The ability to exist freely in public spaces regardless of one’s gender is a privilege not many can afford. While this fact may not come as a shock to many people, it registered more strongly in my conscience only after I became part of an all women’s college in Delhi in 2018.
As a privileged cishet woman coming from a well known co-educational school in Delhi, one question I was asked a lot was, “Isn’t it painful adjusting in a women’s college? It must be so strict and regressive.” Well, it is definitely not as regressive as most of the co-educational spaces in India that place the complete burden of “maintaining decency and decorum” on the shoulders of young women. From dress codes specifying the exact length of kurtas and acceptable color of bras (either white or nude, in case you’re curious), to hostel curfews and much more, the multitude of absurd rules are endless. The hypocrisy that lies in such beliefs must also not be ignored, i.e., co-ed schools being more progressive by some outdated standard of modernity, as it obscures the plethora of gendered discrimination that goes on within such institutions. I would however admit that, while I didn’t completely hate the change from a co-ed school to a women-only college like a lot of my peers, it took me some time to appreciate its merits too.
Being conscious of the male gaze is something that all women know of as soon as they enter the world.
From a very young age, women learn that not many spaces belong to them, spaces where they can freely and unabashedly be themselves. When the policing starts at home, with what type of clothes one should not wear in front of their male family members, there isn’t much hope left for the rest of the world. The fact that the very first instance of me being catcalled and objectified (oh how we look forward to our firsts!) took place when I wasn’t even technically completely outside of my home, truly speaks for the wonders that were awaiting me in the ‘world full of possibilities’.
It is important to mention here that the conversation around experiences related to the male gaze extends to transgender people and non binary folks as well. However my position as a cis woman does not qualify me to speak on behalf of their experiences
In school, I was taught at an early age that the length of my skirt and the way I tied my hair contributed to the amount of respect I would get from my teachers; good grades and good behavior, after all, were not enough. Consequently, I even learnt to misjudge other girls who would show even an ounce of self-expression, say, by wearing kohl, for being ‘attention-seeking’. While the ‘rules’ were justified in the name of bringing about formal uniformity, they were used to propagate regressive ideas that held girls to a much different standard than other students, all of which was deep-seated in patriarchal attitudes.
Pursuing the science stream in high school meant endless tuitions and group coaching in mostly male-led and male-majority institutions. Here again I observed that girls. who were generally outnumbered, would seek solace in sitting together, sometimes not even conversing but being visibly conscious and uncomfortable in a room full of boys. It is easy to miss out that even in seemingly non-problematic and co-educational environments, the way women conduct themselves, consciously or unconsciously, is very much determined by the male gaze. The recent social media outrage around the ‘Bois Locker Room’ Instagram group chat is the best example to showcase the absolute depths to which cultural misogyny rots the mindsets of young men and further creates obstructions in women’s’ natural trajectory of growth.
When I started travelling alone for the first time in college, the concept of gendered nature of public spaces became amply visible to me. Almost every person who does not identify as a cisgender man will be able to tell you a fixed and almost sacred set of actions they follow when they step out of their house. Mine includes ensuring my pepper spray is well within reach in my bag, looking behind me every ten steps, hoping I get a shared e-rickshaw with at least one woman passenger, and walking fast with a stern, don’t-mess-with-me face till I finally get into the woman’s compartment of the Metro. Most women are so used to this feeling of constantly being on high alert in public spaces that they don’t even realize how exhausting it is. The extensive normalization of women and other marginalized gender communities having to ‘just live with the discomfort’ is appalling and only aggravates the need to make these seemingly mundane topics much more conspicuous in mainstream discourse.
Getting admission to a women’s college after years of co-educational learning surprisingly proved to be the most liberating experience for me. In stark contrast to my school days when I would instantly become aware of my demeanor as soon as I stepped out of my seat, this space felt comfortable. Certainly, this comfort was also partially possible because of the privileged aspects of my identity.
Intersectionality plays a major role in determining a person’s journey in any space.
Therefore my personal experiences were also highly influenced by other aspects of my identity that favor me in the way I am viewed and hence, cannot be used to present a generalized argument.
After an hour and a half of travelling by various means with my body on high alert, stepping through the gates of my college campus and being greeted by the towering Gulmohar trees laden with flowers instinctively gives me the feeling of a safe space. When I look at women just being themselves, wearing whatever they want, laughing however they want and just existing in their most natural state, I feel intense gratefulness for having access to such a space coupled with a strong sense to protect it at all costs. The potential that an all women’s campus holds for women to grow and develop outside of the male gaze is priceless. An important characteristic of my college space is the unmistakable essence of feminism that one finds lingering all over the campus. This feminism is not just limited to textbooks and lectures but also manifests itself in art, culture and productions of various individuals and clubs that actively explore the meaning of gender every day.
It is important to acknowledge that different people enter college with different levels of understanding of gender, womanhood, feminism and the significant role it plays in their life because of thick patriarchal conditioning received in most homes and schools. Subsequently, the campus provides a non-judgmental space for people to explore their own journeys with these subjects which might not be possible in other forms of traditional educational institutions. This is not to imply that co-educational spaces lack merit or cannot be feminist. Instead, I am using my personal and limited experience to highlight how a feminist campus space can be integral to the holistic development of one’s sense of identity, which is often not possible as effectively in settings where the male gaze persists to play a central role.
The horrific incident of mass sexual harassment in Delhi University’s Gargi College, when mobs of middle-aged men trespassed into the campus during an annual festival night and harassed, groped and assaulted numerous young women, becomes an extremely important example to aptly portray how integral the sanctity of an all women’s college space is to its students. The tragic night was followed by various student protests throughout the country and multiple students actively voiced the sheer horror and violation that was felt that night at the physical, emotional and psychological levels. While this event sparked the same old inconclusive primetime debates around women’s safety and government’s failure in this respect, it also brought the discourse on sacredness and integrity of women-only campus spaces to the forefront. The pain of that night was undoubtedly felt by students of all other such campuses because the deeply cherished bond between women and their safe spaces was grossly violated.
One cannot deny the fact that patriarchy seeps into all spheres of life and women-only colleges are no exception to that. They are no magical lands free of all prejudice and moral policing. More often than not officials and even professors indulge in the propagation of stereotypes and ills such as homophobia, queerphobia, body shaming and more. In spite of provisions for the admission of transgender persons into colleges, the campus continues to be an exclusionary space due to lack of infrastructure and other facilities. The concept of intersectional feminism also remains limited to academic discussions rather than being actively implemented through a change in campus policies.
There also exist numerous debates on the demerits of women-only spaces for further isolating women from the male-dominated mainstream, thereby worsening their position. This article, however, does not aim to promote one type of system over the other. The aim is to bring out the role of a constructive campus environment, often shaped and led by students, in shaping identities of those who have been sexualized, objectified and policed for far too long. The essence of being in one’s most natural state, free from the male gaze, is a luxury that I encountered by chance with my admission to a woman’s college and I would not trade it for the world.