Invited to speak at the college day celebrations of the Women’s College in Aligarh, I found myself in the eye of the media-generated storm that has outraged many, for very different reasons. Speaking to the major dramatis personae in this tragedy of errors reinforces the old adage: nothing is as it seems. What is more, when the ground realities are complex but less sensationalist, there are few takers for the “real” story. And when the real story itself has more than one side, the boundaries between right and wrong get blurred.
First, the facts: On November 10, at the inauguration ceremony of the Women’s College students union, the newly elected vice president reiterated a longstanding demand for undergraduate girls to be allowed to use the Maulana Azad Library (MAL), like their male counterparts.
The arrangement at present is that female undergraduate students for non-professional courses are enrolled at the Women’s College; female students of professional graduate courses such as law, engineering, medicine, etc, as well as coed students of all postgraduate courses and research scholars, study on the main campus and use all the facilities available to their male counterparts, including the MAL. The girls at the Women’s College use the college library; a catalogue of the MAL is available to them and they can place orders for books that are delivered the next day.
An oft-repeated demand from the girls has been for free access to the MAL, a demand that has been turned down on grounds ranging from an acute space crunch in the MAL, the distance between the Women’s College and the MAL (three kilometres) and security reasons (the university administration cites incidents of chain-snatching and harassment on that stretch).
The demand by the vice president, Noorain Batool, was made in the context of providing facilities to the girls “on par with the rest of the university campus”, such as high-speed wifi, clean drinking water, extension of existing sports facilities, round-the-clock ambulance etc. The vice chancellor, Zameeruddin Shah, responded by remarking that the presence of girls would “attract” boys and cause “four times more boys to show up” at the MAL.
A video clip of the vice chancellor making this remark was made available to the media, and a leading national daily was the first to carry the report, along with allegations of the “retrograde” and discriminatory nature of the vice chancellor and his administration and the gender bias that underlines administrative decisions. Soon, social media was agog with outrage over the “regressive” AMU and its sexist policies; the HRD minister termed the incident an “insult to daughters”.
However, something strange happened thereafter. Unlike previous occasions, the university chose to come together in a rare show of solidarity. Angered by the media trial and what it perceives as a wilful stereotyping by the outside world, the students union — both of the Women’s College and the university — led a protest march on November 12, carried placards expressing support for the vice chancellor and burnt effigies of the national daily that had first carried the news report.
Taking this to be a classic case of the “Stockholm syndrome”, I probed and prodded those I met during my two-day visit. While some felt this was a “ghar ka maamla”, an internal matter they were perfectly equipped to deal with themselves, others cited an emotional attachment to the university that has always been “different” from others because of its unique place in the educational history of India and is therefore allowed to keep its quaintness.
Still others maintained that the AMU was guilty of no special gender bias and that the arrangement is purely administrative. Why does no one question, they ask, the different set of rules for male and female boarders in coed hostels, such as the one, for instance, at St Stephens in Delhi? Had there been gender bias at the AMU, they argue, would postgraduate girls be found in the MAL? Another set believed that since many girls come from conservative families, in maintaining the status quo, the vice chancellor was doing no more than performing his role as guardian of the girls in his charge.
Asim Siddiqui, who teaches English, believes there are “multiple voices at the AMU and no discernible dominant voice”, meaning, therefore, that for every radical there is a reactionary and for every traditionalist there is an equal number of reformers within the university community. Mohammad Sajjad says, “While the row over allowing women into the AMU library has been wrongly portrayed, it does not mean gender biases are non-existent
in AMU. The campus does have its own share of all kinds of cultural and ideological prejudices prevalent in the world outside. The AMU campus is not a segregated island.”
Maintaining that he is far from regressive, the vice chancellor, too, rues the fact that he and the university are being “judged by a separate yardstick”, that is, separate from the rest of India. He gives the example of Miranda House, affiliated to the University of Delhi, whose undergraduate students are not permitted to use the central library less than a kilometre away, since the college has its own library. However, once Miranda House students enrol for postgraduate courses, they can use both their college library and the central library as well as the seminar libraries.
In this Babel of contrary voices, a few things seem unequivocal. One, the vice chancellor’s simile was unfortunate; he has since admitted as much and maintained that his intention was not to denigrate girls. Two, patriarchy, no matter how benign and well intentioned, unconsciously serves the cause of segregation and abets those forces that don’t want to bring girls on par with boys.
Three, the swiftest and most comprehensive online catalogue cannot match the joy of browsing through bookshelves and making serendipitous discoveries. And last, the kangaroo courts of public opinion must stop delivering instant verdicts on minority institutions. As the Aligarh incident has demonstrated yet again, liberal voices are as unaware of the ground realities as bigoted ones, and just as off the mark and quick to pronounce judgement. Uninformed public opinion, emotional outbursts and a tendency to communalise purely administrative decisions increase the sense of being besieged and beleaguered that prevails in places such as the AMU.
Postscript: The Women’s College students union has found a solution: “Give us a weekly bus trip to the MAL; it takes care of your security concern and we get our access.” The vice chancellor has offered to go a step further: “Give me money to expand the MAL, and I will.” Is the HRD ministry listening? Will it hasten to redeem the “insult to daughters”? Will the campaign to raise funds for the students of the Women’s College find as many bleeding hearts as those who expressed outrage at their exclusion?
Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. Her recent work is ‘Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu
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