Of chick charts, hen charts and other such women’s stories: Saba Dewan

Image credit: Tribhuvan Tiwari / outlookindia.com

Guest post by SABA DEWAN

(For Vrinda, Uma, Sukhpreet, Dipta and all of us who found strength in each other to raise our voices in protest…) 

A few months back I visited St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University for a screening organized by the students there of my film, ‘The Other Song.’ It was my first visit after 26 years when I had been an undergraduate student here from 1982 – ‘85. I confess I have never felt any urge to go back nor have I suffered nostalgia about the three years I spent in St. Stephen’s College although I have carried vivid memories of that time. Sharp, brittle memories that defined many of the choices I have made in life over the years; the most important being of believing in and hopefully practicing a feminist politics based on equality and respect for all. Feminism truly has been a legacy that St. Stephen’s College inadvertently bequeathed to many of its women students of my generation.

The year was 1982. Freshly out of school we were brimming with excited anticipation of the world outside. Our first experience of that world had been sobering when we were confronted with our total numbers in college. Our batch of B.A. Honours history for example had out of around 50-55 students, only 12 to 13 women, a ratio replicated in most other courses with the exception of perhaps English and Philosophy. To be fair to St. Stephen’s this skewed ratio was not unique to it. Many other co educational colleges at that time in Delhi University reeled under similar under representation of women students. Perhaps gender prejudice and crude sexism was common to all colleges as well but as women students of St. Stephen’s our battles necessarily had to be fought here, an institution which in our times made much of its ‘premier status’ as an abode of learning.

We realized pretty early on that St Stephen’s which had under duress begun admitting women students only a few years before our arrival was deep in its heart still very much an all boys’ club. Women students in our times were not taken into ‘residence’ or the hostels that remained the exclusive domain of the boys. As day students most of us could therefore participate only marginally in extra curricular activities outside class that were organized, late in the afternoon and evening, to the convenience of the core students of the college, the boys in Residence. I suppose it can be argued that had we really been interested we would have made the effort to stay back late evenings by negotiating not only the erratic DTC bus service available in the university once U specials left for the day but also anxious parents at home wondering how their daughters would make their way back safely in the absence of a regular or efficient public transport system (the metro was to make its entry only a quarter century later.) Since none of these were issues of relevance to either the college administration or the greater majority of men students, who lived on campus, women students were left to figure out for themselves the extent to which they could participate in the cultural/literary activities of various clubs and societies in St. Stephen’s.

However the issue was not of timing alone. To gain privilege of being part of essentially boys’ clubs and boys’ societies we had to learn too the art of either being one of the boys or being the girl boys thought girls should be. We had to learn for example to laugh at ourselves as women; to appreciate or pretend to enjoy the sexist, even misogynist jokes, comments, put downers that came often and fast. To be counted as one amongst the boys we had to for example, learn to look forward to that unique Stephanian contribution to sexism – the chick chart.

As regularly as the boys could manage, a chart rating the 10 top ‘chicks’ in college on the basis of their physical attributes would be brought out and publicly circulated to bring cheer to our otherwise dreary lives. Each ‘chick’ would be rated and either cheered or booed on the basis of her assemblage of body parts, butt, breasts, legs, mouth. Much awaited, the ‘chick chart’ would generate excitement and controversy amongst our male peers – did the chart do justice to all the chicks on it? Had some deserving chicks been left out? Was it as funny as the previous one? Notwithstanding such minor quibbling, chick charts were generally seen as ‘good fun’, part of a boys’ tradition that made the college so special. Even the college administration seemed to think so since it allowed chick charts to be displayed on its official notice board.

In our first year of college many of us, the women students didn’t quite find the chick charts ‘good fun.’ We would talk about it, sometimes enter arguments with our male friends but had little idea about how to register our protest. Tolerated at best as unwanted visitors in college our confidence to take on a much loved ‘tradition’ would falter in the wake of jibes to be more ‘sporting’ and ‘open minded’. Many of the women students we spoke with while voicing their discomfort with chick charts did not wish to make an issue of it with the authorities or their male peers. A miniscule few found the chick charts funny, a boys’ things they were happy to go along with. This was we were told part of being in the game. For many of us who didn’t want to play the game or couldn’t learn how to play the game, the game was up.

And so two years went by. It was now 1984 and we were in our final year of graduation. In the same year cataclysmic violence shook us out of our orderly little lives in Delhi. Indira Gandhi’s assassination was followed by the massacre of Sikhs in the capital and other parts of the country. University shut down. Many young students including I worked as volunteers in relief camps for Sikh refugees hounded out by violent mobs from their homes. Those were terrible, terrible times.

