Is Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) vice-chancellor’s justification for denying 2,523 undergraduate students of the all-girls Women’s College membership to the Maulana Azad library being blown out of proportion? Or is there more at stake here?

Lt Gen (retd) Zameer Uddin Shah is reported to have said that allowing the students of Women’s College into the main library would lead to ‘four times more boys’ thronging the library. In the face of the outrage that followed, Shah said the reports were wrong. It was not his intention to segregate girls. The real issue was, “That library cannot accommodate more students," he told ANI.

But the clarification hardly helps. There is no shortage of solutions to a space-crunch—a shift system, for instance or pre-booking a time slot to sit and read. Keeping students of an affiliated college out of the library is hardly what you’d expect the vice-chancellor of one of the country’s most prestigious learning institutions to come up with. It goes against the grain of learning and the spirit of education.

Women’s College students can borrow books from their own library. If they want to issue books from Maulana Azad central library, located 3 km away from their college, they must use an inter-library loan desk facility. But they cannot become members, a long-standing demand of the students. They cannot enter the hallowed precincts of Maulana Azad library.

To be sure, boys as well as girls enrolled at AMU are allowed library membership. The restriction applies only to Women’s College.

“It is not at all an issue of gender," AMU English Prof Asim Siddiqui told Mint. “Library membership is open to girls but not to the students of Women’s College."

The stand, however, does not answer the question: Why deny library membership to students from an affiliated college, when they themselves are keen on it? To claim that they can get books without physically entering the library is to circumscribe their educational experience. Perhaps it is time to consider relaxing water-tight provisions of segregation. And is it really a university’s place to deny a student, any student, the right to library membership?

Across the country, women and girls from big cities and nondescript villages battle personal aspiration with societal convention. Segregation is the convention at Women’s College, founded 106 years ago as a small school with the aim of educating girls. Today it “aspires to play an important role in sharing the traditional mode of education along with the modern needs of contemporary society," says its website.

“The world is moving ahead but AMU cannot seem to move away from its regressive mindset," said a former professor of English who also was resident warden in one of the girls’ hostels. Students at Women’s College are allowed out only on Sundays and only after intensive screening on where they are going, and with whom.

Very often the sexism at AMU comes from the male students themselves. Last month, students objected to girls waving flags during the student union elections. In July 2013 a circular pasted by the provost at a girls’ hostel asking them to wear ‘decent clothes’ like salwar-kameez led to a furore, causing the circular to be withdrawn. Earlier still, male students were so upset about a planned dance competition to be held inside a girl’s hostel (and, therefore, before an all-girls audience) that they organized a signature campaign to get it cancelled.

The eight-storey Maulana Azad Library is said to be amongst the country’s finest. With a collection of two lakh books and periodicals including 10,000 rare documents just in the oriental division, it houses another 15,162 rare manuscripts including one on parchment in the Koofi script said to have been inscribed by Hazrat Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam, 1,400 years ago.

The students at Women’s College are not asking for unreasonable freedoms. Just the right to be recognized as bonafide students of a university with full membership rights. Instead of continuing with a segregation that goes back decades, the vice-chancellor might have considered their demand favourably. Institutions, particularly educational institutions, play a huge role in the fight for justice and inclusion—and AMU is no exception.

Women’s College counts amongst its alumni the fiery and revolutionary Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai. Perhaps she would have been moved by the symbolism of watching a new generation of modern students stepping out of their cloistered walls into a world-class library. This, after all, is how revolutions begin. This, after all, is the first stepping stone to a long road of social change. For now that stepping stone is still a giant leap away for the students at Women’s College.

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