The Question of Gendered Segregation at IISER Mohali

About the Author:

Dr Anu Sabhlok is an architect, social scientist, labour geographer, scholar of southern urbanism & critical infrastructure studies, and a prominent feminist scholar whose work centres around the issues of identity and space. She has been serving as an Associate Professor at IISER Mohali since 2010. She has additionally served as the institute’s Dean of Student affairs (2019-2021), HoD of Humanities and Social Sciences department (2016-2021), Hostel Warden (2011-2013) and as a member of the Institute’s Committee against Sexual Harassment.


When IISER-Mohali shifted to its campus in 2010, it had just 3-4 buildings – the Central Analytical Facility (CAF) building accommodating a few labs and offices, a small building that housed the library and two hostels – 5 and 7. These hostels housed classrooms, labs, faculty offices, study rooms, canteens, dining halls and students’ living areas. With the small number of students and the proximity of living and working spaces, interactions between students and faculty were high, and a shared enthusiasm for learning and research was evident.

The first batch of 26 students at IISER-M had 4 female students, the second batch of 40 had 6, and the third batch of 105 students had 21 female students. It was then that the questions of gender, caste, regional identity and food habits came up – How are we to house women and men students? How do we engage with students who come to campus having imbibed caste biases as part of their cultural context? What is to be done with diverse food habits reflecting regional, caste and class influences? Should we enable or discourage regional cliques from forming?

These were the broader issues that the Dean Students office (DoS), including the wardens of that time dealt with. Discussions on these issues took days – and some are still lingering. There were dialogues, debates and open forums with students and decisions were taken after lengthy deliberations with the stakeholders.

Coeducational versus segregated hostels

The decision to house male and female students in the same building but with separate wings arrived after many such discussions, including a public debate. The hostels at IISER Mohali were divided into segregated wings with shared common spaces. The pragmatics of the time did not allow for segregated buildings, as we only had two hostels and a tiny percentage of female students. More importantly, we intended to create spaces that foster healthy relationships and the overall growth of our students, which subsequently pushed us to gain a deeper understanding of living arrangements on campuses. Some of this understanding, gathered from reading texts and shared experiences on late adolescent psychology, higher education governance, and student life administration is shared below:

Co-educational residence spaces better meet the developmental needs of college-age students by offering an environment for healthy male-female interactions and alleviating the social pressures that generally accompany inter-gender socialisation. Co-ed living arrangements provide for more natural (i.e. ‘at home’ or ‘real life’ kind of situation), informal, low anxiety engagements with those from the opposite sex and help students learn how to develop enriching relations with the other that are not riddled with awkwardness and objectification (especially in the long term).While many college administrators feared that co-ed living spaces would create a culture of promiscuity, Duncan4 and Katz have argued that proximity coupled with sharing mundane everyday rituals mostly leads to students developing a sibling-type relationship with their peers. Calling this social phenomenon the ‘Incest Taboo’, Katz writes: “Quite simply, these students tend to form deep, intimate and rather brotherly-sisterly type attachments, their romantic relationships are more often with people living outside their own house, they find that you cannot treat people you live with merely as sex objects. It is not like having a casual affair with someone in another dorm and then when it’s over you simply don’t see each other again.” Waynmore’s thesis too supports this line of thinking through a quantitative study that correlated co-ed living arrangements on college campuses with men’s progressive views of women.

