The Story Behind BITS Pilani’s Girls’ Hostel Curfew Removal

TL;DR : The curfew, or the “in-time restriction”, is a 40-year old rule at BITS Pilani, Pilani Campus that decreed that all residents of the girls’ hostel (Meera Bhawan) have to return to their hostels by 11.30pm. In DTU this time is 9pm. In NSIT this time is 8.30pm. Defaulting on this rule often leads to strict action. On November 19th, 2016, this mail reached the inbox of all the residents of Pilani campus. Excerpt :

“…in a historic decision, after a two-day door-to-door survey and discussions with the institute, the in-time curfew on Meera Bhawan residents has been removed by the Institute.”

The aftermath of Nirbhaya saw many Indian colleges tightening the rules for their women students. Those institutions which for all these years had the temerity to persist with rules that even prevented their male and female students from interacting with each other brazenly used this incident as a way of espousing their abnormal policies. This was thankfully enough provocation for the UGC to issue some very strong words about how discriminatory rules and timings which constrained women were not acceptable ways of keeping them safe and the proper strategy was to empower them. The University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) have banned the imposition of discriminatory rules, including hostel curfews for women. Violations might result in withdrawal of recognition of the institution imposing such rules. However, even after this, curfews still exist.

There has been a spate of student-led initiatives (for e.g. Pinjra Tod movement at Delhi University) to remove gender discriminatory rules, but most fizzle out . The example of the successful curfew removal at BITS Pilani hence serves as a precedent for colleges all over India and a much-needed ray of hope. I’m writing this post because as one of the people who led the charge in the events leading up to the removal of the curfew, I have been asked multiple times how it was done and how it can be replicated, so I’m documenting my experiences here so that other people in other colleges may benefit from them. The method we used at Pilani campus was used in BITS Goa too, where the curfew was removed about a week later.(Hyderabad campus has curfew at 12.30 for both genders, and I’m not aware of the Dubai campus curfew). Here are answers to a few important questions :

Why did you, a guy, take this up? Shouldn’t someone from the girls’ hostel have done it?

Ok, so full disclaimer here : Feminism is a two-way street. It’s not some heroic macho super-deed to care about the problems that affect the opposite sex - if you as a guy do really care about equality, then it’s common sense that you can’t just care about your own equality. With that out of the way, here are the practical reasons this hasn’t been solved by female-only protests :

  • Female students who bring this up are regularly denigrated with pointed questions being asked about their morals and intentions behind asking for greater freedom. (A friend of mine was once accused of sleeping around with everyone in college when she reached late from a Senate meeting at a famous DU college)
  • After years of being imposed, the curfew has been normalized. Instead of being offended by the unfairness behind it, female students feel that it’s the way things have been, and while silently rebelling against it, never really take it up with the authorities(it’s way too much effort)
  • Usually Students’ representatives are the ones who take actions and have the influence with the authorities to bring about change — With the female students being a minority in most Indian colleges, these issues have inadequate representation within student representative bodies, hence usually take a back seat

In Game theory, such a situation is called a Nash equilibrium, where the situation doesn’t change unless you change the players and modify the payoff matrix. As a result of this system, the curfew would never actually get removed — until you introduce new players to the payoff matrix — and I decided to test this in practice. I’m in the Election Commission, I help elect and work with the Student’s Union — so I had enough influence with the right authorities on campus, to take this up(Point 3). I was also male, which meant that I wasn’t really directed affected by the curfew removal, so there wasn’t any scope for denigration (Point 1). I also had an acute overall idea of why exactly the curfew is so dangerous in today’s world, and could convince different stakeholders involved of the dire necessity to remove it (Point 2). If you’re someone in the above three circumstances, you know what to do! Needless to say, it isn’t easy to do, there is a lot of opposition, and odds are not in your favor, but if something is important enough, you should probably try. Which brings me to the next question :

Why is removing the curfew so important?

One answer : Cultivating female role models.

I founded and am leading a technical student team at BITS Pilani (Hyperloop India). The first stark issue I saw while recruiting for my team and with technical teams like Formula Student, Baja, Robocon, is the stark absence of female students. I initially thought this was because of the proportionately less number of female students on campus. On the other hand, in almost every branch, girls usually outperformed guys in terms of conventional academics, with a higher average CGPA. The contrast was quite startling. However I soon discovered that even though we all claim to be quite progressive, this lack of female representation was because of a subconscious patriarchal mindset that had crept into the minds. Teams and projects like this require extraordinary amounts of time commitment, often late all-nighters, a luxury that we, as guys, often take for granted. However there are multiple cases where the curfew hampers individual productivity and performance of the female residents. Girls who wish to avail the services of Library/canteen/labs post in-time, wish to work on group projects in labs, contribute to post in-time club/department work, perform to their best abilities in leadership roles, get involved in technical teams where work stretches till late at night, are unable to do so because the current procedures makes it difficult for them (as compared to boys) by forcing them to go through the tedious procedure of getting permissions at odd times. This leads to a situation where seniors in projects and teams hesitate to recruit girls fearing their lack of time commitment. The system is attuned to quench the dreams of the female “trailblazers” and “ground-breakers” who do unconventional things — it doesn’t give them an environment to flourish, doesn’t give them incentives, and most of all, imposes stupid hostel restrictions to restrict their activities further. This introduces a dangerous vicious cycle — This means for every successive batch of females, there are less, and less number of female role models doing unconventional, ambitious things to look up to — hence if you’re a female student on campus, you retreat into the docile role of going forward and backward between classes, not questioning the status quo, having been lulled into this false sense of security from some unknown bloodthirsty hyena that emerges after curfew time that you need to be protected from by retreating into a shell.