A month later university reopened and students began trickling back. The mood was somber. Within a week the chick chart makers decided that it was time we all had a jolly good laugh. In a master stroke they drew up a ‘Sardine’ chart, rating ‘top ten’ Sikh women students on the basis of their sex appeal. It was neatly pinned up for all to read on the college’s official notice board. I can still remember the nauseous disgust with which I had recoiled back from the chart. I was not alone. Two Sikh girls from my batch who had been named in the chart were furious. As were the majority of other women students. Sexism in college had hit a new low. It now came welded with communal prejudice and complete apathy to the terrible events that had shaken much of the country just a few weeks back.

We had insisted on meeting Dr. Hala the acting principal of St Stephen’s at that time. Apart from murmuring platitudes he could offer us nothing. There was no question of the guilty students being punished or even reprimanded. Suddenly no one it seemed knew their identity. It was pointed out to Dr. Hala and his administrative staff that the chart was pinned inside the official notice board. Clearly whoever drew up the ‘Sardine chart’ had access to the notice board keys. At this more hands were wrung and sighs taken. No one whoever it seemed had the faintest idea how office keys could have come in the hands of students – this in a college that has always taken pride in its discipline and efficiency.

That day and those following were unusual ones for the college. Groups of women students could be seen coming together in agitated discussion on its campus; a rare sight in an institution that believed in women being seen but not heard. Clearly we were stepping dangerously out of line. We had to be shown our place and fast.

Within a couple of days of the ‘Sardine chart’, the ‘Hen chart’ made its way on college walls. Care however was taken not to put it up inside the official notice board. The more conspicuous amongst the women students were targeted as ugly ‘hens’ protesting ‘chick charts’ out of jealousy of the prettier girls who made it on the latter list while they didn’t. Gloriously, unapologetically misogynist in intent and content, the ‘hen chart’ however achieved just the opposite of the silencing down that its writers had probably hoped for.

Women students as also some men came together in protest at a spontaneously organized public meeting on the lawns of St Stephen’s College. It was a beautiful afternoon. Many, many girls featured regularly on the ‘Chick charts’ spoke up openly and bravely about the anger and distaste they always felt upon seeing their names on that miserable list. The meeting demanded that the students responsible for putting up anti women material like the ‘chick’, ‘sardine’ and ‘hen’ charts be identified by the college and punished.

Women were raising their voice and asking questions, making demands so far unheard of in St. Stephen’s College. Clearly we needed to be taught a more bitter lesson than merely an attempt to humiliate us on our physical appearance. A week or two passed in uneasy quiet. One winter’s morning as we entered the college gates we were greeted by spray painted graffiti on the drive way and walls ordering us to –“Fuck off!” Inside, the women’s locker room had been raided, lockers had been broken open. Women students’ clothes and undergarments had been pulled out and strewn all over the locker room that had violent threats spray painted on its walls.

Dr. Hala made guttural, incoherent sounds when we barged into his office. Mr. Dwivedi the college dean wondered why we were so agitated. It was just a stupid prank. Other senior faculty members were upset by the ‘prank’ but added philosophically that ‘boys will be boys’. It was obvious that apart from offering the usual lip service the authorities yet again were in no mood to initiate some action. In the midst of all these developments somehow some journalists got wind of the locker room break in and began contacting for comments those amongst us identified as being more vocal on the chick chart issue. Next morning the break in had made headline news of some English newspapers; not surprising really given Stephen’s hallowed reputation and status.

College authorities that had so far refused to take either our complaints on the chick chart seriously or had found the vandalism of college property by their students a matter of any serious concern, were now jolted into prompt action by the newspaper reports. Except that in line with the sexist philosophy permeating the institution the action was directed against the women students; especially those amongst us who had been consistently speaking out on the issue. Dr. Hala and Mr. Dwivedi had been unanimous in directing their ire at us for daring to speak to ‘outsiders’ about college issues that they described as ‘family matters’. Patriarchy was in full damage control. Section 144 was imposed within the campus forbidding any meetings or even groups of students to assemble. We were ordered to keep our mouths shut to ‘outsiders’. And our fellow male students, in two and threes took it upon themselves to shadow the more ‘troublesome’ elements amongst the women including me to insure that we behaved ourselves, did not speak or meet or conspire to further bring down the ‘reputation’ of ‘their’ esteemed college. And just to make sure that we were truly terrorized into submissive silence they would keep muttering as they followed us around, the words that had been emblazoned upon the driveway of the college they professed to love so much –“Fuck off!”

Our complaints once again to authorities fell on deaf ears. We had provoked the boys by our irresponsible actions, made them justifiably angry. It was as usual our fault. And so began our discovery of our strength as women. Realizing that our own college had now been turned into a repressive, hard space some of us began contacting students of other colleges, especially women’s colleges like Miranda House. I.P and Daulat Ram College. The solidarity we received was overwhelming. Students across north campus began joining in to protest gender discrimination and harassment of women students within St. Stephen’s College. Those were enriching, wonderful times. Some of our teachers within college like Dr. Tanika Sarkar, Dr. Sunil Kumar and Nandita Narain extended much needed support. Several alumni like Dilip Simeon, Mukul Manglik and Saleem Kidwai too joined in. And a huge demonstration, one of the biggest ever in Delhi University till then, comprising of students and teachers from various colleges and departments protested outside St. Stephen’s College.

