Voices of Women in University of Delhi (DU): their lived experiences in one of the most sought after universities in India

The University of Delhi is revered to be a progressive space that pioneers in academia in India. Its alumni substantiate this claim by constituting some of the most successful women in India and abroad like Aung San Suu Kyi, Sheila Dikshit, Kiran Bedi and Meira Kumar. However, how modern is DU to its female students today? Here are some women’s lived experiences of studying in DU’s North Campus. Khyati Dahiya, a resident of Sahibabad, Uttar Pradesh is majoring in economics at the Hans Raj College. She is well aware of the biases that exist in our society. Eve-teasing and inappropriate behaviour like unwanted touches on the streets are all too familiar for her since she has seen such incidents in her locality frequently. However, DU has been a different environment for her. During our conversation, she was enthralled to say, “Delhi University, just the name brings in thoughts of film shootings in colleges, awesome hangout places, romantic endeavours and that glam life! My first day at DU made me realize that the glam life is too far-fetched, but what I gained instead was an exuberant environment full of myriad opportunities. DU has a crowd full of ideas, just like neurons shooting everywhere, it's a cognizant crowd who knows what they wish to do even when they aren't sure. For me, DU has been a niche since the past year, helping me learn and grow in areas I thought impossible earlier. Here I met people who are going to become an integral part of my life, who will stay with me, support me no matter what. DU has been a family, a second home, the watershed moment of my life.” Upon questioning if she ever witnessed gender discrimination in the campus, Khyati said that she had never witnessed it. Chelsy Singhal, an English major in the same college resonates with Khyati’s claim. “ I'm actually quite happy with my experience. DU gives a very accepting and open environment for all students in my opinion. Even as a woman, I haven't faced any problem which could be stated as specific to only women.”

About the issue of affordable accommodation, Chelsy says, “Male-exclusive dorms in a co-ed college (Hansraj College) always seemed so absurd to me. If you're admitting girl students, it's expected of you to build dorms for girls too. A possible reason is that Hansraj was an all-boys college many years ago. But seriously, it won't take more than a year or two to build a small dorm building for girls.” The lack of adequate housing within the campus has been a huge issue for the students of DU. Affording housing privately near the campus is expensive and limiting to a lot of people. A public university is meant to be accessible to everybody, but if there is no residency provided within it, the economically disadvantaged are already excluded from a system which is centred around their interests. For the inequality of opportunity given to men in DU, I regularly used to notice long queues for females at the Campus Metro Station, next to which the male queue line would be insignificant.

So, are giving large quotas for women in the public education system the best way to empower them? Here’s what a student at the Miranda College, the highest-ranking college in DU and India has to say about her experience. Yukta Anand, a resident of Delhi transitioned from a co-ed school to an all-girls college. She found that although this change was challenging and different for her, it did lead to the creation of a safer environment. “I don’t know if my experience of DU has been much different from that of a guy (sans the staring or worrying if someone is following me). DU does not live up to its name! North campus boasts of a separate culture and that fests are like mini-vacation and all but like there is nothing! Food is crap, unwanted groping and catcalls. Toilets suck, stationery is so far. Kamala Nagar is good for shopping but the potholes! Let’s talk about studying-I go to the country’s number one college and yet the education....sucks.There’s no rhythm, the teachers are not that great, the library is mediocre at best. The administrative system is so insensitive like one has to travel hours to get a piece of paper (hall ticket) which apparently is needed to sit for our exams but if one forgets it just write your name on a piece of paper and you’re good. Like what the actual heck! So insensitive, so uncaring. And what is the need to stress so much on final year exams like why isn’t DU taking a stand against UGC...does students mental health not matter to them?”

However, she has experienced a unique difference in conversations and activities in her college. “In school, boys were loud, here all girls are! They scream, they laugh, they fight...everything is done by girls from lifting chairs to hanging lights and stuff. It’s like an alternative universe with every type of girl present.” While the all-girls colleges succeed in providing a safer environment, they don’t escape from one of the most spoken against plights in DU: an outdated mode of education and an administration which isn’t friendly. Should the all-girls colleges be converted to co-ed to provide an equal opportunity for everybody? Colleges like Miranda have been historically built to promote education for women. The exclusivity provides them with an option of education which they might not be allowed to access if the institutions were co-ed. The recent incident, when (allegedly) around a group of 100 men broke into the annual fest of Gargi College (an all-girls college) and molested the women, reinforces the idea of this exclusivity.

Another woman, majoring in English at the Hansraj College, who belongs to an ethnic minority faced stream discrimination because of her course! She experienced the administration giving preferential treatment to students of non- humanities disciplines. They were allotted bigger classrooms with air conditioning for all of their classes, more desks, separation of their batches into a smaller number of students and were awarded better grades too. The humanities disciplines, however rarely had a single, enormous batch with smaller classrooms and they were marked lower than their peers in any other stream. So, do these issues mean that DU has other sectors to improve and that the eradication of gender biases in its campus for all women has been ‘nearly’ successful? Dekim Misao, a northeast woman from Imphal, has had her own share of hard time during her 2 years in the North Campus. “Some people call me Chinki and one guy didn't even know that Manipur is a part of India. There was this famous case of a man spitting tobacco on girls...and I was also one of the victims. However, some people correct and tell them that calling us Chinki or discriminating against us is wrong. I just wanna say that there are some good people out there too.”

Another student at DU (who wishes to stay anonymous, in fear of facing intimidation for her dissent) has strong remarks about the university. According to her, “Campus experience has been a major factor in making me a lot more independent, fierce and outgoing as a person since I don’t have a two-way route from home to school and vice versa. It has been different from my catholic school where teachers were incredibly sexist, not when they were teaching political theories (for example- how genders should have equal pay) but by enforcing a strict moral code through means like ‘disciplining’ our attire. If our bras would be showing, then we would be scolded. If we were loud and had more boys hanging out with us, then the girl would be scolded while the boys would be spared. DU, in general, has been a huge disappointment. For a place which was made for students and their education, it has failed to provide that basic function. I got lucky with having good professors and seniors. Within the first year, seeing people litter paper in the university for election campaigning was another huge disappointment. I’m a part of a society, course and friend group which considers itself to be pretty progressive. The women around me are pretty agential, but when it comes to societies, in general, I have seen a disparity with and outside these progressive groups. Any group you join, there is a culture of sexist remarks, and until it was pointed out to me (since I was so used it from the environment in my school), I learned that this is not something that is meant to be normal.”

While everybody’s experiences differed, all of them are equally important. The difference in opinions and experiences reflect how societal biases do not affect everybody at the same level. My experience at DU has made me learn to be more inclusive as a listener - to give a voice to everybody’s narratives. If students don’t feel they are being heard in an institution which is meant to educate them on how to be heard in the society, then there is something wrong integrally. The University of Delhi has come a long way from some stereotypical biases but it still has a long way to go for everybody to feel included, safe and proud to be associated with it. Conversations and compromise are what makes a civil society flourish and if DU upholds that, then it will remain a hub where all ideas, cultures, identities have a place to be heard.