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Indian Science Institutes’ Curious Penchant for Gendered Hostels

Illustration: CDD20/pixabay


  • A very small fraction of India’s science education centres facilitate equitable access to various spaces for people of different genders.
  • This pattern is especially acute with student hostels – where male and female students are housed separately, with disparate opportunities and rights.
  • Gender-segregated hostels exacerbate existing biases towards (cis-)male students, sexualise friendships and are a gateway to “compulsory heterosexuality”.
  • Such segregation also gets in the way of collaborations for scientific work and creates an “artificial” living and learning environment.
  • Gender segregation in Indian science institutes also almost always leaves out concerns of transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary persons.

This is the first edition of a new column, Science & Gender, that explores the intersection of these two realms in all their forms from an Indian perspective. Editions will be published once every six weeks.

When researchers Chayanika Shah and Chinmay Shidhore looked at the sitemap of IIT Bombay, they found indelible evidence of campus spaces segregated by gender. In the book Space, Segregation and Discrimination (2021), the duo wrote,

“Far away from all student housing and facilities, there is one students’ hostel, H10, nestled at the edge of the teaching staff housing. It stands just before the academic area begins, right across from where the old director’s bungalow was, and now where the various guesthouses are.”

Shah was one of the residents of H10 in the late 1970s, when it was called “Ladies’ Hostel” as opposed to the nine “Students’ Hostels”, all of which housed men. In 1979, after growing dissent from the boarders, the institute changed its name. Around the same time, all curfews on the women residents were removed and male visitors were allowed between 6:30 am to 11:00 pm.

Shah and Shidhore found that over the years, while the institute built newer hostels – primarily for men – on campus where the rest of the hostels were, most women were still housed in H10, which has been demolished and rebuilt several times to increase its occupancy. According to them, “IIT-B has gone to a lot of trouble to keep its women students only in the initial plot that was allotted to the hostel designated for them.”

As a result, each student in H10 has about 5.8 sq. m each, Shah and Shidhore reported – lower than for the students in any other hostel.

At the end of their chapter on IIT Bombay, they wrote that “segregation of students along gender lines is itself a sexist measure … isolating [women] from the larger student community in the way that campus geography does, marginalises them even further.”

More importantly, they also noted that this doesn’t apply only to women: it also “works against all those who do not fit into the image of the masculine male student”.

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In May this 2022, all students at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali, received an email from the institute’s director. Aditya Raj, a second-year student, said they froze with fear when they read it.

Among other things, the email announced the director’s proposal to segregate “at least two” student hostels into “one each for boys and girls”, with “gender-segregated stay [being] compulsory for all first year BS-MS students and for those whose age is below the legal age for consent”.

Raj, who identifies as a non-binary individual and is one of the cofounders of the institute’s LGBTQIA+ collective, told The Wire Science, “I did not handle that well and was a complete mess.” It seems gender dysphoria – the sense of unease a transgender person might feel – was making its presence felt.

The director, J Gowrishankar, wrote in an email to The Wire Science on August 21 that he is yet to engage with transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary persons on campus with regard to gender-segregated hostels. “I am open to receiving implementable suggestions on the matter,” he said.

But Raj said that they and their peers had raised their concerns with the director in an open-house meeting at the institute – and that they were silenced without engagement.

‘Arbitrary’

A view of the academic area at IISER Mohali, May 2017. Photo: IISER Mohali

Anu Sabhlok, an associate professor at IISER Mohali, has written that the issue of segregated hostels at the institute first arose in 2010. The first batch of students were overwhelmingly male (22 out of 26) – a trend that continued for at least the next two batches. According to Sabhlok, the second batch had only six female students in a batch of 40 and the third had 21 female students in a batch of 105.

Given the institute had only two hostel buildings at the time, and only a few female students, “it did not make sense to have hostel buildings with assigned genders,” Sabhlok said in an interview. So the institute decided to house students of the two sexes in separate wings of the same hostel, with shared common spaces, like the dining area.

In Sabhlok’s telling, while the then-director, N. Sathyamurthy, was sceptical of the arrangement, he later acknowledged that he was “happy with how it shaped [their] students.”

Temporary partitions were used to separate the wings. They could be opened only from the side of the female students. Gowrishankar told The Wire Science that these partitions were recently certified to be “a hazard to fire escape routes” and thus removed.

