Home / Education / News /  Being a feminist in conservative Aligarh Muslim University

Aligarh: At 4.50pm, just 10 minutes before the university administration’s doors shut for the day, over 30 students of the Women’s College of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) gathered on the stairs leading up to the registrar office. The group spread itself out on the stairway and locked all the entrances. Soon, the students had barricaded the building and taken everyone by surprise. The slogans then began to ring: “RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) murdabad, chaatra-ekta zindabad (Down with RSS. Long live student unity). Three days earlier, on 12 February, a clash between Republic TV staffers and some college students had resulted in sedition charges against 14 male students (the sedition charges were dropped later).

Outside the registrar building, male students stood in solidarity with the women, asking them not to give up. The administration, on its part, called the wardens. Since the women were all hostel residents, the wardens are considered to be their natural guardians—an assumption that irked the women even more, since most of them are over 18 years. Once it became clear that the women wouldn’t budge, the parents were contacted. The first call went to students’ union president Afreen Fatima’s father, who responded by saying: “Accept her demands and she will move."

Some parents, however, asked their daughters to go back to their hostels, and they obeyed. But the majority of the students were angry because this wasn’t the first time such an incident had happened here. From the (Muhammad Ali) Jinnah portrait controversy, to efforts to remove the word “Muslim" from the university’s name, to attempts at labelling the university a hub of terrorists, a series of incidents had over the years catapulted the campus into the middle of a fast engulfing culture war. The women had seen enough. On that day, they were not ready to relent.

The building remained locked till 12.30am. The wardens, a few teachers, the non-teaching staff, and the sloganeering young women were all holed up inside together.

“We didn’t plan it in advance," says 20-year-old Fatima. “I know this shouldn’t be something that we as a union should be proud of, but it was a movement we managed all by ourselves. It needed to be done because the administration was silent," she adds.

In February, over 30 students of the Women’s College of Aligarh Muslim University gathered on the stairs leading up to the registrar office and put the campus on a lockdown till midnight
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In February, over 30 students of the Women’s College of Aligarh Muslim University gathered on the stairs leading up to the registrar office and put the campus on a lockdown till midnight (PTI)

While the immediate trigger might have been the “unjust" sedition charges, and the implication of being “anti-nationals", the anger was built up over many months—via an endless set of rules that govern the lives of these young women. The lockdown broke an important rule. For those living in Abdullah Hall (female-only residential facility), 5.00pm was “curfew time". The next day, the provost called some parents and told them that their girls were found “mingling with boys at night". The protesting women, who understand the politics of language, got the underlying meaning, and called a general body meeting seeking the provost’s resignation for maligning their character.

“The idea was to at least get him to call our parents again and say sorry," says Fatima. And that happened. The next day, the university gave it in writing that the disciplinary committee would sit and decide on the suspension of four students and also take action against the goons who allegedly entered the campus with guns along with the Republic TV crew.

The lockdown is now part of campus lore and has joined a long list of other marquee moments. In 2014, students from the Women’s College stepped into the university’s central library, Maulana Azad Library, for the first time since the 1960s when they were barred from accessing it due to an “infrastructure issue". AMU’s girls’ hostels that permitted only one-day outings for women now allow women to go out thrice a week. This March, the Women’s College hosted its first-ever Women Leadership Summit. The institution now has a women’s field hockey team.

What is happening on the campus of one of India’s oldest universities in the western edge of Uttar Pradesh is representative of a wider movement being led by young women who are dragging society by the scruff and asking questions about a series of “that’s how it is done" rules. From the University of Delhi and Banaras Hindu University to Panjab University, something is afoot. Women have always resisted patriarchal attempts to view the university as a safe transit point between the father and the husband. But the voices of resistance are growing louder and more public. Pinjra tod (break the locks) is more of a norm than a fringe. On the campus lawns in Aligarh, references to iconic former students like feminist Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai are common. But what does it mean to be a feminist in Aligarh today, at a moment when religion and student life have become inextricably linked to national politics?

Shades of feminism

The town of Aligarh is often reflexively conservative like most small towns in the country. Women in the main campus, as well as the Women’s College, are predominantly dressed in abayas, burqas, or some form of hijab, giving an impression that religion dominates their lives even within the campus. But attire is a poor indicator of outlook. Many of the women are part of music bands, the hockey team, and the drama club. There are even a few who are part of a satanic cult.

The women have private lives which are not on display to a casual observer—they read nihilist literature; they have read the Bronte sisters and Virginia Woolf; and they have all devoured Albert Camus and Saadat Hasan Manto. They say literature has the potential to change even those ideas that one might have thought are lifelong beliefs. Some of them are part of a feminist group within the campus called Qafila, which was formed after the issue of triple talaq was raised by the ruling government. While the practice must obviously go, they say, it is naïve to not look at the “motive" behind. Most of them are politically aware, speak English fluently, dream and aspire like young people of their age elsewhere, and they do all this with the hijab on.

