One would think that the focal point of any university and the experience of being at university is the institution's library. Not for students of Women's College at Aligarh Muslim University, it seems. Denied access to the central university library - the famous Maulana Azad Library - most girl students of AMU Women's College graduate without knowing what it is like to walk down aisles of bookshelves, to browse through journals and chance upon that one-very-interesting-article, to explore and discover the wealth of knowledge beyond the realms of textbooks.
Confined within the walls of the Women's College campus with all halls of residences within those boundaries, undergraduate female students are relegated to the position of second class students at AMU. While the rest of the university students enjoy the wealth of the famous Maulana Azad Library, these female students can borrow books only from the College library. The College library is not only poorly equipped but is also a closed access library - students cannot browse through bookshelves, they can only look up the reference number of the book in the catalogue and ask one of the staff to fetch it for them.
When Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 to provide elite Western education to Indian Muslims, the issue of educating women was hardly considered worthy to be deliberated upon. It was common understanding that the institution would cater to the provision of education for Muslim men, initially at least. It wasn't until Sheikh Abdullah and his wife Waheed Jahan Begum started rooting for women's education in the early 1900s that this issue gained some prominence in Aligarh.
In 1906, the couple established, not without facing any resistance, a small school with ten female students enrolled on the opening day. This humble beginning was a major breakthrough for the early 20th century when Indian women, especially Muslim Indian women, were still very much confined to the home and domestic duties. This school went on to become a degree college and got associated with the Aligarh Muslim University in 1937.
It is very unfortunate that what was once a progressive, almost a radical idea and institution has today become riddled with apathy towards and ignorance of social and political issues that affect women. The institution that by promising safe space for women started a new wave for women's education has become a stifling detriment for women reaching their full potential on par with their male peers.
The issue of granting access to the central library to students of Women's College is primarily that of mobility. Undergraduate girl students of AMU don't have access to the same resources as their male counterparts do. This restriction, however, is only a ripple effect of the restraint on women students' mobility in the university. Allowed to step out of the intimidating gates of Women's College only once a week at the most, these students are excluded not only from the library but also from the literary and cultural activities and programmes at the university, most of which take place in the magnificent Kennedy auditorium on the main campus.
Regressive elements in the university often cite the need to 'protect' women to justify restrictions on their mobility. In the age of Facebook and 3G internet, it is impossible to restrict mobility of those who don't want to be restricted. But wait, maybe the university can try banning use of internet on Women's College campus as well? Who these women are supposed to be protected from is not entirely clear because if it's their fellow male students, then surely the university needs to be concerned about the behaviour of its male students rather than its female students?
Another oft-cited reason for these restrictions is the fear of girls 'misusing' their 'privileges'. How does one ensure that these girls will go only to the library and back? The fear that allowing these students to go to the library will result in them proliferating other university spaces is indicative of the insecurity of the farcical patriarchal structure of the university. Others have gone as far as to say that the main library is already crowded, allowing female students will only put more pressure on its services. Sure, how about disallowing half of undergraduate male students from using the main library?
Besides being blatantly discriminatory, this exclusion is also illogical. Often passed in the name of Muslim and Aligarian 'culture' and 'tradition', these restrictions are not applied uniformly to all girl students at the university. Girl students enrolled in professional courses like MBBS and B Tech (and hence lodged outside the precincts of Women's College) can step out of their hostels every day and can access the main university campus and the Maulana Azad Library. Are these students not the same age as students at Women's College? Or is there any reason, elusive to me, that they do not have to subscribe to the same traditions and culture?
There are more, equally unreasonable, and quite predictable, excuses that one can come up with to perpetuate the status quo, the bottom line being that they are exactly that - unreasonable and regressive.
I am an alumnus of the College. The first time I stepped into the Maulana Azad Library, I was awed by its grandeur but more than that, I felt frustration at not being able to reach out to those shelves, browse through books and borrow a tiny bit of that wealth. It is time that the university stops infantilising and discriminating against its female students and starts treating them with equal dignity and respect.
*Originally published on CNN IBN