Manjari Jain, an associate professor at IISER Mohali and a former hostel warden, told The Wire Science that reports of students crossing over the wings eventually became commonplace – prompting an expression of concern from the director in 2021.

A meeting that soon followed, where the management told students that they will be given official visitation rights: students of one sex would be allowed to access a wing allocated for a different sex only during certain hours of the day. In return, the students would have to adhere to due process – including registering their movement with a security guard at the hostel.

According to Gowrishankar’s email to The Wire Science, cross-gender movement of students across hostel wings resulted in several “disciplinary and sexual harassment complaints”. He added that “in the present system, no effort has been made to identify students who may be uncomfortable with the present arrangement and who desire to stay in gender segregated spaces.”

A few replied to the director’s email expressing their support; several others resisted the move. A series of exchanges between Gowrishankar, students, faculty members and other members of the institute’s administration followed. The tension in these emails, copies of which The Wire Science has seen, became increasingly palpable.

In mid-July, IISER Mohali organised an open house to facilitate a dialogue between Gowrishankar, the students and other stakeholders. It “led to no resolution and … concluded with a walkout en masse and demonstration and slogans against the autocratic attitude of the administration,” the IISER Mohali Student Representative Council (SRC) told The Wire Science.

On May 26, the institute’s board of governors – of which Ajay Sood, the current Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, was the chairperson – met to deliberate on the issue of gender segregated hostels. According to Gowrishankar, the board decided that all first year students and those not legally adults would have to stay in mandatorily gender-segregated hostels. The others could avail an “opt-in” choice to stay in non-segregated hostels after signing a letter of consent.

The SRC, however, said it wasn’t aware of the board meeting’s proceedings until the dean of students forwarded a consent form. Raj told The Wire Science that one of the clauses of the form was that the institute might inform a student’s parents or local guardians of their decision to opt for a gender non-segregated living space. Several students refused to sign it.

Why inform the parents? According to Gowrishankar:

“The Institute has sought and obtained legal opinion to the effect that even though the students are above the legal age of consent, a court of law may take the reasonable view that the Institute is legally and morally responsible to a parent petitioner who may approach it should any untoward incident concerning their offspring take place in the campus which the petitioner attributes to the policy of students staying in non-segregated hostels and that was not communicated to the petitioner by the Institute.”

A student of IISER Mohali, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, told The Wire Science that by informing parents of adult residents, the institution might be imposing “invigilation and moral policing” on students. “The institute does not have the authority to act as our proxy parent.”

“The [board of governors] did not mandate the letter of consent,” she added. The Wire Science obtained a copy of the minutes of the board’s meeting on May 26. They do not mention a letter of consent.

At the time of writing, deliberations on the matter were stuck at an impasse.

“While the students have different opinions on the matter of segregation … it is evident from the series of events in the last few months that the students are largely opposed to the arbitrary imposition of rules by the administration by subverting the agency of the students in the matters concerning their daily lives,” the SRC said in its email.

A history of gender segregation

Not all spaces in science institutes are segregated by gender.

As the introduction to Space, Segregation and Discrimination pointed out, a science institution might have four kinds of spaces: administrative, academic, residential and recreational. The administrative spaces typically consist of, for example, offices of faculty members and administrators; the academic spaces include classrooms, laboratories and workshops; the residential spaces include the student, faculty and non-teaching staff housing; and the recreational spaces include spaces like the gym, sports grounds, activity centres, etc.

In these spaces, gender segregation is often the most pronounced in residential spaces – and especially in spaces that house students. At IISER Mohali, for example, four blocks are used to house faculty members and other staff. The SRC said these blocks aren’t gender-segregated.

When student hostels are segregated – as might be the case with most institutes in the country – the separation can manifest in various forms. Some institutes might have clearly demarcated hostel buildings for male and female students (e.g. IIT Bombay). Others might decide to separate the floors of a building (IISER Pune) and yet others might segregate students from different sexes into different wings (IISER Mohali).

Even the rules for cross-gender access vary. As at IISER Mohali, some institutes may allow visitation rights for a particular period of time. Others may forbid any kind of cross-gender access, and a few may allow the free movement of students across segregated spaces.

In his email, Gowrishankar had highlighted several cases of alleged indiscipline on students’ part – including loud music, drinking, smoking and sexual activity in hostel rooms as well as allegations of sexual harassment reported to the institute’s Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).

This was to suggest segregation would tame indiscipline – a dubious idea.