That day, all of 20-21 years old, we learnt our most important lesson as women. There we stood shouting slogans of protest at the gates  of our own college; a college that had chosen to consistently discriminate against women and then harass and persecute them when they dared to protest. We learnt that day that as women our most fierce battles would perhaps begin within spaces we thought were our own. The personal is political.

Subsequently some of us, Vrinda Grover, Sukhpreet Bhinder, Uma Gokale, Dipta Bhog and I,  were charged with indiscipline, of acting against college interests and threatened with expulsion unless we apologized. Our parents were called in on the assumption that they would be sufficiently frightened by the threat to make us grovel. They instead in one voice chose to tell Dr. Hala that they not only stood by their daughters but were proud of their actions. Instead of penalizing their daughters it was time they said the authorities were taken to task for their retrogressive and partisan attitude.

Flummoxed and beaten the authorities now declared peace. It was just a minor misunderstanding they said that had crept up between them and their women students. Under pressure some kind of inquiry too was instituted to look into the locker room break in. The boys involved were identified but never punished.

More than twenty five years have passed since those turbulent times. St. Stephen’s now has many more women students than men. The girls are everywhere – in the classrooms, running different societies and in residence, the once all male hostel of St. Stephen’s College. As I saw the bright, eager, young women sitting in front of me during the post screening discussion I felt a strange, wonderful, glow inside. One of them asked if I had been to the college before. And I had said – yes. I too was a student here long ago.

Today I read about the desperate attempts being made by the present principal and college council to turn the clock back on the takeover of St. Stephen’s by women. They have suggested reserving 40% seats in college for boys. Mercifully the college faculty have shot down the proposal. Ridiculous as the proposed quota for boys is it reflects the intolerance of patriarchal institutions, be it the family or a college, to gender equity. The hopeful news is that with changing times such pathetic attempts to maintain status quo will become more and more difficult to uphold. The cookie is crumbling and crumbling for the better…

(Saba Dewan is a documentary filmmaker in Delhi.)

69 thoughts on “Of chick charts, hen charts and other such women’s stories: Saba Dewan”

  1. Thank you Saba for this …I didn’t know several parts of this history … apart from the continuing sexism, it is sad that protesting is still seen as illegitimate.


  2. Great story. As a minor addition to this history, in line with the yogdan school of historiography, Ramjas College also played a significant role in this movement. Dilip, Salim and Mukul were, and in Mukul’s case are, lecturers of Ramjas. The students of Ramjas also made their contribution. The initial support from students outside St Stephens came from Ramjas College. The solidarity shown then continues in the form of lasting relationships between women students of St Stephens and male students of Ramjas, to which Saba will also testify to. :)


    1. All of you, Joseph as also the faculty in Ramjas extended much needed support to the women students in St.Stephen’s. And that the support continues for some of us is also true :-)


  3. This post should be printed out and put up on the noticeboard in the Stephens’ corridor.


  4. Thanks Saba for saying it out loud. Thankfully by 21st century we dint have a list like that, but the attitude was same. We had something called Kooler talk (official) and Spice (unofficial) college gossip pamphlets. Needless to say they made remarks about women, their ‘lifestyle’ and choices. They did drag men into it too, but the tools remained largely the same, anonymity and sexism. I am so glad you have written this, i am going to share this with all my stephanian friends.


  5. Thanks Saba for this. Its the year I left college to join MCRC but I came to campus to join the demonstration outside Stephens!I remember how large the demonstration was and how several women’s groups had also come for it. I am glad to see the narrative of the events chronicled here.


  6. Really loved reading this. Nothing beats organising and raising collective voice against oppression. I feel like we, the present students of DU, don’t do that often or enough. Thanks for the inspiration.


  7. I also remember these events very well! I was at Miranda House then. Thanks much to Saba Dewan for recounting the struggles of the past that have a tremendous bearing on the present. Still in solidarity!


  8. They have suggested reserving 40% seats in college for boys.

    This is priceless, if true. Till the boot was on the other foot, women were just not “capable” of entering institutions of higher learning. And now that they have shown that they very much are capable of doing so, if only they are allowed to fight on an equal footing, we want quotas for boys. I wonder how St Stephens has preserved its eminence inspite of being run by such logically-challenged administrators.


    1. The only way one can overcome discrimination is by questioning it. And that’s what you did. The most striking revelation in your story is that the personal is political. What better way to tell us that behind closed doors or gates could be more dangerous than being out in the open. Thankyou Saba for sharing your experience. Moving and inspiring!


