The Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) is one of the most prestigious private universities in India, whose alumni include some of the nation’s top engineers, computer software designers and other tech and research specialists. However, the institution, which has campuses in Chennai and Vellore (a town about halfway between Chennai and India’s tech hub, Bangalore), has recently received some unwanted negative attention with regard to how the university treats its female students.
Like at many Indian colleges, rules require male and female students at VIT to live in strictly segregated facilities, in addition to imposing restrictions upon the women that the men are not burdened by.
Last month, two female students at Vellore were asked to leave VIT after they complained about the school’s discriminatory polices – they had the temerity to create an online survey asking their fellow female students about their experiences at the institution. They also posted critical comments about the university on Facebook.
For example, The Hindu newspaper reported that women at the university are allowed to leave campus only once a week and must return to their dormitories every evening by 8 p.m, and they are allowed to leave campus on weekends only with explicit permission. In addition, the women must prove that their parents gave them permission for social outings. Coeds must also submit to cumbersome security procedures and even have to be fingerprinted every time they go to and from campus. (Indeed, according to the aforementioned survey, some 80 percent of the female students polled considered the rules to be unfair and that they did not feel safer with the added restrictions.)
Of course, the rules are far less stringent for men at the school (i.e., they can stay out later, don’t need parental consent to leave school grounds, etc.).
According to Dr. Maria Ekstrand, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco who has worked with some of the people at VIT, the university administration refused to even entertain the students' requests for an open discussion of its gender policies. “Instead of being treated with respect, [the students] were yelled at and ridiculed,” Ekstrand told International Business Times. “University officials also told them that theirs were not widely held views.”
In retaliation, the school’s administrators charged the two young women with “promoting dissent” and asked them to leave the school, although they did not formally expel them nor provide anything in writing.
In addition, an American professor who was working at VIT, Dr. Theodore Moallem, who supported the two suspended students, also found himself dismissed and has since returned to the U.S. The reasons for his dismissal were that he allegedly failed to fulfill the terms of his contract. However, this accusation rings hollow in light of the fact that the university had praised his program and held him up as a model instructor until the moment when he refused to take down the aforementioned survey from his non-VIT website. Strangely, once he departed the campus, VIT officials tried to prevent him from leaving the country at the local airport, in a possible attempt to make him overstay his visa.
At any rate, the university has since claimed that the ‘suspensions’ of the two students were only temporary and that the women's parents did not object to their expulsions. “The students started a campaign based on the misplaced notion that the university discriminates against women, which is not true. They were taken home by their parents,” Sekar Viswanathan, vice president, VIT University, told The Hindu. Viswanathan also asserted that the university does not discriminate against female students, but added that the tighter curfews are imposed explicitly to protect them from danger, given the high rate of violent crimes committed against women in India. “The difference in time [restrictions] is only to make sure our female students are safe, especially in times when crimes against women are on rise,” he said.
But on a petition posted on Change.org, Moallem declared that his movements had been restricted by the university and that police even visited the homes of some of his students and co-workers, suggesting official harassment and intimidation. “VIT University sets a dangerous precedent by dismissing two female students for the very act of asking their peers' opinions concerning gender discrimination and safety on campus,” the petition read. “Moreover, gender-specific restrictions at VIT and other private universities put Indian women at an educational disadvantage relative to those at more egalitarian universities, which may limit their career opportunities and pose disadvantages when applying to graduate schools.”
Abhijit Sinha, a VIT alumnus who has worked with Moallem, knows the two women who were suspended. VIT officials even tried to intimidate him by speaking to his employers. Sinha told IB Times that the two recently returned to the university --- although one of them was forced to sign a handwritten letter stating that she will not engage in “defamation” against the university. She did, however, add a qualification to her statement: "as long as my fundamental rights are not violated," she wrote.
It would appear that little has changed at the university following this bizarre interlude. At the Vellore campus, which currently has about 17,000 students, the boys outnumber girls by at least a three-to-one ratio – which is typical for most Indian engineering schools. Sinha notes that while the proportion of female engineering students in India is gradually increasing, the absolute numbers are still quite low. “The participation of female students varies with the major field of study,” he said. “There are generally more female students in biotechnology than in, say, mechanical engineering.” For example, in a computer science class at VIT, one would see about 10-20 women in a class of 60 students, he noted.
It is also unlikely that the school will ease any of its policies regarding the behavior and lifestyle rules of its students. Sinha noted that boys and girls live in separate hostel areas -- and neither is accessible to the opposite gender. Moreover, socializing is highly discouraged between the sexes. “A girl and a boy are not allowed to sit together at any place in campus other than the canteen,” Sinha noted. “But even there, a guard is always present.” Sinha further indicated that holding hands, or even putting one’s hand on the shoulder of a person from the opposite gender, is seen as taboo by the faculty as well as by the administration. “[Such behavior] could lead to ID cards being snatched, or being called into the VP's office, or in some cases, [even getting] slapped by a faculty member,” Sinha added.
Not surprisingly, most professors and almost the entire administration at VIT are male. “The number of female professors again varies with the field of study,” Sinha indicated, “however, the higher administration, the decision makers, are all male (and from the same family, except the vice chancellor), with no female representation.”
Interestingly, such strict rules are not the norm at most Indian universities. Sinha cites that many Indian universities do not have gender discrimination and all the top colleges, like the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, have shown no signs of outright discrimination. “Gender discrimination seems to be rather deeply rooted in the private universities of South India, where culture and social tolerance are passed as excuses for caging women,” Sinha added.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.