Please Support Students and Professor Under Fire for Protesting #Gender #Discrimination at VIT #University
Are you one of those people who believes that education is the most important tool to fight gender inequality? How would do you feel if educational institutions themselves aggressively endorse gender inequality? The Vellore Institute of Technology ( VIT University), one of India’s top-ranking private universities, recently dismissed two female students for doing a survey about the University’s gender and safety policies. Prof. Ted Moallem from the University who supported the students was also fired from his job. Although both students are now back on campus, there is concern that VIT’s clemency may fade along with the public spotlight on this issue. Below read a personal and courageous account of what happened from Spandana Cheruvu, who is in her fourth year at VIT and is one of the students who was dismissed.
The goal of this post is to rally support in India and worldwide for VIT and other private academic institutions to:
- Commit to uphold students’ rights to free speech and peaceful dissent
- Prioritize student equality and empowerment over concerns of reputation and financial gain
- To promote gender equality in VIT and other colleges all over India. PLEASE ADD YOUR VOICE TO THIS MOMENTUM. TO SIGN THE PETITION CLICK HERE
If you represent student unions, media or other campaigns and organizations who would like to help please contact Spandana at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read the results of the gender survey the University found objectionable click here
By Spandana Cheruvu:
VIT ranks among the top Universities for Technology in India. It has a beautiful campus and excellent facilities. So I was very proud and excited when I got admission in VIT’s Electrical and Electronics Engineering B. Tech program (Bachelors degree for Technology). Yet, as a female student in VIT, I have felt constricted. Certain campus rules are discriminatory against female students, mainly those relating to hostel “in-times” and the procedures and permissions for exiting and re-entering the campus. I feel that these rules put us at an unfair disadvantage in terms of our scope for academic and professional progress.
One such rule is that we, female students, are allowed out each weekend only on either Saturday or Sunday, for just a few hours with prior permission from the warden [the dormitory supervisor]. This permission is granted arbitrarily, depending on the warden’s whims, and it applies only to female students; males have no such constraints. Furthermore, female (not male) students on exiting the campus must undergo fingerprint scanning and submit to the security guards a special “hostel ID card”, issued to women only. Upon re-entry to campus, their fingerprint is scanned again as they collect their hostel ID. Female students often feel awkward and embarrassed queuing up at the campus gates, while male students simply show their standard ID and walk freely in and out of campus.
I found this confinement has hampered my activities a lot. For example, I am a volunteer with the ‘Make A Difference’ organization (makeadiff.in/), for which I teach school kids every Saturday. I could never go out on Sundays to have fun with friends or buy components for projects or do any other work outside campus. It curbed my activities a lot. So I asked one VIT University administrator, “Sir, I want complete gender equality. I want the In-time for both boys and girls to be same so that we have equal opportunities”. His response was: “Go to IIT Bombay. There boys and girls are allowed to go into each other’s rooms.”
I thought this was entirely unfair. When I say I want the same rights as men have, why is my character called into question? Why is it insinuated that the only reason I would want freedom and control over my time is to spend time with men? Conversely, if the university must impose “in-house” rules on female students, then why shouldn’t the same rules be applied to male students, so that we have the same freedom and control over our time?
Recently, a few students along with a professor came together to start a non-profit organization called Education for Development (E4D). As I was a founding member, I had a lot of work to do, starting from buying second hand furniture and computers to getting a broadband connection, etc. I was happy to dedicate a lot of extra time after my classes to set it up. However, the center is set up off-campus and this created a lot of trouble for me because of our “in-time” rule. I also observed that while the tasks were divided equally amongst all volunteers irrespective of gender, the male students had a lot more time than us female students to complete their tasks at the centre since they could go whenever they were free during weekdays as well as weekends.
VIT student council members suggested we do a survey of female students at VIT, to get their feedback on whether or not they felt that the unequal campus rules for women were affecting their scope of educational growth and opportunities. Then the data could be presented to the management to request for appropriate changes and also include suggestions to ensure safety. Hence I, along with another female student (who wishes to remain anonymous), drafted a survey and posted it to the E4D website on 29th September.