  9. Reading your post, we can’t help but fast forward a quarter century, take a metro down to south campus and enter the gates of another hallowed institution. The year is 2009, the college is hundred per cent reserved for women and the issue is a cafe chart displaying exorbitantly priced food items. Yet, it’s similarity with St Stephen’s is remarkable!

    Fed up of a college canteen with five-star pretensions and an administration that was blind to the injustice of expensive basic facilities within a supposedly equal-access institution, some of us decided it was time to “think beyond rules”. That is what we called an anonymous email account created on a non-descript winter night, an account from which a mail soon went out to hundreds of students of the college, suggesting that we come together and think of creative ways of making ourselves heard. Perhaps it was the well-known lack of freedom in existing representative institutions of the college or the sheer novelty of an anonymous email, we don’t know – but combined with the long-standing deafness of the administration and the concomitant frustration among the students, it led to an unanticipated string of events.

    To begin with, it became an issue of heated debate and discussion in classrooms – why anonymous? Why this issue? What will happen? Will they be acknowledged? Will it work? Who are they? The conversations continued over email – some were supportive, some dismissive, some became self-proclaimed guardians of the college, while others reserved their judgement for the weeks to come. These weeks, as they unfolded, taught many of us more than we learnt in our three years at college.

    In no time this anonymous email id gained face: not only through large numbers of students who marked their involvement by slogans like “TBR kaun hai? Hum hain! Hum hain!” but also through an administration that went on a witch-hunt to associate faces with this spontaneous little uprising. Indeed, as emails turned into posters and posters into a protest march across the college corridors, the administration reacted with the same ugly enthusiasm as the one described in the 1980s account… Here too, students were terrorized, parents summoned, even admit cards for the annual exams withheld! Unassailable arguments based on empirical evidence and experience were assassinated on familial grounds: if ‘boys will be boys’ was the Stephanian philosophy, the sub-text of our scolding was ‘these girls are not being girls’. In a women’s college where the metaphor of the family is in any case evoked with patriotic fervor, ¬¬it was stirred with even greater passion in these unprecedented times. The most fantastical of the rumours alleged the involvement of a foreign hand, perhaps suggesting disbelief at the sheer possibility of protest from among the students’ community! ¬¬These suspected “anonymous outsiders” and their supporters were demonised through Goebbelsian tactics, and an unspoken divide was carefully crafted between ‘those who were with the college and those who were against it’.

    However, given the popular support for change that had emerged sui generis among the students, a simple closing of ranks was not going to close the issue. A jan sunvai (public hearing) was organised on public demand, and students won themselves a degree of participation in the otherwise closed-door café committee meetings. Sadly, the very structure of these meetings was such that this concession turned out to be no more than a clever ploy to maintain a show of democracy. As a result, long hours of argument yielded little, the change in the menu was not radical and the victory, per se, was insignificant.

    However, just as in Saba’s experience, the lessons that we took from these few weeks were extremely valuable. Theoretical insights about the workings of power and the power of protest now acquired an immediacy for us 20-year olds. All of a sudden, the sheer depravity of the administration was revealed, but these events also brought home the strength of political mobilisation and camaraderie.

    When we entered college, we were welcomed to its magic; by the time we left, we had learnt many of its tricks. It was a bad magician, but a very good teacher.


  10. Indeed a great story ! It definitely deserves to make it to the national media. We never knew such an incident occurred in a so called prestigious college like St.Stephen’s. We had couple of discussions when you visited MCRC as a faculty (I was a student then), as well as Ranjani Majumdar (She was teaching us Film Studies). But you people never mentioned about this agitation which could be termed as a pioneer of the Feminist movement in modern-day Delhi. Anyways, thanks so much for this article. The way it’s chronicled is superb!


  11. As an earlier comment mentioned, it was heartening to be able to draw up a lineage to the aforementioned TBR protests in college.
    We were of course told we were doing something aberrant-something that had never been done before, and therefore should not be done.
    I hope the women who were at the helm of affairs then, are reading this.
    Thank you for this post, Saba.


  12. thanks for sharing…this reminds me of the time when women on my campus too had to draw strength from each other to fight a similar battle with our male peers…fortunately the management was not biased