If you’ve cleared the same mind-numbing, life-scarring, internationally dreaded examination, and have paid the same tuition fees, it makes sense that you should have access to the same opportunities that your male counterparts have. I spent Summer 2016 at MIT, and I once mentioned the existence of a curfew on female hostels back in my college to a TA there — she laughed at the incredulity of it. Rightly so, the top universities around the world have reached where they are because of their commitment to equal opportunities in education and employment. The MIT website clearly reads :

“…[MIT] does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, age, genetic information, veteran status, ancestry, or national or ethnic origin…”

While a brilliant case can be made of our colleges NOT copying the right things from American universities, there is a stronger case to be made against the defeatist patriarchal mentality that the curfew fosters. I asked few of my female friends what they thought about the curfew, and was shocked by some of the responses supporting the curfew I got — “I get off work early”, “It doesn’t affect me much anyway”, “Everybody seems to be okay with it.”, “It’s too much effort to get it removed.”, “It keeps my parents happy”. Here it is important to realize that the restriction on hostel in-time is not a matter of convenience. Its removal represents the freedom for current and future female students to make this choice for themselves, without institute intervention. And this decision-making power is mostly useless and an eyewash for a majority of such female students. However, it is a god-send for a few exceptional people who turn out to be role models. So by removing the curfew, the aim is not just to reduce discrimination, but to lay the groundwork for female role models to go out there and challenge the status quo, do badass stuff, create legacies, set positive examples that our society so badly needs, without asking the hostel warden for permission to do it. This lack of right female role models stems right from school to college and continues right uptil retirement — we have been fed on a culture of rom-coms and fantasy vampire fiction that portrays women as weak, docile creatures that derive their identity from their pursuit and eventual betrothal to a wealthy suitor (Pride and Prejudice, anybody?). We honestly need women to set better examples for the next generation of women. Where are all the best-selling books about the Marie Curies, the Grace Kellys and the Amelia Earhearts? That’s right, nowhere, because sparkling vampires sell better. Another vicious cycle of supply and demand.

I have been fortunate enough to represent my college internationally and bring it recognition — One of most practical arguments to the college authorities was explaining how I wouldn’t have been able to do half the stuff I’m doing if there was a similar restriction on me.

Ok I understand why it’s important. So how do you go about getting the curfew removed?

Conventional approaches to doing this involve protests, marches, rallies and what-not. However these have failed in most places, mostly because the rebellious millenial spirit almost always fails to put itself in the shoes of the different stakeholders (parents, college admin, etc), to understand where they’re coming from, and how to best reach a middle ground. At BITS we did no such thing. The key is to understand and trust college administration to act in the best interests of the students, and the fundamental problem in discussions involved conveying the best interests accurately. Additionally there were stakeholders like parents, who would resist change, and would pressurize the institute authorities to keep the curfew. The trick was to find some way to keep everyone happy.

We first set up a channel of communication with the institute, and understood the administrative viewpoint which was that:

  1. ‘Women’s safety’ is not the institute’s primary concern in the removal of the curfew because of two reasons: a)If there is a safety issue, it is equally a concern for both genders and b)The in-time restriction is relaxed during the fests, which have many outstation participants, without any safety breaches.
  2. There seems to be an assumed relation between the discipline imposed due to the in-time and girls’ better academic performance. A similar hostel in-time would have been imposed on boys as well, but there are too many boys’ hostels to carry out such a restriction.
  3. Sections of the administration also believe that girls do not mind the curfew since not many actually express their dissatisfaction.

I then figured that there was a significant gap between what the institute had assumed and what the students really felt, a gap that could only be bridged by statistics, not by argument. With the help of Students’ Union volunteers, and with some previous experience with how voting psychology worked (Election Commission Perks) we conducted a vote — This was an opportunity for female residents to voice both their practical and ideological concerns about having a hostel in-time restriction directly to the institute. A mail was sent alerting female residents of the survey beforehand. (follow link for content of the mail). A door-to-door survey was held in the girls’ hostel by SU members and volunteers over a period of two days, where all female residents(undergraduates and graduates) were asked for “Yes” or “No” responses to two questions — “Should the girls’ hostel in-time restriction be removed?” and “Has the in-time restriction hampered your productivity and performance?”. The responses with signatures of 477(82%) people out of the total 581 residents were recorded, with 104 residents unavailable for comment during the survey. An overwhelming majority of female residents agreed to the removal of the in-time restriction (95.8%) and acknowledged it’s role in hampering their productivity and performance (89.7%). A few things to note about this :

