces.
■ ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ is an online social movement that was started by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad in May 2014. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 women in Iran have had to cover their hair in public, but many Iranian women and men feel that wearing a hijab in public should be a personal choice. Their website is an archive of the photos and videos shared by women.