  13. Thanks for this moving account. Cannot resist a small addition (in Joseph’s yogdan mode) of a small side story. It is always fascinating how, when a story such as this – that concerns people in large numbers – is narrated, it immediately brings in stories, recollections and narratives from a whole range of different perspectives.
    We read the story of the locker room raid in the newspapers in the morning. I was associated at that time with the Students’ Federation of India as one of its Delhi level functionaries, though, strictly speaking, I had no connection left with the university. Outraged at the news we read, we met to discuss the issue and felt we must immediately organize a protest demonstration the very next day. Clearly, we did not have much idea then of the anger brewing inside St Stephens’, especially among women students. But we felt we must act, right then.
    Other SFI colleagues who were active in the University and especially in Miranda House and Hindu college – Ranjani Mazumdar, Nita Bhasin, Charu Gupta, Ravi Sundaram, Krishnendu Ray and others had in the meantime found themselves discussing with many other individuals and groups about the possibilities of a hostel campaign and a joint demonstration. This is perhaps one of the meetings mentioned in Saba’s post. The understanding in the university meeting perhaps was that the demonstration should take place a few days later with some preparation. However, on meeting together in the evening, at the SFI office, it was felt that the we should strike immediately, while indignation among students is running high. So, perhaps a bit unfairly, we pushed for changing the decision of the university meeting and holding the demonstration the very next day. The Miranda House students’ union, then controlled by the SFI, managed in fact, to tap into the widespread anger that women students in particular were feeling across the university. Perhaps a close to 800-900 students from MH alone, and some hundred from other colleges as well, participated if my memory is not playing tricks with me. It was by all accounts one of the biggest, spontaneous demonstrations in the university in recent times.
    It is interesting now to piece together the different pieces of the jigsaw to get the fuller picture before us. How many different energies and impulses actually come together in the making of even a relatively small event like this.


    1. Yes that is correct, the demonstration was huge and the anger was also as a result of the many cases of molestation around Holi and the supreme lack of attention to this by the Stephen’s administration. I also remember battling several idiotic Students from Stephens who felt it was an internal matter!! I think this really angered women students across the campus!


  14. In college, we are often told of the glorious moments when women stepped into college and several firsts made by women-first woman lecturer, first woman presidents of societies etc-but never never was this violent phase in college history mentioned by anyone, authorities, teachers or alumni. Thank you!


  15. In 2003, I was ordered by a senior to make a ‘chick chart’, which I had to do against my wishes as this was ragging. Some months later, a member of the faculty asked me if I had been ‘honest’ in the ranking. Another piece of recent info that is important here is that in 2005, Maya John became the first woman to become students union president. Misogyny and sexism, not to speak of homophobia, are alive and well in ‘College’ – in the women’s hostel rules, obviously, but also in ragging. Some of the songs that male freshers were and perhaps still are made to learn by rote in ragging, and made to ‘perform’ in sexually suggestive poses, will make Saba’s story read as much less outrageous in comparison.


    1. I was in college when Maya became the student’s union president. Winning the election was probably the easier part. The endless hate campaign that followed not only made it difficult for her team to function but also exposed the embedded patriarchy in all its ugliness. I still remember feeling nauseated at the tasteless and degrading plays in the annual fest that year.


  16. Fantastic piece ! St Stephens or otherwise you don’t get rights and liberties on a platter. You need to stand up and fight for them. I recall by 1991 the fight was for rooms in the residence. and they now have girls in the res. Thanks for making it a better place. @ Saba.


  17. I am left speechless reading this. They had a Chicks Chart? On the official notice board of the college? This went on for so long in the nation’s capital and such a premier institution at that? This is beyond revulsion.


  18. Youth is frustrated across the world due to many reasons for years but regions such as Haryana, Delhi and many other pockets of North Indian have been tormenting for women for ages and we are still counting.

    Deadline to go out after 8 pm is dreadful and people know even if you abide by such horrendous discipline, those monsters still remains the same and so as the governing authorities. Money power and connections are still ruling the capital of world’s biggest democracy. SAD BUT RUE!

    Hope Aamir Khan can do something about it with his new show on star plus Satyamev Jayate, hope is all we have.

    Thank you!


  19. Amazing story, and i can completely empathize with the story the isolation and inaction… fought many a battle myself. but consequences are difficult to extract if you are passing out that year… and the time span of principals and their cronies are way beyond our life expectancy in a college. Well written, neatly typed.. appreciate the dignity with which you have put it forth.


  20. Really enjoyed your article. but don’t you think your last paragraph is strongly feminist. Men and women being treated equally is very fine, but where women are underrepresented, they get reservation, they should get reservation, but entire you being against the same thing for men.


    1. @Arnav…. You felt only the last paragraph was “strongly feminist”? Hell no, the entire article was, in case you did not catch it!


  21. I remember reading about how ‘liberal’ Stephen’s was. How Kashmiri and Indian Muslims competed to be the Union President of a Christian run and Hindu dominated college and so on. Unfortunately, misogyny seems to have withstood ‘enlightenment’ rather well-judging from some of the comments here.


  22. We are from the middle years when there were no women in college. Saba’s [piece makes distressing reading.I wonder if such sexist practices, perhaps in a different form, still fester in College. I pray they do not.I salute several of the activists who have now become good friends, Vrinda among them, and who continue their fiesty activism for the marginsalised and the weak.


