Men on one side, women on the other

To me, Manipal is pretty socially conservative. All the restaurants and bars follow a strict
11:30 p.m. curfew, which doesn’t affect us much since we’re not allowed out of the
dormitories (called ‘hostels’ here) past midnight. But it’s not the curfews or dress codes
that took the most getting used to, but the social rules that lead to a strict separation
between men and women.

The hostels are single gender, but men are banished to the sidewalk if they even enter the
driveway of the female buildings. At a concert for a popular Punjabi rapper, my friends
and I arrived to find that the lines to get in were separated by gender. Once inside we
realized that there were two distinct sections roped off, with security guards posted along
the divider; one side for girls and the other for boys.

Even in the classroom I feel as if I have been transported back to elementary school. The
boys sit clustered to one side of the room and the girls on the other. Even when there is no
formal divide, it seems that this mentality is so pervasive that even these first-year
master’s students, many of them in their mid-twenties, automatically abide by this
unspoken law.

Some rules are a little more official. Walking home last week, my friend and I passed a
couple. Though they were touching, they were a full arm’s length apart. I have a fairly
low tolerance for public displays of affection, and I would not even have classified this as
such. Nevertheless, a security guard was walking over, whistle blaring. Even minor
displays of affection, it seems, are prohibited on our campus.

While this segregation of types may seem oppressive to me and the other American
women here, it is an unfortunate reaction to the gender-based violence rampant in India
and especially in Manipal. The sad reality of the situation is that separation is an attempt
to protect and shelter women. Even though Manipal seems completely safe, a female
student was abducted and gang raped just down the road from my hostel in June. While
ideally it would not be necessary to shelter and segregate, this is the university’s
response.

Although Manipal appears conservative to me, it still is relatively liberal. An Indian
classmate said this strictness is likely Manipal’s attempt to improve its reputation as a
“den of sin.” As archaic as that sounds, many parents still hesitate to send their daughters
to Manipal because it has somehow earned a reputation as a place of sexual liberation.

The professor went on to tell us that even in big cities like Bangalore, couples are arrested for making out in public under Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits “Obscene acts and songs.”

While your chances of getting arrested for kissing your boyfriend goodnight in Manipal
are slim to none, the social implications of gender still keep men on one side of
the road and women on the other.

Alison Pease is a senior in the School of International Service and is studying abroad in
Manipal, India. She writes a monthly column about her abroad experience.

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