At Aligarh Muslim University, Women Candidates Gear Up to Change the Tide

Battling misogyny, political dynamics and general apathy, women candidates are hoping to herald a change this year.

Aligarh Muslim University. Credit: Abdullah Zaini

Aligarh Muslim University. Credit: Abdullah Zaini

Unperturbed by the stifling atmosphere on a sultry October morning, Kehkashan Khanam was gearing up to address a small group of students inside the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) campus. A doctoral student in the department of theology, Khanam is the only woman among five candidates contesting for the vice president post in the student’s union polls scheduled to be held on October 8. No female candidate is contesting for the posts of AMUSU president or secretary.

Khanam’s audience largely consisted of male students. At a few meters’ distance from the gathering, some female students were engrossed in conversation but joined the gathering on Khanam’s request. Dressed in a black burqa, Khanam commenced her speech by earnestly reminding her audience that she protested against the administration and sat on a dharna through the night a few days ago to ensure that the vice chancellor reverted the decision to cancel the elections and announced a new date for it. Impressed listeners welcomed this with loud claps. “This was to winnow out the propaganda my opponents have against me that I would be unreachable during the night time,” she clarified when asked about the requirement of that statement.

“I am aware that I am fighting this election against great odds…but I shall make history,” Khanam asserted. She was the only female representative in AMUSU’s 2014-15 cabinet.

The list of erstwhile AMUSU presidents is still waiting for a woman’s name, while the posts of vice president and secretary continue to heavily male dominated.

Victory for candidates in AMUSU elections hinge upon several factors. One of them is the unending support of a regional lobby. Even an unknown and undeserving candidate can emerge victorious if strongly backed by an influential regional lobby. For instance, the Bihari lobby is particularly influential, because of the overwhelming presence of Bihari students at the university. Controlled by a few senior students, these regional lobbies are male-exclusive groups. These students – often called ‘kingmakers’ in campus parlance – want their lackeys at these posts. The lobbies are also backed by many university teachers.

“Being a woman actually dampens the chances of winning,” said Ghazala Ahmad, a third-year student and one of the three female candidates contesting for the ten cabinet posts on offer. “The dominating opinion is that women cannot lead. It is unfortunate that female contestants are not judged on their abilities.”

Partly to blame for the dismal representation of women in AMUSU is their own disinclination in university politics and voting. Labiba Sherwani, a female contender for the cabinet post, said, “Girls will have to come out in their full strength. We do not have to depend on the sympathy of anyone. To claim our rights and set things in proper order, we will have to fight.” Sherwani believes that reserving some seats for females can improve women’s representation in the union, “particularly one chair post – either vice-president or secretary.”

What happens after women manage to win an election? “I remained largely unsupported and had major clashes on multiple issues with the male representatives in the union. I was not powerless though and pushed for important women issues,” said Wajiha Mehdi, an ex-cabinet member of AMUSU and the only female representative in the 2011-12 students’ union. “The vice-president of the union wanted an all-men students’ union. They snubbed women’s issues and wanted a male coterie camouflaged as AMUSU. How could they disregard women’s rights to fight elections and represent students?” She stopped going to the union hall and attending meetings to register her discontent until an apology was tendered.

Incidentally, strident criticism of the miserable state of women’s representation appeared from the male supporter of a female contestant I spoke to. Sitting alongside the candidate, he said, “Very few male students in the university want a woman to represent them. Boys just cannot digest girls leading them.” The seven other associates with her could not agree more. All silently nodded in approval.