  23. St. Stephens was a college I was dying to get into during my admissions time. But due to untimely return of my marksheet from the re evalutation process, I was unable to join it.
    Initially i was bitter and upset. Now, I dont see St. Stephens through those rose tinted glasses…


  24. Loved the post, except for the last point. How exactly is reservation for boys antithetical to gender equity? The points about the struggles women have had to wage to make all the advances they have made are all well taken. But aren’t men victims of patriarchy too, at some level? In our society, there is pressure on men to take up “manly” vocations like engineering and business management, while women are encouraged to take up humanities. It is no surprise then that engineering colleges are mostly male-dominated whereas arts and science colleges are increasingly becoming female-dominated. The latter trend is accentuated also by the fact of there being fewer men’s colleges compared to women’s colleges, say in Delhi.

    If Stephens started off as a boys’ college, I don’t see what the harm is in providing for some reservation to ensure that the proportion of boys don’t fall below a minimum threshold. In the medium-to-long run, perhaps we should press for reservations for both women and men (say, 33% each?) in every college – arts & science, professional – all of them – to ensure that the composition of students in terms of gender is not too skewed.

    At a more basic level, we also need to ponder why there is a trend of girls outperforming boys in board exams which form the criteria for admission to arts and science colleges, while boys tend to do better in entrance exams for professional courses. Both the issues need careful examination and corrective measures might be necessary. These are not trivial questions to be dismissed with contempt. A serious consideration of these issues are necessary if, among others, generations of boys turning resentful, hostile towards all attempts to bring about gender equity and treating feminism to be synonymous with man-hating is to be avoided.


    1. If generations of men turn hostile to women cuz they ( apparently) under-perform consistently, that speaks rather poorly of them, doesn’t it?


  25. Wow.. thank you Saba ji.. i am currently studying in the college myself.. and I’m a boy.. i had never imagined such a retrograde and denigrating attitude towards the equal half of our society, had ever taken place in this college.. thank you for enlightening me.. indeed, i agree with you, the college has come a long way since then.


    1. Though the issue of 40% reservation of seats for men is not just outrageous, it is a reflection on male megalomania and chauvenism. Whoever proposed this is clearly not content being treated at par with women, and wants to rule the roost in any and every situation, even if it means asking for male reservation. Strength in numbers, indeed! Very sad that St Stephen’s is embroiled in such a petty controversy. It should aim bigger, better and higher.


  26. Thank you so much for this piece; I spent three years in that college recently (07-10), and had not heard of any of this. All I’d heard were some senior faculty complaining about our bare arms and skirts in the mess and how we were enticing boys.
    It’s amazing how many narrative strands can be drawn between the women who went to this institution, that tries as hard as it can, but is still a boys club, and prides itself for it. Of course no women could ever know the Blacksmith Song, apparently our genitalia makes us incapable of it. Let’s not even talk about the rampant homophobia that permeates the campus, only brought to the fore through exaggerated mockery.

    Anyway, it’s odd but I almost DIDN’T become a feminist because of this institution, but that’s a whole other story. I know the distaste you feel, and can only hope it will change someday.


  27. Well written, Saba! St Stephens has to accept new realities. Congrats on your “expose”.
    All the best!


  28. That is such a heart-warming story. But as a true rival, I must not forget to say that LSR ROCKS! And even back then, the only charts you would have seen there would have been ‘dick charts’ on celebrities :D True story.


  29. In the early 2000’s we still faced Kooler Talk and Spice which targeted women in manners such as comments on their bodies and clothes etc. I was ridiculed and laughed at for wearing transparent salwar kameez… which I as a young girl, right out of school, probably wore without much realization and with no intent to lure men for sure.


  30. My god! I find it difficult to fathom that such sexist and misogynist behaviour existed in educational institutions, out of all places! Thanks for sharing this heart warming and truly enlightening story


  31. My first thought was why didn’t the girls create a “Dick Chart” to counter the “Chick Chart” and rate the male students on their package? Then, for the losers of the game draw up a “Dick Dart” where a dart would be thrown (all in good fun of course) at the genital area of a drawing of those who rated the lowest.

    Then break into the official school announcement bored (who needs keys?) and post it all up there.

    Taking a few digs at the global rumor that Indian guys have small willies would have been enough to put these chodes in their place and a new St. Stephens tradition would have been birthed!


  32. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments, your support. It is especially heartening to note that the article has found resonance in the experiences of other Stephanians from past and present batches; heartening because a more collective exploration of gender discrimination within Stephens as also in other educational institutions will contribute immensely to the fight for its eradication in schools and colleges.

    I have mentioned this in the article too, but would like to reiterate that the protest at the point it occurred, got strength from the overwhelming solidarity women students from St. Stephen’s received from faculty and students, women and men, across the university-from Ramjas, Miranda House, IP, Daulatram, Hindu, Arts Faculty, to name just a few. As Aditya and Ranjani have rightly pointed out, groups like the SFI as also women’s groups too joined in to make it one of the biggest protests in Delhi University.