“What’s the big deal, it is just a costume. A piece of fabric. Just move on," says Zehra Naqvi, a 19-year-old student of social work. Zehra is a part of the drama club and her plays consciously focus on gender issues. Recently, her team did a play on the controversial issue of marital rape, raising many eyebrows. They were asked to tone it down a little, but they stuck to the script. As for the hijab, she says when it doesn’t “go with her role", she takes it off.

Lubna Irfan, 25, who doesn’t wear either a burqa or a hijab, says while religion may be a reason for some, the context of the hijab has changed in the current political climate. “Now, it has become an instrument of protest against the right-wing Hindutva forces, or a way to assert your identity."

Wearing hijab to assert the identity and as an instrument of political protest seems to be a common thread running across the university. And yet, 22-year-old Zainab Naqvi, a student of history, says if you are a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, you are left with absolutely no “allies". “People keep calling me a hypocrite. They say how can I be a feminist and carry this instrument of patriarchy on my head. Don’t tell me liberation comes only in a certain dress code. People like me are pigeonholed as oppressed and uncool, not only by other religions but also by the self-styled Muslim liberals," says Zainab.

Those times, those women

Ismat Chughtai and Rashid Jahan are names that instantly come up when the discussion veers towards women who attended the institution. Both were fiery, progressive writers and both were feminists. After them, the women of AMU for decades were imagined through the images of these two: in bob cuts, wearing sleeveless blouses and khadi sarees—a sight seldom seen in the university now. In those days, there were women teachers in the institution who would teach, while simultaneously puffing on their cigarettes, says Rahat Abrar, former spokesperson of AMU.

Then, things changed. Competitive communalism, rise in identity politics, rising majoritarianism, the emergence of a neo-Wahhabism—depending on who you are asking—are the reasons behind the rise of this overt expression of religious identity. But M. Mohibul Haque, associate professor of political science, says, “As Muslims are being pushed to the wall, religion is becoming their recourse."

Entering Abdullah Hall, a series of posters like “War against vulgarity" greet you. It is part of the Al Haya Min-Allah campaign—to “promote moral values". “These are just fringe groups, with hardly any support. But they exist, and why not?" asks Raunak Shahi, a postgraduate student of West Asian studies. “In a democracy, just like we are expressing our opinion, they can also express theirs, right? Diversity is fine as long as we don’t think our way is the only right way and force it on others."

Most students say they don’t even look at the posters, but they are there in Abdullah Hall—an area where the undergraduate women spend most of their time. Abdullah Hall is like a colony of its own. It has a fruit seller, a grocery store, a stationery shop, a basketball court, an auditorium. “What is this if not restricting our movement? It seems like the idea is to provide everything inside so that girls wouldn’t have to step out. In this way, the culture of the campus will supposedly be safe," says Naba Naseem, a second-year student, and former president of the women’s union. When she won the election in 2017, Naseem along with a few girls carried out a bullet bike rally around the campus. “The idea was to claim public spaces through a medium considered so masculine," she says. It was during her tenure that the outing days were increased from one to three. “There are some women who actually asked why do we even need more outing days. Some of us had to explain that the issue is not about whether we use all the outing days or not. The issue is: why are we barred."

Escaping the male gaze

AMU was established in 1875 by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to impart western education to Muslims. Aligarh, which before that was inconspicuous, both politically and architecturally, became known for a university that came to symbolize the aspirations of the Muslim community. The idea was radical at that time. While not being averse to female education on principle, Sir Syed did not want this idea to derail his main project.

“He succumbed to the prevailing patriarchy for pragmatic reasons. Otherwise, he would not have been able to raise funds," says Mohammad Sajjad, professor, department of history.

It was only after his death that the girls’ school, later college, was founded by younger men in the movement. The move was feared by both Hindus and Muslims in the town who thought this would lead to “immorality". There were palkis that carried the women to and fro from school to homes. In fact, there always was a “chilman" (curtain) between the teacher and the students, since in most cases the teacher was a male.

Even Papa Miyan, as the founder of the college Sheikh Abdullah was called, spoke to the women through a purdah. It took a teenager, Ismat Chughtai, to raise her voice and say: “If he is our father, why do we need the purdah." And from then onwards, Abdullah removed the curtain.

Abdullah’s own daughter, Rashid Jahan, was one of the four authors of a polemical collection of stories, Angaarey, which provoked outrage in 1932 with its attack on religious conservatism and British colonialism, and was banned in March 1933. But it led to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which revolutionized Urdu literature.

The issues have changed, but the battles remain. The students say the last few years have been particularly hard for AMU. Feminism informs their fight against arbitrary exercise of power of all kinds. But in the middle of an important national election, the sprawling lawns of AMU remain unnaturally quiet on most days.

There is an unspoken understanding among the students that “they" are waiting for this university to react, for “them" to find another reason to attack the university again. And even as these women talk bravely about their rights, at a time when “their group identity is under threat", they feel the constant burden of having to balance between asking for their rights and safeguarding their religious identity.

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