The founding faculty-members at IISER Mohali “intended to create spaces that foster healthy relationships and the overall growth of … students” – a goal that might actually be fulfilled by cohabitating in non-segregated spaces, Sabhlok wrote in her article.

“Co-ed living arrangements provide for more natural (i.e. ‘at home’ or ‘real life’ kind of situation), informal, low anxiety engagements with those from the opposite sex and help students learn how to develop enriching relations with the other that are not riddled with awkwardness and objectification (especially in the long term).”

Chayanika Shah, the researcher who edited Space, Segregation and Discrimination, agreed. She called gender segregation the “language of compulsory heterosexuality,” and told The Wire Science: “Constant segregation in a world that is binary-gendered means that I can only look at people of ‘the other gender’ through the eye of sex and sexuality. I can’t make non-sexual friendships with them.”

According to her, the anxiety that cohabitating in non-segregated spaces means sexual transgressions among male and female students reflects a regressive stand on sexual desire itself: that the only form of sex possible is heterosexual. But more importantly, it reinforces the belief that students can only see each other as sexual beings, and not as friends.

“Gender segregation is a way of educating people into compulsory heterosexuality,” Shah said (emphasis added).

Sabhlok’s article cited three studies (this, this and this) that together demonstrated that students who cohabitate in non-segregated spaces refrain from looking at their peers as sexual beings. Instead, they cultivate more sibling-like bonds.

Sabhlok also argued that the higher reporting of incidents of sexual harassment to the ICC might be a “reflection of the openness to speak up on the part of the students and perhaps evidence of their (tentative) trust in the institutional process.”

Ultimately, the argument that segregating residential spaces will reduce sexual harassment on campuses doesn’t hold. Segregation by gender in and of itself presumes malice1, compromises healthy and organic male-female interactions and undermines trust in the ability of institutional mechanisms to resolve any issues that might arise.

Focusing on students’ residential spaces in this manner – i.e. by applying segregation policies there and not elsewhere – could also serve to hide other locations of harassment from the management – laboratories, field visits, classrooms and virtually every other space on a campus – as well as non-heterosexual instances.

In fact, in places where sexual harassment doesn’t occur, it is not because people couldn’t figure out how to access certain spaces. Consider the recent row at Chandigarh University. Put another way, the idea seems to be that institutions that strictly segregate hostels should have fewer instances of sexual harassment – but The Wire Science could find no indication that this is the case.

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The Chandigarh University incident also contains a hallmark of hostel authorities’ first response against ‘difficult’ students – to increase security in a top-down manner, often in the name of ‘protecting’ women. One report said that after the scandal came to light, the university had turned into a “fortress”.

In 2015, authorities at the Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, decided to impose a curfew on female students on campus. The decision sparked nationwide conversations around discriminatory hostel rules for women, eventually resulting in the creation of Pinjra Tod2, a students’ collective fighting against increasing surveillance of and mobility restrictions on women students on Indian campuses under the guise of their protection.

In a 2016 online petition to Prakash Javadekar, the then-minister of human resource development, Pinjra Tod argued that despite having been “stared at” by CCTV cameras, “countless cases of stalking and violence have gone completely unaddressed. … This attitude of protection has never and will not keep women safe.”

Pinjra Tod got the country’s attention but 2015 wasn’t nearly the first time women raised their voices against unfair and discriminatory hostel rules. Shah recalled an incident from her time at IIT Bombay more than three decades earlier in her book. “There was this seven-foot boundary wall that was proposed after an alleged thief had gained entry into the hostel one night. We resisted because we did not want to be put behind high walls. We reacted against the making of the pinjra itself,” she wrote.

‘Saksham’, a 2013 report by the University Grants Commission (UGC) on “measures for ensuring the safety of women and programmes for gender sensitization on campuses”, also singled out science institutes. It wrote that women here are more vulnerable because of the “enhanced power” of the supervisor.

The report also noted that “the perceived neutrality in teaching practices” in science institutions can make it harder to perceive “social problems and power relations.”

But while ‘Saksham’ recognised that women in science institutions might be working long hours in “relatively isolated conditions”, it specifically advised against measures to restrict their mobility.

The UGC (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations 2015 require that “concern for the safety of women must not be cited to impose discriminatory rules for women in the hostels as compared to male students.” “Campus safety policies,” the mandate continued, “should not result in securitisation, such as over-monitoring or policing or curtailing the freedom of movement, especially for women employees and students.”