    Finally a quick response to those supporting quotas for men in St. Stephen’s. Quotas are used for disprivileged groups that have suffered exclusion educationally, economically, politically and socially. Men as a category within patriarchy are not a disprivileged group, if anything they are the privileged group. If fewer men than women are gaining admission in St.Stephen’s then the answer lies in gaining the required cut off marks not to use quotas to retain privilege without working for it. Stephen’s has never had quotas for women as a category, even though as a historically discriminated against group they deserved them. If anything by keeping for the longest time hostels out of bounds for women, by (in my times) making the B.A pass course open only to men, St.Stephen’s tried its best to keep women students in a minority. Today if they are in a majority its through hard work. Men might wish to follow their example.


  33. Interesting article! It relived the memory of my college days during eighties and the struggle we undertook to oust an oppressive principal ,of course a woman , who was making our lives miserable! .


  34. Being reminded of the gory details of that time is something we have to be grateful to Saba for. But can I please ask her to do one more thing ? Could she please identify some of the characters who had been behind the making of the ‘chick charts’ ? Doesn’t matter if it’s been three decades … if we can point out the perversions of the Halas and the Dwivedis, I don’t see why we should allow the boys to remain anonymous. Unless, of course, nobody knows any names. I’m only saying they should be exposed too.


  35. Anusha Rizvi sends me this poem that did the rounds in College in 1997 around the SUS presidential election.


    Men in SSC
    The exalted lofty Gods
    Looking down from Olympian Heights
    At the poor women – the chattels of their Lords

    The cool mess and the oh so cool Rez
    Holier than the inner sanctum
    For this is where we crack our filthy jokes
    Some plain obscene, some only dumb [please don’t tell mum]

    Cause, actually we’re little blue eyed boys
    Mamma’s pallu and protective “ROOM BAAPS”
    We only do what daddy tells us
    Think on our own – we dare dare not

    Equality is such a big bad word
    Little boys must learn it not
    For you know we’re not brave enough
    To win a battle that’s fairly fought

    And for every step we take
    We need a little lollipop
    If we get a peck on the cheek
    We don’t mind if a woman gets to the top

    And you know how liberal we are
    We’ll listen to campaigns only in the Rez
    So what if the authorities disagree
    To get our vote women must kneel on our door- step

    I mean guys just understand us
    We’re the little scared men of SSC
    Women threatening us with knives and daggers
    We’re really scared – can’t you see!

    All militant feminists swarming around
    With bugles and banners and God knows what
    Send us trembling to our safe Rez rooms
    Man to man – chauvinism is our only bond

    So men of SSC unite
    Our lives are in total jeopardy
    Women trying to stael all our rights
    Presidents with tresses – what a sight it will be

    Cause MEN are MEN and MEN alone
    And nothing else will be
    With brain in their biceps and muscles in their heads
    Believing that women are good for nothing but to see

    So the rez better stand together
    In the face of all this mess
    Eat, Drink, sleep and VOTE together
    Cause we’re a herd – no more no less

    —- Women of St. Stephen’s College, Batch of ’97 History


    1. Thanks for sharing this. This poem was written for people like me. I was part of the Rez crowd being referred to here, and a candidate for College President in that same year! Pooja Kothari was the woman candidate contesting the election that year. The first in many years – or perhaps the first ever!

      Poetry cannot be appraised on a spectrum of accurate inaccurate. But if someone were angry with the state of affairs, and chose to express it in the way this poem does, I would identify with them.

      If I could live that time again, I’d support Pooja. She had (still has!) conviction and passion, and a real willingness to change things. Whether she’d have succeeded is another question – looking back I can confirm that sexism and groupism were rampant and deep-seated.

      Graduating from St. Stephen’s did change my life. I cannot deny that. But I sometimes look back to check what exactly I am grateful for. It’s for a small number of close friends and a couple of encouraging profs. And for finding my partner :)

      Did I become a thinking adult at St. Stephen’s? No.

      It’s like those conversations I’d have with conductors of Red Line buses:
      – Ticket dikhaa dey bhaai
      – Staff
      – Kaunsa staff hai tu!?!
      – Stephen’s ka
      – School ka staff na chaaley hai bhaai!!



      1. Thanks Apoorva for this! Just wanted to make an important addition to the women’s history of St.Stephen’s College. The first woman to contest for college president was Jyotsna Kapur way back in either 1983 She was hugely gifted and very vocal about college issues, especially those relating to women students. Jyotsna would have made an ideal president but that of course was not to be given the prevailing sexist attitudes in college.