This is what the gender survey response from female students revealed:
- 87% of female students “feel that VIT’s unequal and restrictive rules leave VIT women less prepared than their male peers to deal with life after graduation/leaving VIT”
- 91% of female students “believe that the strict “In-Time” rules and lengthy procedures to acquire outing/leave permissions” deprive them of “academic, extra-curricular, and/or professional opportunities”
- 84% of female students believe that a woman herself “has the ultimate right and responsibility to decide a woman’s schedule, movements, activities and interactions”
- 97% of female students believe that “Self-defense and Alertness training for female students” would better address the issue of “Rape Prevention” than does VIT’s current system of protection by confinement
- 92% of female students felt that a “Fingerprinting system for all males above the age of twelve” would minimize “the possibility of sexual assault on campus” more effectively that VIT’s current “Fingerprinting and Hostel ID system for female students only”
- 84% of female students indicated that they are discouraged from “speaking out publicly against VIT’s management decisions” due to “fear of expulsion, suspension or other academic devastation”
On 1st October, the university administration called me and another student and pressurized us to take down the survey, which the other woman did. However, the survey was quickly reactivated by the director of E4D, Prof. Ted Moallem, who took full control of the website from then on. Prof. Ted believed the students’ opinions need to be heard and that a university should not repress their free and peaceful expression. He refused the VIT administration’s demands to remove the survey, and he also posted the results which now include responses from about 400 female VIT students. For the results click on this link: http://home.e4d.in/vit-female-student-survey-results. For this he was fired from his job.
The administration also repeatedly threatened me and the other female student. They said we had to choose between the survey and our B.Tech degree. I resisted by leaving up some of the posts I had made. Both of our parents were summoned to immediately come and take us away. We were blamed of starting a war against the university, while all we did was make a survey and proposal to address gender discrimination and campus safety.
My parents reached Vellore on 2nd October. They were told by the administration to take me back home along with them and on no terms will they allow me to stay on campus. All this was done verbally. There were no official/written letters or notices given to us or our parents. Instead the university officially claimed that the parents of both the students took them back by choice, which is completely opposite to what really happened. ‘The Hindu’ newspaper wrote about what happened to us on 11th October, [read it here.] You can also read people’s open letters to the VIT administrators on the E4D blog .
The Problem As I See It
From everything that has happened, I have been most affected by the lack of support from my peers. They reacted with silence and fear. The incident couldn’t even stir my good friends to action. Most were too afraid to even talk about this openly (after all, look what happened to me), and many stopped communicating with me entirely. They could not even go to the administrators in a group. Their hesitation to act “against the grain” was too deep-rooted. Although most of the students say they agree with the idea of gender equality, I found that they had two basic reasons for not standing by me.
The first reason is the common attitude that the effort is futile and hopeless. They said that speaking won’t do any good and this is how things are in India, that I should not have tried going against people with such power. The second reason is the enormous sense of fear. They believe that there has to be a change, but they are not able to say anything now as their degrees would be at stake. The future of this country should not be driven by hopelessness and fear.
Indian students are brought up since childhood in a way so as to curb their curiosity. Logical questions are answered as “Because they say so” or “It’s in our culture”. The result is a “herd mentality” which is not at all a sign of progressive society. What most of us care about is if the majority is following the same path or not. Hardly anyone would halt for a second and think about what they are doing, why they are doing it and whether it makes any sense. Most importantly, are they being deprived of any of the fundamental rights, and if so, shouldn’t they be voicing against it?
College is the phase of life where you are technically considered adults and learn how to brave the world before getting completely exposed to it. Universities play an important role in shaping the students’ mindset and the way they lead their lives in future. At such a stage, if fear is instilled, questioning is discouraged, and things like gender discrimination are encouraged in the name of safety, the students end up being timid, and socially crippled. All innovative, creative and independent thinking dies.
It must not be accepted by anyone of either gender that women are inferior in any way and deserve less opportunities. If they are physically less strong then they must receive self-defense training and efforts must be put into making the surroundings safer, rather than jailing the girls. Otherwise, these ill values of submission and acceptance to fate without dissent are learnt subconsciously, and they are going to resonate through the generations to come, passing on from parents to children, hindering the progress of the society.
Private universities are businesses, and parents are their customers as they pay the tuition fees. Hence, rules are made to satisfy the parents, while the students are actually facing the situations. Of course, the parents want their kids to be safe. But at what point will the students also be considered major stakeholders in deciding the rules, and their opinions taken into consideration? Should financial dependence allow the parents to control the lives of their fully grown up children?
Universities must have an open mindset and students must be seen like stakeholders while making a draft of the rules. Since, this is a democracy, there is a chance of every rule being questioned some day. There must be a scope of open community discussion amongst students, staff and administrators, without leaving anyone vulnerable to being targeted. Also, change over a period of time is inevitable and hence, universities must be open to suggestions. Change should be preceded and succeeded by open discussions, which are very essential. Otherwise it is autocracy, with change depending on the whims of just the few decision makers. There must be a mechanism to openly conduct polls and surveys to get the input regarding the opinion of the masses of students. It will be in the university’s best interests to know the perspective of the majority.
Above all else, freedom of speech must not be curbed, especially in an academic institution.