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navaneetha m neetha2000inin at yahoo.co.in
Tue Dec 31 09:23:41 IST 2002

   Dear everybody,
This is our proposal for the Sarai Independent
Fellowship. Any suggestions you might have are most


Late night parties, fights in the TV room, breaking
leave rules, queuing up for a bath (or lunch), late
night heart -to-hearts, stormy GBMs (general body
meetings )
 the story an under-graduate women’s hostel
tells about itself, which seems to seamlessly merge
with one’s expectations of a hostel narrative. A
joyride which is fun while it lasts, but there is
always an awareness that it is a transitory phase, a
short escapade and that “life is elsewhere”. In our
project we would like to focus on women’s hostels as
urban spaces; in more specific terms, as political
spaces in women’s lives.

One of the ways in which we hope to focus on this
under-explored realm is to concentrate on university
hostels, which would entail engaging with students at
the post-graduate and research level. In dealing with
an older age group we hope to provide a new dimension
to the “transitory-ness” of hostel spaces. Women’s
hostels may be key spaces in the
making/unmaking/remaking of women’s identities and
enable them to make important choices which may
restructure their lives. Far from being a short
interlude it might be a defining moment.

Since the case studies we propose to look at are of
women who are situated in hostels which are located in
the heart of the city, questions of migration,
adjustment and the nature of the urban come to the
forefront. Issues of exclusion/inclusion and women’s
experiences of   negotiating the city are mediated in
important ways by hostels. The relationship between
the city and the hostel is a complex, paradoxical one.
Because of the fact of its location in the city there
are ways in which the hostel itself is a microcosm of
the city. But the microcosmic nature of the hostel
space fosters the sense of a community which in one
way pulls against the very concept of the urban,
modern, individualized self. Its inclusiveness is
manifested in the fact that it is amenable to
collective intervention and this is reflected in the
narratives of women who find it to be an enabling
experience. But like every other space it is also
shaped by what it excludes. Questions of caste, class,
region – the exclusions of the ‘modern’ itself-
surface in this context. 
 One of the defining exclusions of Indian modernity is
the unavailability of self-determining spaces for
women, even given a ‘suitable’ cultural profile. The
family is still privileged as the space for women to
function in. Singlehood is still a difficult choice in
the face of societal prejudice and increasing violence
against women. Given these factors, a hostel gives
women a ‘room of (their) own’ with the added support
structure of a community. For the age-group we propose
to look at, therefore, the hostel may provide a
different kind of ‘interim’ space; one which
facilitates the exploration of and deviation from
normative life-scripts. It may allow the articulation
and discussion of concerns and experiences that are
usually outlawed in the realm of the social/ cultural.
Thus, both through lighthearted banter and serious
discussion women ‘speak’ their bodies/desires. We do
not, however, propose a simplistic celebration of the
emancipatory potential of hostel-life, recognizing the
fact that this ‘freedom’ might fit too comfortably
with the model of the consumer-citizen demanded by a
late-capitalist free-market economy. Thus, this study
will also enable us to cast a critical look at the
‘New Woman’ who might well be fashioned by the urban,
liberal, non-familial space of the women’s hostel.

Everything from the architecture of the hostels we
propose to study, to the rules and regulations would
help us look at the assumptions that structure the
hostel as an institution. The protectionist agenda of
the authorities, however benign, becomes a site for
conflict and collective action. Indeed, the history of
hostels which form part of our project shows that they
have been central to political mobilization around
issues of internal as well as external import.
Reportage of ‘campus politics’ tends to be
male-centered; to focus on women’s hostels would be to
uncover, perhaps, the hidden history of female
activism on campuses. The dialogue between the ‘city’
and the hostel is a two-way process; the women ‘make’
the city in as many ways as the city makes them, and
central to this dialectics of making is the space of
the women’s hostel. The women students of Osmania
University in Hyderabad, for instance, have a history
of active political intervention that has had a
lasting impact on the culture of the city itself.
 As women who have experienced the city through
hostels, we believe that a project like this is long
overdue. As the song has it, this almost invisible
‘space between’ is one that can be read at various
levels, each more complex than the other. 
Shefali Jha and  Navaneetha.M 

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