  36. I passed out from St Stephen’s in 2006… During my final year in college, similar patriarchal aggression had particularly brewed when a strong woman candidate- Maya John stood up for the post of the college student President. So far there had not been not a single woman President in the 20 -odd years of the co-ed existence of the college. From, mockery to contempt and condescension over her very strong campaign on issues related to the lack of the institution’s political commitment with the rest of the colleges of the University, its elitism and sexist attitude, Maya John and her campaigning team were similarly attacked in college for having disturbed the still continuing( at least during my three years) strong patriarchal set up of the college. There was also an anonymous notice – which mentioned that the women campaigners ‘should go back to the kitchen’. Maya John won, and this came as a surprise, for it was clear that despite the outwardly unsupportive attitude of the students, there were actually many from them who did believe in her cause and were possibly also inwardly disgusted by the unfair, mean and spiteful hostility against her. Interestingly, many of these ‘silent voters’ must also have been part of the team which in little or more strong ways retaliated her position. Despite all these years since 1984, unfortunately I can still relate to Saba’s description of the equation between the opposite sex in the college- in which the women needed to accept sexist attitude and fit themselves into the misogynistic spheres which dominated the interaction between the opposite sex. I wonder if this kind of stifling yet intensely overwhelming sexist atmosphere exists in other co-ed colleges in the Delhi University.


  37. I may be accused of having no place commenting on this subject, being a Canadian-American male, but I was a student at Stephens that year–an exchange student from the University of California. I saw, with disgust, the chick charts on the board. I sat in Tanika Sarkar’s classroom as she devoted nearly an entire lecture to a tirade on the juvenile stupidity and backwardness of the offenders. I saw the graffiti and the demonstration on the college lawn. I completely agreed with the young women about the dispicable treatment they had received from both their fellow students and the administration. But I never said much of anything because there was something I found disturbing about the entire furor on a deeper level, and I suspected I wouldn’t get much support if I spoke up about it. My discomfort had to do with what a privieged tantrum this was to be having.

    At the time I was in India, dowry burnings were rampart across the country. Perhaps they still are, I don’t know. Suicides amongst women were epidemic, and as great as was the poverty and oppression in India, it hit women the hardest. While the behavior of the young men who pulled this “prank” was inexcusable, for the issue to generate the kind of response it did amongst Stephen’s women, in their “just so” churidar kurtas as they sipped their Thumbs Ups at the canteen in self-congratulation after the demonstration, showed just how out of touch they were as they sat–right along with their Stephanian brothers–in their elitist bubble. Their noblesse oblige “charity work” at Sikh refugee centers and the occasional liberal-lefty demonstration notwithstanding, these young women were only willing to stand up for human rights when it affected them. Everything else was just fodder for discussion with their subaltern studies friends over dosas. Everything from Dr. Sarkar’s tirade to the demonstration I saw seemed so feigned, as if the speakers instinctively understood that if the poor women of the Indian masses came to break down the gates of St. Stephens they’d make no distinction between the boys and the girls inside–and more to the point, neither would those girls. They knew which side their dosas were buttered on.

    I don’t mean to indict only the young women. The boys were just as insulated and arrogant–moreso because they heaped sexism upon injury My point is only that for the young women of Stephens to wax revolutionary was only to chant crocodile chants. All of this had to do with why, as my year there progressed, I spent less and less time at Stephens, and eventually left before the academic year was over to go participate in research in Chota Nagpur.

    I hope that as my cohorts have grown older, they’ve worked to become more a part of the solution–for all Indians. I don’t know. You tell me.


    1. “I don’t mean to indict only the young women.”

      Bruce it’d be interesting to hear you’d talk a little more about the male side of things. Did you perhaps have any interactions with the general male populace there, some of whom must have been explicitly as well as implicitly compliant with the blatant sexism? I’m guessing you’re white… if that’s the case, i can presume (of course a generalization, but i’ve seen it more often than not) that you’d have held the unique position of being more privileged in the eyes of the class-obsessed Indians and may have been privy to their internal machinations even as an outsider. (i wouldn’t make this generalization if i knew you were black.) So, what i’m really interested in hearing about from you is what you experienced amongst the males. What is it about their actions that they don’t seem to evoke a response from you equivalent to what you express about the females.


  38. Saba, this could be the beginning of a collective volume on the difficult relationship between gender equality and educational institutions. What I recall of the events that was most unpleasant was being waylaid by groups of young men in college saying that we were ‘betraying’ the college by bringing in outsiders. This seemed particularly bizarre when we had gone first to Hala’s office to ask for an internal solution!
    The contradiction between insider rules for a group who were supporting the college authorities and the attempt to impose a draconian set of punishments on the girls who protested(which fortunately our parents overturned when they came to see Hala) is still etched sharply in my brain.


    1. Shailaja, I owe you a huge apology for inadvertently missing out on your name in the group identified by college as the ‘main culprits’ behind the chick chart protests. Age related memory lapse no doubt but still terribly remiss. Please to forgive. Will correct the omission on my fb note though not sure if the reprint here can now be changed.

      Also, the story from what I hear continues still in St Stephen’s. Over the past several years residence has been opened up for women but from what I have been told by women boarders there is one set of rules for male boarders and another for women…they are unlike the boys locked up at night in the hostels! They have been protesting but as before the authorities have responded with intimidation and diktats…sigh…


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