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Perpetrating Feudal Mindsets: How these girls are showing the world it’s not okay to police young women on dress code

 “Come out, sister,” chanted over 200 students of the St Francis College for Women, Begumpet, at the college gates on Monday. After having gone unheard for weeks, they decided to gather at 8.30 am on Monday to protest against the ‘knee-length Kurtis only’ rule.
 
On August 1, the college had sent out a circular to the students stating that only Kurtis that were long enough to cover their knees were deemed appropriate on the college premises. While this wasn’t received well by the students, it was looked past until recently, when a video of female security personnel — appointed a week ago — tugging at a student’s kurti and yanking her to ‘check’ her clothes surfaced. 
 
Students tried to reason with the principal, Sister Sandra, but to no avail. This forced them to plan the said protest, coordinated on WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Third-year NCC cadets volunteered to clear the approach road for ongoing vehicles and also kept the students from blocking the path and hindering those who lived along the road. Police too were present to manage security.
 
“The class representatives of all the sections were called in for a meeting at 10.30 am where we insisted that the rule was objectifying,” said Ruhi (name changed) one of the class representatives, who attended the meeting. She added, “The principal told us that she would come down to the gate and talk to the students if they remained silent. We went back to the gates and requested everyone to stay silent until Sister Sandra came out to speak. However, she never showed up and we started sloganeering again. We believed that this was just an attempt to stall us or to distract us for a while.”
 
Four hours after the protest, a message was sent through a final year student stating that the dress code would stay as earlier — no crop tops, cold shoulders or sleeveless tops — and that the ‘knee-length kurti only’ rule was revoked. Ruhi added, “I am certain that as the day progressed, the protest gained heat and the management had to take a call in our favour.”
 
Shreya Vishwani, a third-year Mass Communication student shared, “We understand that the college needs to maintain decorum as an educational institution, which is why we settled for the earlier dress code. However, this is a big win for us, students.”
 
“It was never about the length,” said Smrithi Sanjeev, a second-year BSc student. She added, “We were hurt when they brought up ‘issues’ of marriage proposals and claimed that our clothes would make the male faculty uncomfortable.” The circular that passed this rule mentioned that wearing kurtis that aren’t knee-length would distract their 20-member male staff. It also stated that those who wear long kurtis are more likely to get marriage proposals.
 
Students say that the faculty hadn’t actively participated in the protest. Mihira Mayukha, a first-year Psychology student said, “When the rule was passed, there were a few lecturers who sympathised with us. But, on Monday, no one protested with us. It is not like they went against us, but they didn’t join us either.”The management of St Francis College for Women has been unavailable for comment.
 
As Kalpana Kannabiran writes, the worrying part of this is the deeper questions its raises in terms of authoritarian practices in the administration of educational institutions, and the derogation of dignity it perpetuates. The college is known to have a competent and sensitive set of teachers who work wonders in the classroom. And yet, they are conspicuous by their absence in this fracas.
 
“The public treatment of students in this manner is an affront to their dignity and places undue restrictions on their speech and expression – while some may risk exposing this college action anonymously, when admissions, attendance and other matters related to enrolment are involved, fear of punitive action may well force students to comply,” adds Kannabiran. 
 
At a time when movements for women’s rights have spent three decades or more, dismantling stereotypes of this kind and fought to restore basic freedoms for women under the most difficult and trying circumstances, this raw policing of women students by the college administration and the wilful creation of hostile environments is an unnecessary roll-back of hard-won struggles for democratisation of institutions of higher education in the country. 
 

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