Redefining 'open spaces' in university campuses

Students seen enjoying in a canteen at Jamia Millia Islamia university Photograph:( WION )

WION Delhi, India Apr 04, 2017, 07.11 AM (IST) Zeba Khan

A place of education, like a university, is often revered for both the space it provides to develop newer ideas and to let existing ones to thrive. Many students say the spaces outside the classroom is what really impacts their lives, where they indulge in meaningful non-academic interactions. 

In search of these open spaces, I explored the famous canteens at one of India's most prestigious universities, Jamia Millia Islamia. 

A prominent women-only canteen, Dastarkhwan, is where you get everything from biryani (a rice and meat preparation) to savoury snacks to feed on. The word Dastarkhwan in Urdu means a table spread where a variety of food is served. The canteen is run exclusively by women and is operated by Ekta Self Help Group with a mission to provide employment to underprivileged women of the neighbourhood who can support their families with their earnings. It was started in 2015.

Inside Dastarkhwan:


When it began there were problems. Apart from difficulties procuring funds and finding employees who fit mission's criteria, the female employees faced the "explicit disapproval of the society". Boys who came to order food would abuse and threaten them. They would belittle the girls and make them feel guilty for coming out to earn. Also women working here would be tortured day in, day out by their husbands for stepping outside the homes, coming late from work, not taking care of the kids among many other things.

Dastarkhwan was started with a promise to build a synergy between the university and its surroundings. Two years later, have these open spaces changed?

Anjum, a final year master's student at Jamia, discusses the changing power equations here. She says, “Many things that were not okay a few years back are now easily seeping into the social system. Although issues like sexual harassment are at the fore, men are also equally participating in dialogues centred around women. They want to be a part of the change now more than ever.”

Now when around 40 women are seen walking into the campus to work--the society does not flinch. These women are accepted--they don't seem odd or out of place and are easily absorbed within the social fabric. 

Shabana, who heads the Dastarkwhan, believes things have changed for the better. “Now when people come to order food, the idea of a girl working does not perturb them. They are more accepting. Even the families of these women have become more open, more accommodating than before. The women are not tortured by the families too. Thus, this open space is the epicentre of changing social dynamics.”

Dastarkhwan is opening up dialogue between men and women to break stereotypical Indian social narratives, but another canteen on campus has an interesting tale to tell. 


The Castro Cafe is named after Fidel Castro, one of the most famous anti-imperialist leaders of modern times. Castro Cafe not only has the best tea in the campus but promises a good, long talk while feeding on snacks.

Part liberal and part conservative, the canteen has grown to play an important part in the lives of the students: Students from different religions and cultural backgrounds may get exposed to concepts and ideas that are hard or sensitive to discuss in a classroom, but aren't in an informal setting like a canteen. 

The commitee tasked with supervising the renovation at the canteen affirms that they consciously created a space like Castro Cafe with certain values in mind.

“By creating a modern eating facility with a sleek look, we wanted to project a progressive image of Jamia,” a committee member said. He adds, “Jamia was built out of the anti-colonial movement and Castro Cafe reminds us of the anti-imperialist cause.” 

With indoor and outdoor seating, students come to these “open spaces” to let down, share memories and opinions and hope to make a difference while exploring themselves in the process. 

Students come to these 'open spaces' to let down, share memories and opinions and hope to make a difference while exploring themselves in the process. 

Both Dastarkhwan and Castro Cafe complement each other in offering a space for a “different kind of a dialogue”, one that we must cherish and encourage.

After all, what is a university campus without a healthy exchange of ideas over a cup of tea and samosas?