What women want

This is the issue that many raised after a controversial statement by AMU VC. And it seems that many women students here are fine with the limited freedom they get

By Meha Mathur in Aligarh Photos By Anil Shakya
The website of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) proudly flashes photographs of its students demonstrating in support of the vice chancellor, Lt Gen (Retd) Zameer Uddin Shah, who was recently caught in a media furore. These photographs are telling because, unlike other campuses where students agitate over their rights, here, they are expressing confidence in the VC and satisfaction over the way the campus is run. AMU was in the news recently over a media report that undergraduate students of Abdullah Hall, the girls’ college of AMU, were being denied entry to the central Maulana Azad Library of the main campus, and the VC saying in a light vein: “If girls are allowed in the library, four times more boys will flock to the library.” Instantly, from being a problem of seating capacity, it became a gender issue. The remark caused nationwide fury, with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) coming down heavily on the university authorities, and the Allahabad High Court directing it to open the gates of the library to these undergraduate girls. The university did the needful and changed rules to allow access to them from 8am to 11am every Sunday. Of course, it is a moot question as to how many girls would want to sacrifice their Sunday morning sleep for a library visit. Lt Gen Shah says the limited hours on Sundays are on account of rush in the library on week days. He admits the response so far has been lukewarm but adds: “Things take time to pick up.” Curious to understand the ethos and gender dynamics of AMU first-hand, we visited the campus in mid-December. Aligarh is a two-hour drive from Delhi, made easy by the Yamuna Expressway. As we traverse the labyrinthine gullies of the town where mounds of garbage are piled all over, we wonder how Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will succeed in small-town India. AMU is located in the new town and is a clean, green and orderly place. We are greeted by magnificent structures dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The biochemistry and chemistry block with majestic minarets and arches attracts us in particular, though the insides cry out for renovation.
It’s a quiet campus without much hustle and bustle, perhaps on account of exams. Unlike other campuses, we can’t see too many boys and girls having discussions or sharing a cup of tea in the open canteen. But we come across a striking sight for a campus with a cloistered atmosphere—smart, burqa-clad girls driving pink scooty. Quite a unique amalgamation of tradition with modernity. Our being on the campus evokes curiosity. Crowds gather, eyebrows are raised, and a few question the motive of the media being on the campus. This, despite us getting prior written permission from the administration. As we talk to the faculty, a lecturer from the Abdullah Hall says that the issue is not just about access to the library, but about the rules of this girls’ college. Named after Sheikh Abdullah, the college is about three kilometers outside the main AMU campus. The girls’ college is an oasis apart—it is lush green, has playgrounds, a canteen, swimming pool, parlor, and a library, though it is not as well-stocked as the Maulana Azad Library. Classes are just a few minutes’ walk from the hostels. Students are allowed to visit outside the campus every Sunday. Though everything is available there itself, preempting the need to step out, this lecturer finds it problematic. While students of undergraduate courses in social sciences and life sciences have classes here and are therefore confined to this campus—barring the lab work on the main campus in case of science students—those studying professional courses, such as medicine, vocational courses and also theology have classes on the main campus. So, do the girl students feel they are missing out on anything by not being allowed to go to the main campus? These questions are quickly quashed by many. Omar Peerzada, an alumnus and a member of the National Monitoring Committee for Minority Education under MHRD, says: “The restriction on movements is because of the overall state of affairs in our country. The atmosphere of insecurity necessitates that. Also, every educational institute, including Delhi University, has a code of conduct. But this does not mean girls are being denied anything. They swim and play hockey and badminton.” Dr Sheeba Hamid, associate professor of tourism in the department of commerce, wonders: “Why do you feel they are being deprived? The woman’s college is a separate entity and its system is in the process of upgradation and full-fledged modernization.” She adds that girls who pass out of AMU are being given equal opportu-nities in placements and have taken up all kinds of careers. Surprising, a majority of girl students think on the same lines. When asked about more access and freedom, many ask: “Zaroorat kya hai (What is the need)?” Nazrana Mohammadi, doing her PhD in remote sensing, did her graduation from Abdullah Hall and postgraduation from the main campus. She defends the university stand, saying: “I have never felt any restriction and we can do what we want to do.” She says that students from her department have been recruited to ONGC, Geological Survey of India, Coal India, IITs and many research institutes. Kausar, a final-year student of BA Islamic Studies, says that Abdullah Hall, as well as all departments in AMU, have their own library. And all the books of Maulana Azad Library are listed on the online catalogue. In case a student wants a book, all she has to do is requisition it and the demand can be met here itself. Kahkashan Khanam, a research student of theology and a member of the students’ union, says there are two key issues here—that girls should get the books that they want and the seating capacity. “There’s no space in the library. Where will additional students sit?” While all these students seem to acquiesce with the rules, a student of a masters program, who refuses to be named, says that despite all the facilities Abdullah Hall provided, she just wanted to run away from it. “It’s when you move to the main campus that you realize what you were missing in terms of freedom and facilities,” she says. She questions the paternalistic attitude of the university authorities who seem to take on the role of guarding the “daughters” in collusion with their parents in a case of joint guardianship (read box). Dressed in jeans and a loose, long pullover, she says it takes guts to dress up like this in AMU. For example, she overheard a boy in her class saying: “Jab main kisi ladki ko jeans mein dekhta hoon toh mann karta hai ki bas… (when I spot a girl in jeans I just feel like…)” And once, when she filed a harassment complaint, the authorities were supportive, but the girl students in her class asked her: “Kyon ghoomti hai itna katto ban ke (Why do you roam around dressed up like this)?” The unsaid dress code means that those who do not adhere to it are singled out for criticism and discomforting looks. This writer experienced it herself while visiting the historic Strachey Hall of the university. The emphasis on dress code became clear when, on March 8, 2014 (Women’s Day), students organized a huge exhibition, and, using models, demonstrated how a woman should dress up. The faculty member we spoke to earlier said this was not so when she was a student. Those who donned the hijab and burqa were the odd ones out. However, Mustafa Zaidi, associate professor, Library and Information Sciences, puts the issue of access within the larger socio-cultural context. “You need to understand the peculiar conditions of the Indian Muslim community, which necessitates segregation. The other alternative is that if we open up, there will be no girls’ education at all. There’s a lot of debate going on about what level of education girls should have.” He adds: “Modernity is creeping in slowly. Only, don’t talk about it, or else, they will backtrack. The scooty has, indeed, liberated many girls. But if you conduct a survey and ask parents whether they will allow their girls to drive a scooty, they will reply: ‘Of course not’. Decisions are being taken at home at the insistence of girls. A silent change is happening.” How the university facilitates this change and empowers girl students will also determine the future of the Muslim community and the country as a whole. And therein lies their power and authority.   IMG_8645finall-1

 Anil Shakya is a staff photographer at India Legal. He earlier worked with The Statesman, among other publications. As a photo journalist, he brings to the table a fresh perspective to photographs.