Gargi, Daulat Ram, Kamala Nehru, Lady Shri Ram, and other girls’ colleges are not just institutions of higher education for women – they are symbols of resilience and strength; they are icons of feminism.
The role of women’s colleges is to provide a space for women to learn and grow. These safe spaces help us tap into our hidden potential, which had earlier been buried by the heteronormative gender norms present all around us. Women are acutely aware of the baggage that comes with being women. The amount of scrutiny and censure that we go through across our lives is shocking. We are so accustomed, so numb to this omnipresent censorship, that we come to know of its existence only when it has been lifted. When college life began and I came to experience the freedom that came with being in a girls’ college, then and only then did I realise exactly how much I had been stifled by the outside world. Everything from our appearance and clothing, our language and behaviour, our social habits and ways of life, invite intrigue. We are ever so conscious of every aspect of our being and existence simply because we know we are constantly judged for it. Gargi College, Maitreyi College, Daulat Ram College, Miranda House, and every other women’s college out there in Delhi University and across the rest of the country does not just represent a place where women pursue higher education; these colleges act as symbols of strength, attesting to the resilience of women.
When students protested last year in my college, I saw women beating huge drums, chanting slogans and sitting in the sun for hours, without their spirit breaking because they were fighting for a greater cause. I learnt from professors who introduced me to feminist literature and to capitalism’s role in the subjugation of women, who made me write lengthy papers on how women had been relegated to a minor role for centuries. These conversations happen in co-educational institutions of higher education and I am more than certain that most of them do an excellent job talking about the aforementioned issues. But anyone who has set foot in a girls’ college knows that the walls of these colleges hum with the words Gloria Steinem and Mahasweta Devi. Conversation about feminism and gender roles is not limited to the classroom. Society practices, canteen breaks, and casual conversation revolve around topics that are not discussed enough in mainstream media and popular culture.
Another gift that a girls’ college education gave me was the gift of real life idols and heroines. My professors with their deep sense of idealism and duty turned out to be the most admirable of people who command immense respect. There were occasions when I all but wanted to climb on top of my desk and shout “O Captain! My Captain!” because of how fierce these lectures were. College presidents, seniors, classmates all turned into real life idols who constantly served as examples of women who win. Life was one giant Pinterest board coming to life, with both interesting outfit ideas and life-changing quotes being available at the same time.
I have begun to slowly shed the decadent remains of oppressive societal norms and expectations. The environment of a girls’ college was so “woke” and aware that it changed who I was. It told me that my opinion was relevant, that I must not let small things slide by, that every jibe or sexist joke that I ignore and do not call out contributed to a larger cycle of sexism and misogyny. A greater sense of self-esteem and pride came with learning in such a positive environment. As I carried heavy desks or climbed ladders to put up hoardings and banners – tasks which I hadn’t done before because they were traditionally physically challenging tasks automatically assigned to men – I realised how gender norms had limited and caged my potential. The realisation of my physical strength is merely a metaphor for every lesson that I learnt while being in a girls’ college. The idea of certain jobs being done by men and others by women is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we don’t really question it or realise how problematic it is. Recognising gender roles and actively fighting them was another life lesson that college taught me.
But it’s not all fair and sunny in the land of girls’ colleges. These colleges are often targets of various jokes being circulated on DU-related unofficial social media pages. Girls’ colleges are portrayed as gloomy places where the greatest concern that the student body has is the absence of men. Not only do such jokes undermine what these institutions stand for but also try to distill and limit the essence of our college life to the lack of interaction with members of the opposite gender. Ergo, men continue to influence and largely dictate the narrative surrounding our colleges even when they are not part of them. Not only that, recently, certain Facebook pages sharing DU-related content have been circulating problematic posts regarding girls’ colleges. These posts at best reiterate pre-existing negative stereotypes about girls’ colleges and at worst express outright violence, ridicule, and hate. This shows how our colleges are now under the same kind of scrutiny and judgment that we once were. It also tells us that the battle is far from won.
The respite gained by entering these institutions is temporary. The walls of these safe spaces shall not be home to us forever; life will once again go back to being what it once was when we graduate. The fight for gender equality will not be won by creating safe spaces for women in every street and corner. On the contrary, by reclaiming what is ours – the streets and public spaces and parks and libraries and markets – then and only then will we be able to truly live the way we want to. When co-educational colleges start talking about gender as frequently as people in girls’ colleges do, when these discussions do not just involve and concern women, then and only then will we truly be able to live in a free, liberated environment. Then we would not need safe havens from the outside world and the need and idea of educating people on the distinction of gender will die out. Perhaps then, girls’ colleges will lose their relevance, but they would fade out with glory, their contribution to the cause of feminism and in the fight for equality being fundamental.
Feature Image Credits: Debating Society of Daulat Ram College