The UGC’s Saksham Report also highlights the urgent need to work towards a “positive interpersonal climate on campuses”, pointing specifically towards science campuses “where perceived gender neutrality in teaching practices” makes it “harder to recognise social problems and power relations.” This report discusses that measures need to be taken to make “working in the laboratories for long hours and in relatively isolated conditions” secure and safe for women. Our experience at IISER Mohali demonstrates that vibrant, socially inclusive and mixed-gender residential spaces may be one way in which students look out for each other when in labs and other isolated spaces (rather than if they only met in work-related spaces). The report further states, “In more senses than one, these educational spaces need nurturing, to enhance capacity to anticipate new realities and set the terms of a truly democratic, liberatory discourse for society at large.” The BS-MS years are times of immense transformation in students wherein they challenge, question and rework their patterns, biases, and prejudices – as well as those of their peers, teachers and society. Yet Astin noted that college education had not reduced gender stereotypes in youth, attributing this mainly to single-sex housing arrangements in colleges (we have observed this in the Indian scenario, where gender stereotypes are persistent despite higher education). Others have built on an understanding of the role of peer groups in student development to argue that adding a critical mass (and not merely a token minority) of women to the social mix is crucial for challenging gender stereotypes,. In our case, we have observed over the years that students living in mixed hostel buildings with shared common spaces and opportunities for informal social exchange have altered gender, caste, and regional prejudices. Students learn to value diverse ways of thinking and being. Sharing spaces drives students to cooperate, negotiate and resolve issues towards the common goal of living together. This process is crucial to the students’ healthy social and psychological development. It prepares them for future long-term relationships (personal and professional) by shifting stereotypical attitudes towards more realistic perceptions. Gendered spaces could also be particularly violent for students whose appearance may not fit in with the stereotypical gendered norms, including trans students. Moreover, it is well documented that excessive physicality and aggression are part of male-dominated (or all-male) environments – such as single-sex hostels, fraternities, sports clubs etc.,  and a continuous female presence impedes such violent behaviour. It further reduces bullying on campuses. This is also observed in the IISER Mohali context, where students have a more supportive relationship with each other. The camaraderie is perceptible when incoming batches are warmly welcomed and guided by senior students instead of being ragged. Prof. Sathyamurthy, who was initially skeptical of the mixed hostels, acknowledged in one of his Republic Day speeches (about 4 or 5 years down the line) that this was the correct thing to do and that he is happy with how it has shaped our students. Several alumni have also written back proudly, reminiscing on their co-educational experience.

Incidents in hostels and their handling

This is not to say that in this arrangement, instances of aggression, sexual harassment and or bullying don’t happen, but when they do (which is very rare), they are promptly addressed by peer groups. When such instances are reported to the DoS office, immediate action is taken. The action here does not necessarily imply punitive measures (although this is not ruled out either) but brings in dialogue, counselling, and conciliation. The DoS office sensitively handles these situations to bring about a fair resolution while avoiding further alienation and violence (as per UGC/MHRD notification). The DoS office honours and abides by the UGC’s Saksham Report7, which calls for a new pedagogy that does not just rely on punitive measures for ‘women’s safety but considers gender justice as an integral part of the academic agenda and further discourages “quick-fix solutions” in lieu of exercises “involving a perspectival shift that is able to set down norms of respect, nondiscrimination and the unacceptability of any abuse of power, along with robust processes of debate, discussion and dialogue.”. Wardens and DoS have made conscious efforts over the years, including counselling and supporting students towards creating an inclusive and safe environment in the institute. Students who have come forward to communicate incidents of sexual harassment to the wardens have been encouraged to report these to the ICC. Support is provided when students are hesitant for reasons of fear or mistrust. Some cases that have come forth in the past few years are perhaps a reflection of these efforts. Instead of looking at these cases as evidence of a degenerate ‘mafia-like’ culture, we need to view them as a reflection of the openness to speak up on the part of the students and perhaps evidence of their (tentative) trust in the institutional process. It is good to see women students feeling empowered enough to voice their complaints.

