As part of a short placement with the British Council in India last year, Natalie spent three days experiencing life at Maitreyi College in Delhi.
Maitreyi (meaning ‘friendly one’) was a Hindu philosopher who lived during the later Vedic period in ancient India. Considered a symbol of Indian intellectual women, she is the namesake of an all-girls college in Delhi, the starting point of my story.
A green oasis in the heart of a busy city, Maitreyi College (a part of the University of Delhi) states that ‘education is the best asset of a nation.’ Single-sex colleges are rare in the UK and I have always wondered to what extent they have an impact on academic success and overall how useful they are in terms of being an accurate representation of ‘real life’. Is it right to separate academia by gender? Walking into the college for the first time, I was sceptical of the environment, filled with questions for the young women who studied there.
Entering through the main doors, I am flooded with warm greetings and gestures, a thumb-print of rich red paint is placed in the centre of my forehead (a simple mark which represents a blessing), and I walk in to stand in front of a lit candle, placed on a floor which was painted with swirling, coloured dust — a careful work of art which I still remember vividly. The girls are cheerful and smiling and I eventually meet a group who I now call my friends. One of them, named Falguni, shared her views on college life as we walk beneath the canopies of the outdoor hallways; it’s a warm day in Delhi and I could never imagine studying in this heat.
“The thing that I majorly love about my college location is the surrounding! There’s so much greenery all around and the best part is that our college is surrounded by Embassies! So anywhere we go, we always get to interact with so many new people from different countries,” she explains after I ask about the setting of the tree-filled campus.
“For many years I had been hanging around with boys at school, so coming to an all-girls college was a big change for me, but I’m happy that I got to experience this, it’s a fun environment and you can be yourself, wear whatever you want, without being conscious of a male presence.”
I wondered why the presence of the opposite sex was an issue — this was something that would not bother me or any other girls I knew at university at home. However, I am told by students that they are sometimes the victims of ‘Eve teasing’ (a euphemism used throughout South Asia for public sexual harassment) on various levels. I am naturally concerned by this and as I discover more of the open campus, I feel calm and begin to understand why it would be peaceful to study here. The conversation moves on to India itself.
“Since India is such a diverse country, we have all sorts of different religions, customs and occasions and our college represents all of them! We come together and celebrate all different festivals together as a family, whether it’s Diwali, Holi or Christmas,” she explains.
Dance is a huge part of college life and my visit overlapped with ‘Miss Maitreyi’, the annual festival which takes place in a huge marquee in the forecourt, celebrating the achievements of the college. This festival revolves around dance of all kinds, including the Garba (a traditional Gujarat dance performed with sticks), and it is clear that the students have chosen it as a central form of expression. Falguni believes that “Dance is a representation of joy and happiness in all castes. We dance to express our inner joy. Dance and music are the two forms that connect to all Indians no matter what language they speak, or what caste they belong to.” It is clear that this attitude towards dance is shared; during the day I am taught a routine to be performed at the festival along with the students!
Between exploring the grounds and attending dance rehearsals, I notice the many encouraging, empowering, and often political posters created by students that line the walls concerning gender equality and gender violence. I took note of a particular one which read that ‘Empowering women is important not only for the betterment of women, but also will lead to a change in society.’ Our conversation turns to the future.
“I feel free and confident as a young Indian woman in the 21st century,” Falguni tells me. “We have come a long way from where we were. Today, no girl in India would have to think twice before stepping out and doing what she wanted to do; we are free to choose the career that we want, free to dress as we want, free to travel as much as we want. But just like the universal paradox, we are free to choose, but not free of the consequences.”
“A lot of challenges still remain for women to be on a par with men. We are still doubted on our capability of achieving high ranks. It is difficult for people to accept the fact that a woman can run a business as good as a man and it is still hard to believe that a lady can become the CEO of a company, but we are proving ourselves and a day will come when no one will be surprised to see a lady as a leader or as a boss. It will be completely normal.”
We carry on dancing to prepare for the festival. I consider what she says and I think more about my day spent at the college — being welcomed, being involved, and being a part of their celebration. These girls do not have anything to ‘prove’ to anyone, but if anyone should be a representation of young people in India, I want it to be them.
Falguni has now graduated; she wants to continue her education by completing a master’s degree and a language course. She then hopes to prepare for the exams to work in government services and undoubtedly, to carry on exploring India. She has recommended we all visit the Himalayas in the North and Kerala in the South.