Gowrishankar confirmed to The Wire Science that he was aware of these regulations when he proposed increased security and surveillance of students’ residences either with more security guards or “continuous real-time monitoring by CCTV cameras of entrances to hostel wings” as alternatives to gender segregation.

The cost of each of these measures – in every sense – was to be borne by the students.

A Pinjra Tod poster at a protest in November 2018. Photo: Pinjra Tod: Break the Hostel Locks/Facebook

Non-normative genders

Talk of gender segregation in Indian science institutes is typically talk of segregation across a gender binary: i.e. men and women. This leaves out concerns of transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary persons – constituencies that have been demanding gender non-segregation in India’s educational campuses most vocally in the last decade.

In 2020, transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary persons in Indian science institutions told The Life of Science that they felt excluded and discriminated against as a result of gender segregation on campuses. One of them, Krish N., said:

“As a non-binary and genderfluid person, I find it really difficult to ‘choose’ between binary options – be it lavatories, hostels or when filling a form. I don’t feel comfortable in spaces exclusive for my assigned gender at birth. Obviously I wouldn’t be allowed to use spaces reserved for the other genders. Any situation, where we will be asked to segregate on the basis of binary gender, is an uneasy state.”

In the matter of NALSA v. Union of India (2014), the Supreme Court granted equal citizenship to transgender individuals and recognised that denying education to transgender persons violates of the right to equality before law and equal protection of law. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 also prohibits discrimination against transgender persons in educational institutions.

A year later, the UGC wrote to all higher education institutions in the country asking that institutions create gender non-segregated infrastructure – including washrooms and restrooms – so that transgender students could access these spaces without “fear, stigma or shame”.

Since then, however, affairs seem to have taken a step back. The Wire Science obtained records of hostel and washroom infrastructure in several Indian science institutes and Central and state universities. The records paint a grim picture of the lived realities of gender-marginal groups and their equitable access to various spaces in science education institutes.

Only seven out of 45 institutes reported having gender-neutral washrooms. Twenty-five confirmed that they didn’t have gender-neutral toilets. (Two blamed the lack of transgender students among their admissions.) Eight institutes deemed the query inapplicable while information was unavailable or ambiguous in five institutes.

Similarly, only one institute out of 45 – IISER Kolkata – hinted that they had hostels that could accommodate transgender individuals, while 22 did not. Seventeen said the query was inapplicable or cited the lack of transgender students. Five had ambiguous responses or said that the information being sought was unavailable.

At IISER Mohali itself, Raj said that the director had refused to engage with them regarding gender-neutral and transgender-friendly infrastructure despite repeated requests. But the fact that the wings of their hostel were segregated only on paper eased their stay on campus.

“Before coming here, I was worried about living in a ‘boys’ wing’,” they told The Wire Science. “However, pretty soon I realised that the signage may say ‘boys’ wing’, but there wasn’t much restriction with respect to crossing over to other wings.”

“I became quite comfortable,” they added.

But with the sword of gender segregation still dangling over their heads, Raj remains concerned. “This complete segregation – I just cannot handle that. It’s way too much, it induces so much dysphoria. I can’t live in a boys’ hostel.”

Segregation and science practice

Illustration: CDD20/pixabay

Rochan Das, a second-year student at IISER Mohali and a member of the IISER Mohali LGBTQIA+ Collective, told The Wire Science that his mental health was affected as a result of the director’s proposal to segregate the hostels by gender.

Given that most of these conversations were happening during a raging pandemic, when students were either at home or away from the institute on internships, Das recollected feeling “helpless”.

He himself was pursuing an internship at the time: “My work at the internship – it slowed down.”

For Raj, the frustration stemmed from a more fundamental mismatch between what they came to IISER Mohali for and what has been occupying most of their time. “We came here to do science,” they said, “but what are we doing now? Here we are, arguing with the director constantly to live in peace.”

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When she was at IIT Bombay, Shah said the residents of H10 had to travel all the way across campus to access any student facilities – all of which were closer to the men’s hostels. “You can communicate through geography and design who the campus is meant for,” she told The Wire Science. “By segregating people who are not assigned male at birth, who are anyway few in number in science institutions, you are underlining the fact that they are different and they are to be treated differently.”

“The feeling of outsiderness continues.”

She said that while gender segregation affects science in insidious rather than overt ways, non-segregation in science institutions is important for the “betterment of the discipline”.

