It’s a usual Wednesday morning in college. You wake up, groggy from last night’s deadline and subsequent gaming marathon, dodge all the guys who thought it would be a cool idea to get drunk on a weekday, and enter the washrooms to try and take a shower before class, only to get shoved out of the way by a girl, because “Can’t you see the line, bro?” And to top it all off, this isn’t a novelty for you. In fact, you are quite accustomed to living with a bunch of girls, as are they, with you.
But let’s skip the banter and get right down to the ‘dirty’ details – sex. Funnily enough, it’s been one of the prime arguments for and against the concept of co-ed hostels. Over time, we’ve heard a lot of opinions on this, spanning from rainbow-toned liberals preaching harmony to ignorant college administrators remarking that they would need to set up maternity wards. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, and fix some of our concepts. A shared living space doesn’t elicit sex, romance or even the blinding misery of unrequited love. For starters, co-ed hostels don’t magically transcend the prerequisites of attraction and more importantly, consent. The age-old problems of privacy, uncooperative roommates, too-loud music and unexpected nudity are still going to be problems – and it’s going to be just as difficult to get to know someone, despite the proximity. Besides, staying in a co-ed hostel could get rid of all the stigma and mystery surrounding sex and can actually lead to better understanding of how it’s rather more about identity and choice. At the end of the day, we are all legal adults who, at this point in time, should be both mature and independent enough to be trusted with making decisions for ourselves. We are responsible for our own lives, and our activities are really of no concern to anyone else; any mistakes made are for us to face, without censure, humiliation, or baseless criticism from uninvolved spectators.
There are also a lot of well-intentioned but ultimately ill-informed worries about the ‘comfort’ of the students themselves. People are concerned that the students, so accustomed to the idea of their own gender, may experience discomfort when faced with the reality that they would share living space with other students who are ‘unlike’ them. This view fails to take into account the opinions of the students themselves. Contrary to the general perspective, there are actually quite a few students who may prefer to live with roommates whose gender is not the same as their own, be it due to habit, trauma or even simple desire for a new experience. In fact, most students, when given the option, choose co-ed hostels over those segregated by sex. No matter what the public seems to believe, the only thing preventing the spread of co-ed hostels is not the sentiments of the students, but their own inability to broaden their minds.
Moving to a wider perspective, the blind labelling and categorization of students is also extremely insensitive towards the individuals of the LGBTQ+ community. When a person is clumped together with a more widely accepted ‘standard’, so to speak, it is disrespectful on the part of the one judging, as their initial assumptions may be way off the mark. For individuals whose situations cause them to be alienated on a regular basis, such labels are extremely stifling. Misgendering a person, especially on purpose (when one denies the truth) is very uncomfortable, and downright oppressive for those who do not identify with the sex assigned to them. Even worse would be when the student feels alienated from both of the ‘options’ offered to them. When the student is forced to confine themselves within the narrow world view which refuses to accept them for themselves, this oppression can only be eased by offering them a haven without labels to fall back on. As co-ed hostels do not segregate on the basis of sex – or, for that matter, the two publicly accepted sexes – it is not necessary to provide moulds within which students may have to confine themselves; instead, there is freedom for all students to live their lives without the burden of forcing a fit into less than comfortable social moulds.
A lot of us grew up having a certain set of gender stereotypes ingrained in our heads. It could be about the way persons of a certain gender dress or if they swear excessively or even the number of times they shower a day. Most of it is conditioned by society and popular culture and is the result of a very superficial yet convenient way of categorizing people without actually getting to know them. Co-ed hostels can help break down common gender stereotypes and preconceived notions, and increase acceptance and tolerance among students. Living with someone of another gender can open your eyes to the issues faced by them and give you a deeper understanding of their lives while also becoming more comfortable around them.
Also, more than merely understanding one-another, sharing living space with other genders broadens our access to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Even within colleges like ours, it is an unspoken truth that when it is time for some project, the girls will always be at a disadvantage. With gender-segregated hostels limiting the number of areas where students may collaborate, this very actively discourages different genders from working together. Not only does this constrain people to a very narrow scope of thought, but it also limits the exchange of a fresh set of skills, which may not be accessible otherwise. With co-ed hostels drastically increasing the areas available for people to work, the activities themselves show a more even distribution of participants, and the unhindered communication coupled with a hub of new ideas proves synergic to innovation in all forms.
According to Lise Eliot, a leading neuroscientist and author, separating groups by gender inevitably affects the way we perceive each other and ourselves. Bringing different genders under the same roof, free to interact with each other, is the first step to dismantling the divide that is reflected in educational institutions across India. The genders do not differ fundamentally in personality, cognitive ability or leadership skills; everyone starts off on the same level, equally assertive and competitive, but over the years, social conditioning and gender-specific grouping enforces the differences that are apparent later on. Co-ed hostels could help abolish these stereotypes and provide equal access to opportunities for all.
Universities and educational institutions all over the world claim to place as much importance on the holistic development of a student as on their purely academic and intellectual growth. But contrary to what they want to believe, almost all real education takes place outside the confines of cramped classrooms and poorly ventilated lecture halls. Conversation stimulates thought, which fosters creativity and curiosity, and introduces you to things you have never heard of and ideas you never fathomed. While it’s unclear, and frankly, irrelevant, whether different genders think differently, interactions between them can only deepen our understanding of each other. Especially when taken in context of institutes where the gender ratio is skewed in a particular direction, introducing the concept of co-ed hostels, where there are no restrictions on different genders being in the same living area, brings a student into contact with a lot more people. It helps integrate the student community better and avoid alienation or exclusion of any student from a social activity based solely on their gender.
Co-ed hostels aren’t as far-fetched as they sound. Shared living areas have been a tabled proposal for years and now more than ever, with the rising public consciousness about LGBTQ+ rights and dismantling of archaic and irrelevant stereotypes, it is closer to reality.