The need to protect and a desire for control

There is a strong tendency in Indian academic administration to control the non-academic part of student life – particularly that of women students. While IISER Mohali has been somewhat liberal in these aspects, the attitude still lurks. It is evident in how rules are made to ‘protect’ women students. This constant need to speak for and control women students in the name of “protection” is problematic. An institute of higher education needs to create environments where students are empowered to speak for and protect themselves. Pinjra Tod, a collective of young college women (mainly at Delhi University and Punjab University), has protested against the paternalistic logic of surveillance, moral policing, and increased securitisation of college campuses. They argue for more autonomy and a right to speak for themselves, critiquing regressive institutional practices that bind them while claiming to act on their behalf. Looking at gender as intersectional, Pinjra Tod students have created a space where women from all backgrounds feel empowered to voice themselves. Drawing from their experiences with ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) and the #MeToo movement, several women groups have demanded the ICC to be an elected and autonomous body. Students have also been asking for gender sensitisation of ALL institute members (including faculty) to be made mandatory and for more clarity regarding ICC processes. These conversations are essential to sustain a healthy and safe learning environment.

The way forward

As IISER Mohali has grown bigger, its problems have become more complex. The DoS and wardens are severely short-staffed, and it has become relatively complex for them to engage in constant and meaningful dialoguing with all students, which is essential to nourish educational spaces. We have often relied on peer-to-peer engagements – for senior students to mentor juniors into the ethos and culture of IISER Mohali. However, the student community at IISER Mohali feels alienated and unheard at this juncture; a significant part of which is related to the two years of COVID-related institutional dynamics that needed to prioritise a whole different set of logistical arrangements, leaving little or no time and energy to engage meaningfully with the student community. 

Several students and faculty have requested an open dialogue rather than a decision thrust upon them from the top regarding hostel segregation. It is also a valid concern that some students (particularly some women students) would prefer segregated living spaces. On the other hand, many students thrive in a co-educational model and want it to continue. It is essential to create mechanisms for both these needs. Students are very capable of devising these mechanisms and resolving these diverse needs. Thus, the administration should trust the student body to have internal discussions and propose a model that considers all students’ voices. It is, after all, the students whose lives are most affected by these models and rules. Therefore, the students’ community can and should be entrusted with formulating proposals for rules while also deciding the consequences of breaking them. Adhering to rules devised by them would, in the true sense, be a matter of respecting the code of honour.

A short Q&A with Dr Sabhlok

A dialogue with the former Dean Students – Dr Anu Sabhlok – as a follow-up to her opinion piece regarding gendered segregation, with a specific focus on her views on the changes the Director’s proposed alterations to the status quo would bring to the student community of IISER-Mohali. The questions were formulated by the Manthan Editorial team and responded to by Dr Sabhlok over text.

1. You mention in your opinion piece on gendered segregation in Hostels that initially, Prof. Satyamurthi was sceptical about the non-segregation of living spaces on campus. Could you elucidate on what his scepticisms were and how they were alleviated? 

We only had two hostel buildings and very few women in the first few batches. So it did not make sense to have hostel buildings with assigned genders.  This meant that we would have separate residential wings, but all common spaces would be shared. Prof. Sathyamurthy did not object to or question the decision of the Dean Students office (as far as I can remember). Much later, in a public event, he shared in a speech that he was initially apprehensive of this arrangement, but now when he sees the beautiful culture that such an arrangement has fostered in IISER Mohali – that of mutual respect, care and support amongst students he feels very proud. He encouraged the DoS office to hold discussions and open dialogue on this arrangement, which were organised.

2. How do you think the Director’s proposed changes on Hostel segregation will affect the LGBT community, especially in terms of having trans-friendly housing on campus?

It is encouraging to see that students at IISER Mohali are able to find a safe space to affirm their gender and sexual identity. This is a recent phenomenon, and we still have a long way to go to make everyone feel welcome at IISER Mohali irrespective of their gender, caste, class, regional background and other forms of social identity. The small shifts that we are seeing in terms of acceptance of non-normative gender identities are reflective of a long LGBTQ movement in the country. Strictly segregating students based on a binary categorisation of gender will be a step back at this point. 

3. What effects would this have on the environment that has been fostered thus far around the issue of women’s safety on campus? Do you think these changes would discourage sexual abuse/harassment victims from approaching ICC?