§

As ‘Saksham’ noted, science often requires its exponents to work in isolated spaces (e.g. laboratories) for many hours at a stretch. Science is also collaborative and requires constant work with one’s supervisor(s), colleagues and peers.

According to Sabhlok, gender non-segregation can lead to positive changes in an institution’s environment and imbibe feelings of camaraderie among students. In her article, she wrote,

“Our experience at IISER Mohali demonstrates that vibrant, socially inclusive and mixed-gender residential spaces may be one way in which students look out for each other when in labs and other isolated spaces (rather than if they only met in work-related spaces).”

Living in non-segregated spaces might also help reduce bullying on campus while altering “gender, caste and regional prejudices,” she added.

In university as in society

The faculty hall at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Credit: mapbox/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
The faculty hall at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Credit: mapbox/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Jain, the associate professor at IISER Mohali, stayed in the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, during her PhD, wherefrom she remembered two hostels: ‘Rohini’ and ‘Bharani’. ‘Rohini’ allowed male students to visit for some hours during the day; ‘Bharani’ was entirely closed off. According to Jain, these choices were reflected in the hostels’ architecture.

‘Bharani’, according to Jain, was built “like a circle” around an open courtyard. So if anyone entered the hostel from one side, they could access that entire floor as well as look above and see the rooms on all the floors of the hostel. This might have been a problem for the residents’ privacy, she speculated.

‘Rohini’ on the other hand had corridors that branched out into different directions. Thus, “there was no common route one could take to access all the rooms,” – affording residents of other wings more privacy when someone visited one wing, she said.

So if we are to make gender non-segregation ubiquitous in India’s science institutes, Jain said, it is important that we architect the living spaces to balance cross-gender access with an individual’s right to their privacy.

Jain also raised a few important but unresolved questions. At IISER Mohali, there is a large population of undergraduate students who have lived with their families and/or relatives most of their lives and are coming to a relatively more liberal centre of study. For them, non-segregated living spaces may seem unsettling at first – but which they could come to appreciate with time and experience.

Jain also noted that most people live in non-segregated spaces outside educational institutions – so gender segregation in educational institutions is “artificial”.

That in turn led to a question: “Given that we don’t live and function in societies that are segregated as male and female, is opt-in the right way to go?”

Instead, she asked if students should consider mandatorily staying in non-segregated spaces for a few months before being given an option to opt-out if the arrangement doesn’t work for them.

Jain’s suggestion is not easy to admit or to dismiss – but it does require further discussion among stakeholders at the institute, especially students. Sabhlok herself expressed belief that students are capable of devising mechanisms that can accommodate diverse needs vis-à-vis their living arrangements.

Sabhlok also wrote that since the offices of the dean of students and the hostel wardens are short-staffed, it has become “relatively complex for them to engage in constant and meaningful dialoguing with all students, which is essential to nourish educational spaces.” Many students and faculty members at the institute have also asked that decisions that impact students’ lives on campuses be taken through “open dialogue” rather than being “thrust upon them from the top”.

Indeed, amid the pall autocratic diktats, there are some glimmers of hope. Gender non-segregated living spaces have already been instituted in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.

Even at IISER Mohali, the SRC told The Wire Science that during conversations about segregating hostels, “the issue of gender-neutral toilets in hostels and other common buildings like the academic blocks, library, administrative building, and the lecture hall complex has been raised as baby steps towards making the campus more friendly and welcoming for students who don’t identify themselves in the binary genders.”

These conversations are welcome and need to continue.

Acknowledgements: The reporting for this article was supported in parts by a Diversity Reporting Grant from the National Association for Science Writers, USA, and an Early Career Practitioner Grant from the Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures, India, awarded to the author. The author also thanks Shreya Sridhar from Krea University (where the author is a faculty member), Andhra Pradesh, for help analysing responses to the applications filed under the Right to Information Act 2005.

Note: This article was updated at 11:15 am on September 26, 2022, to note that the board of governors meeting happened on May 26, not July 30 as was stated earlier, and to clarify one sentence that Gowrishankar’s email proposed a plan instead of deciding on it.

Sayantan Datta (they/them) are a queer-trans science writer, communicator and journalist. They currently work with the feminist multimedia science collective TheLifeofScience.com, and tweet at @queersprings.


  1. “What’s there to hide?” v. “What’s there to see?”

  2. Hindi for ‘break the cage’

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