  1. This was a door-to-door survey, as opposed to an online one, meaning everyone had to participate. More data points leads to more meaningful results when majority opinion has to be determined. People who had concerns could talk to physical SU volunteer about it and sort things out on the spot. Everyone has an opinion about the curfew, but faced with an online faceless survey, people are too lazy to express it.
  2. By design, it was not a secret ballot— people could see whether their friends/wingies had voted “Yes” or “No” on the list. This is usually not the best way to conduct votes, but the psychology behind this sort of voting tends to favor group-think. People who were on the fence, went towards the majority opinion — this is useful because when you need to show overwhelmingly large support for your cause, it helps to have 85%+ of people support it.
  3. It was a “Yes” or “No” vote — a black-or-white opinion. This was important because it limits choices and forces you to take a strong principled side. Weeds out the people who would compromise by giving safe in-between answers.
  4. The votes were segregated according to batches. Out of the 184 first and second years surveyed, 177 individuals (96.2%) supported the removal of the in-time restriction, and their opinion was highlighted as important as they are the batches most benefited by its immediate removal. Meanwhile, out of the 199 3rd,4th, and 5th years surveyed, and overwhelming majority 175 (87.9%) felt the in-time restriction had hampered their productivity — their opinion in this mattered the most because they are the batches most affected by this restriction for the past few years.

The administration was surprised with the results of the survey. The survey results to the strategically chosen two questions, dealt with three birds with one stone:

  1. Formed a good statistical case for dissatisfaction among batches who had felt their productivity had been hampered — hence contradicting the belief that the curfew was actually helpful
  2. Formed a good statistical case for it’s removal — a significant majority that was affected by it believed it should be completely removed — hence contradicting the belief that most of the female students were okay with it
  3. Formed a good statistical case against the introduction of a curfew for males — UGC guidelines argue for same rules for both genders, which means that curfew for guys was also one of the compromises

I’m extremely thankful to our current Chief Warden, who engaged in constructive debate and was willing to spend so much of his valuable time to hear us out and eventually agree to a trial run of curfew removal, and eventually permanent removal. It restored my belief in the fact that our institute does truly have the students’ best interests in mind.

No protests. No rallies. No demonstrations. It was amazing that with combined efforts of both students and the administration, a promising middle ground could be reached.

What about parental concerns?

Major roadblocks to remove the curfew involve reluctance from a few parents and hesitation to introduce an untested norm. However, it is unfair to impose restrictions on the wards of all parents based on the views of a few parents. Hence, following the trial period without the in-time, the next step was to officially engage the parent community at large. Female residents were requested to involve their parents in the discussion, and discuss the merits and demerits of the curfew with them to ensure that a positive resolution is reached. Since parents are major stakeholders in this process, after the trial run, a Letter Of Intent was obtained from the parents of a few female wards to accelerate the process of removing the in-time restriction permanently. It was important to have this trial run before the winter vacations because then female wards could convince and get the letter from their parents during the vacations. The important thing about this letter(follow link for content) is that it was phrased not to be a “No-Objection Letter” but as a “Letter of Faith” reaffirming the parent’s faith in their daughter’s decision-making and in the institute’s decision to remove the curfew. An objection is a negative statement, but faith is a positive one. Positive sentiments > Negative Sentiments, hence it is easier to convince even parents who are radically against curfew removal. While a lot of such letters of faith were obtained, they have ultimately not been required because the institute has not reinstated the in-time restriction after the trial run. And while there has been no official communique from the institute about the official removal of the restriction, female students are no longer bound to the strict restrictions put up earlier and can have access to whatever their male counterparts have access to, whenever they wish.

Conclusion

BITS Pilani distinguishes itself from other colleges in India by having no caste-based reservations or management quota in admission or employment. However, today, I’m truly proud to say that this institution no longer discriminates on the basis of gender, making it a truly meritocratic organization. This is not however the norm elsewhere. The Indian Higher Education system has never been renowned for championing the cause of liberal ideals. In a time when youngsters the world over are being given more and more freedom and being inculcated with a greater sense of responsibility, Indian students, especially the women students, still find themselves cocooned and constricted within a framework of archaic rules and regulations which not only limit their freedom and movement, but also inhibits their access to a plethora of opportunities in both academic and leisure spaces. I hope my college’s example will be a catalyst to much-needed change.

In J.R.R. Tolkein’s, 2nd installment of The Lord of The Rings Series, The Two Towers, Aragorn, the warrior protagonist, faces Eowyn, shieldmaden from Rohan who has disguised herself as a man to ride into battle. Here is their conversation:

“I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ he (Aragorn) asks.
‘A cage,’ she says. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
No, not this Cage. Or is it.

Note to self : LOTR and Game Theory geekdom always helps.