Published in The Independent in May 2010
I passed a dark and stormy night last week with some of the young women who live in Ruqayyah Hall at Dhaka University. Ruqayyah Hall in central Dhaka accommodates around 1,500 female students, making it the largest of the four halls available for women. Until partition in 1947, Dhaka University was one of the few residential institutions of higher learning in Asia. And even today, its residential facilities of the nation’s top public university provide a wonderful opportunity for students who live outside Dhaka, many of whom come from lower-income families, to attain a degree in higher education. It also gives young people a chance to live independently from their families whilst in a safe environment, which fosters their self-confidence and sense of individuality. However this is not to say that life in DU’s halls is perfect, as these girls will be the first to tell you.
Kuasha Paul, 25, from Chittagong, is doing an MSC in microbiology and she is also the captain of DU’s debating team. She has lived in halls for the last six years. Kuasha said that she still misses her family and that if she were given the choice she would prefer to live at home. However she was quick to point out that she has been enriched by the experience. She said, “Hostel life has given me a new introduction to myself. It has taught me how to live alone and how to be established in my own life.” Israt Jahan Tamanna, 24, a law student from Madaripur and the debating club’s general secretary, agrees with Kuasha. She said, “I have learnt much from hall life. I used to ask my mother what to wear. Now my family phones me to ask for my opinion about any decision.”
The lack of personal space appears to be one of the biggest frustrations for women in the halls. Each room has six occupants, but only four single beds, so only those who are Masters or final year Honours students do not have to share a bed. Jesmin said, “Sharing a single bed is very difficult. In summer, when the temperature is high, we cannot enjoy our sleep.” The mattresses are pitifully thin and the rooms themselves are very basic. Many windows are cracked or broken and the paint looks as though it peeled off the walls years ago. No storage facilities are provided, so the girls must buy small plastic shelves. Each desk was overflowing with books, papers and personal items. Notwithstanding such shortcomings, at just Tk 12 a month for rent, the halls of DU are effectively open to everyone if they can make the grade.
The girls agreed that the biggest problem they face in halls is the food. Kuasha said, “There is enough food, but there is no quality or taste. So we have to manage our own.” Noorana explained that she has begun cooking her own food rather than eating at the canteen or buying more expensive food from outside. However when she shows me her cooking area, I see that it is nothing more than a few containers stacked by a cracked sink outside her bedroom. Without refrigeration, there is little that can be prepared safely. Noorana said, “The common food we eat is rice with egg and potato. Sometimes all we can do is fry it together and then we call it ‘fried rice,’” she joked. And sure enough, when we went to the canteen for a cup of tea, we found it almost completely deserted, despite the fact that the study and recreation common areas were packed.
Women who live in Dhaka University’s halls must be at home each evening by 9.30pm, whereas male students are “free to move all night,” said Israt. Female students can seek special permission to extend their curfew to 10pm on special occasions. “There will be a problem if we don’t get permission,” confirmed Israt. The girls’ feelings about the curfew are mixed. On the one hand, Mohsina Hossaina, 21, a student at the Department of Bengali, said, “The authorities have fixed a time limit for our security. Our parents have less tension because of it.” However whilst the young women acknowledged that the streets of Dhaka are not safe for them at night, they wish that this was not the case. Kuasha said, “We are waiting for this situation to change.” Jesmin went further, saying, “We need to change the mentality of boys. But by not doing anything, we are indirectly supporting them, which is the main problem.” Jesmin recalled a negative experience she had quite recently. She said, “When my examinations were going on I started to feel bored. So I decided to go outside the campus sometime between 7pm and 8pm with two of my female friends. My elder sister said that it was unwise to walk at night without a boy. I denied her advice and off we went. Some boys in a rickshaw teased us by saying, ‘Don’t you have any parents?’” Jesmin said that girls who go out at night are regarded by men as being “like prostitutes.” She added thoughtfully, “This is a real shame to me.”
The girls believe that they have more opportunities than their mothers did at the same age. Only one of the six young women I interviewed had a mother who had attended university. Kuasha said, “Our mothers lived in a different society. They didn’t have the facilities that we have. We are now living in a digital age. But our mothers want us to be independent even though they are not.” She added, “When I am in a better environment, I can think and dream better. When I am in a limited area, I cannot. In our present situation, we can dream colourful dreams. But ours mothers did not have that. They were living with their in-laws and all the relatives. But although my mother was living in that situation, she was thinking higher for me.” Noorana comes from a rural area, and her father is a teacher and her mother is a housewife. Most of Noorana’s female friends in the village are now married. She came to Dhaka for the first time to sit her entrance exam, and her brother also lives in DU’s halls. Noorana said, “It was very difficult for my parents to send us away. It is a sign of a great mentality, because every parent wants their children to be around them. Now my parents live alone.” The girls said that if they have daughters, they most definitely want them to attend university.
When I asked whether eve-teasing is a problem on campus, the swift reply was, “Obviously.” Nuasha said, “I am confident that not a single girl in this country hasn’t suffered from any kind of eve-teasing.” Noorana said, “In Western societies, if a boy says that a girl looks sexy, it is not eve-teasing. But in our country, we feel anger. Our moral code does not support it.” The girls also said they believe that eve-teasing is more of a menace in rural areas than in the capital, and that the most attractive girls will suffer the most. The girls cited severe forms of eve-teasing as being plagued by phone calls at 3am or 4am – “just to disturb you and for nothing else,” said Noorana, and one student said she heard of a boy threatening to kidnap a girl if she refused to speak to him.
Overall, each of the girls I spoke to felt positively about their life in DU’s halls. Kuasha said, “I will miss my hall life. They are the special moments of my life. Some girls have had a bitter experience, but many have also had a positive experience. It’s made us more independent and confident.” Mohsina shares a similar sentiment. She said, “Despite some problems, we will seriously miss dormitory life. We come from different places but we have become like a family. Like all families, we have learnt to compromise.”