Successive Dean Students offices have worked hard on encouraging students to report sexual harassment. I think some amount of hesitancy has gone, and we are seeing more and more students report instances and placing their trust in the process. Now it is up to the ICC and senior administration to ensure a fair process. That said, IISER Mohali generally offers a safe living and working environment partly due to the bonds that get strengthened in the hostels where students watch out for each other. By sharing leisure and work spaces, they are able to understand each other’s struggles and strengths – the objectification of other genders is minimised. If such areas of interaction are reduced or eliminated, and a gendered binary is enforced, then such an ethos may transform into the mainstream culture of ‘girls vs boys.’

4. How would the proposed change of housing first-year students in separate gender-segregated hostels affect the student community’s junior-senior relationship and anti-ragging environment?

There is a tradition at IISER Mohali where the immediate senior batch welcomes the incoming batch. They show them around campus, hand-hold them through the paperwork process, and organise campus walks and cultural events. Some of these events are formally organised and announced; others carry on later in the evening over casual conversations. This tradition contrasts with other institutions where ragging is an issue. The first-year students move out of their family homes into a warm and welcoming community that helps them deal with academic and hostel life challenges. Groups of senior students are also identified by the DoS office who mentor and tutor the first two years in terms of the academic curriculum, regularly holding evening classes. First years have the opportunity to engage with PhD students and vice versa. Students learn academic and life lessons from each other. By breaking this organic relationship and segregating first years (both in terms of gender and junior-senior), we may see more cases of isolation and alienation. 

5. There has been a request from some students to completely scrap the entry prohibitions from 10 to 6 in the non-segregated hostels. What are your thoughts on this?

This is a discussion that students need to have amongst themselves. There may be some who would prefer no prohibitions, while there may be others who would need privacy, especially at particular times. Through discussion and dialogue, the students can arrive at a negotiated arrangement that supports all students. We often become comfortable with the status quo, and even when a change is thrust upon us, many don’t get out of their complacent zones. However, for a vibrant system to function, constant dialogue and engagement of all students are essential. 

Sharat SA

Image credits: Parmpreet Singh

References & Footnotes :

 1: While I have consulted a few wardens and former Dean Students in the writing of this document, the views expressed are mine and draw from my long term engagement with the student community as their teacher, former warden and former Dean Students.

2: that now allow students of the opposite sex to visit each other’s wings between 10 AM and 10 PM

3: Duncan, J. 1972. With Emphasis on Education in Co-Educational Living. ERIC database

4: Katz, J. 1969. No Time for Youth: Growth and Constraints in College Students. United States: Jossey-Bass.

5: Waymore, J. 2010. The Impact of Coeducational Residence Halls on Men’s Relationships with Women. Master of Arts in Higher Education Thesis Collection

6: UGC’s Saksham Report (2013) : Measures for ensuring safety of women and programmes for gender sensitization on campus.

7: Astin, A. 1993. What matters in college. Liberal Education

8: Kanter, R.M. 2000. Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books

9: Gupta, N., 2020. Patriarchy reinforced or challenged? A study of engineering students in an elite Indian Institute. Gender, Technology and Development

10: Thorpe, A., 2017. Where do we go? Gender identity and gendered spaces in postsecondary institutions. Antistasis

11: Whitaker, L. and Pollard, J., 2014. Campus violence: Kinds, causes, and cures. Routledge

12: Dated 2nd May 2016

13: As claimed by the Director in his email titled Serious instances of student indiscipline, and a compromised SRC, dated 19th May 2022.

14: Zahan, S.J., 2020. Feminist politicization of the urban: young female students challenging spatial patriarchies. Space and Polity

15: Gawali, S., 2019. Unpacking sexual harassment of women in the context of the #MeToo and the Pinjra Tod campaigns: feminist understandings. Jindal Global Law Review

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