As Shaheen Bagh Fights, Where Are the Women of Aligarh?

AMU's female students face three layers of resistance: the administration, women who are radical anti-feminists and those who claim to be the custodians of Aligarh 'tehzeeb'.

I write this in despondency, with the horrific night of December 15 in my memory.

I write this when times are hard, when my people are being shot dead for being Muslims, when the dark shadow of the National Population Register looms over our heads, when women all over the world are influenced by the she-roes of Shaheen Bagh and Jamia and I remain aloof.

Why did women of Aligarh not fight with equal mettle? Two thousand undergraduate female students found themselves on road on the morning of December 16 when the so-called guardians let go of all responsibility after an undeclared sine die closure.

After reading the chapter in Secluded Scholars dedicated to Women’s College of AMU, ‘School for Wives’ I am reminded of a statement from the film Parched: ‘Women who read make bad wives’. During the time of Sheikh Abdullah, the pioneer of Muslim women education and the founder of the Women’s College of Aligarh Muslim University, the same narrative was prevalent.

Minault writes:

“Rather than emphasising a clean break with traditional family ties – Sir Sayyid’s idea for Aligarh boys – the girls’ school should emphasise a continuation of family traditions and observances, obedience and authority.”

The campaign for female education was carried out by the proponents of Aligarh Movement on the pretext that women with adequate and censored education, in proper ‘purdah’, would make better wives than uneducated women matched with educated Muslim men of Aligarh Muslim University. Thus, with much ado, Sheikh Abdullah convinced families to send their ‘sharif’ daughters to the residential school where he created an atmosphere that was a mirror image of the suppressive domestic household environment prevalent then.

Also read: What Aligarh Muslim University Can Learn From Its Women Students

That was the beginning of Abdullah Hall, a beautiful well enclosed place, with peacocks dancing in greenery and flowers blooming in spring. A place that paid no heed to Article 19 of the Indian constitution just as Amit Shah decided to pay no need to Article 14 of the constitution, a place as hopeless as the Indian judiciary.

In the small city of Aligarh, the historic facade of ‘Bab-e-Syed’ and the monumental legacy of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan unintentionally overshadows a smaller world of unheard issues in the girls’ residential hostel and Women’s College of Aligarh Muslim University, Abdullah Hall. The campus of this college is rather peaceful since it is designed to remain unaffected by the outside world – a kind of confinement not heard of in the modern world.

Aligarh Muslim University students protest at the gate of the university campus. Credit: PTI

Aligarh Muslim University. File photo. Photo: PTI

In recent months, Abdullah Hall has witnessed deliberate restrictions on free movement, an unacceptable invasion of privacy, unduly character assassination, misuse of power by post holders, slander and curtailment of basic freedom. Over the years, the students merely acquiesced to the rule of one Sunday outing per week, and cancellation of the same if Valentine’s Day or a festival fell on that day.

Article 19 of the Indian constitution deems it a constitutional right to move freely in India. A life that restricts a girl from stepping out of the campus on an idle afternoon on a Wednesday is a life undreamt of. Any outing requires a long process which includes acquiring an application of consent from a parent and the permission of the warden, who is free to decline as per her will. Incidentally, other girls’ residential halls in Aligarh Muslim University – wherein the undergraduate students of engineering, medicine and law reside – do not observe such absurd rules.

On September 24, 2019, a new provost, Ghazala Naheed, was appointed to Abdullah Hall. Within a week of her appointment, she issued a diktat cancelling the provision of special outings (what is so special about stepping out on a Monday?) since there are already three normal outings in a week, imposing a curfew hour at 5.30 pm, forbidding one to one interactions with Zomato and Swiggy delivery executives after 6 pm, planting surveillance cameras everywhere and discouraging girls from participating in competitions and workshops held outside the girls’ campus.

Also read: At Shaheen Bagh, Muslim Women Take Their Place as Heroes of the Movement

The founder of the Women’s College, AMU, Sheikh Abdullah (1874-1965) is considered to be a father figure, fondly called ‘Papa Mian’ by residents of the Abdullah Hall. With the support of his wife, Waheed Jahan Begum, he established a girls’ school that later developed into a college, educating women of orthodox families that were reluctant to accept scientific education for even their sons. His collective contribution to the community is praiseworthy and he is still remembered with utmost love by the women whose lives were changed because of his efforts.

However, even after a hundred years, Abdullah Hall is still struggling with issues that should have long been done away with. The outside world can scarcely imagine what goes on inside the campus. With seven hostels accommodating undergraduate and high school girls, a small library, a gymnasium, a canteen, two small shops, a tailor, a shady beauty parlour, a playground and an auditorium, Abdullah Hall is a small village with utilities placed in the vicinity for students, hence rejecting their plea for free movement.

Abdullah Hall was known to be a purdah boarding, where the curriculum, comprising elementary mathematics, needlework, Urdu – which was the household language – and basic account-keeping to prepare them for marriages was different from that of men. Living inside Abdullah Hall in 2020, one wonders if the change in the subject curriculum has reformed the idea that education is required to nurture Muslim women into good wives that rear good children.

In her paper Reform and Identity: Purdah in Muslim Women’s Education in Aligarh in the Early Twentieth Century, Shadab Bano wrote:

“Clearly, the observance of purdah remained crucial to the entire project of women’s education at Aligarh. Abdullah hall was laid out with high enclosing wall all around and the hostel/school building placed within was separate enclosures again with high obscuring walls, some sort of double protection from outside gaze was provided. Special arrangements for purdah were made even though it was enclosed from all sides. Particular care for purdah was taken in all its details so that it appears perfectly safe from all sorts of criticism. Whatever be the requirements of purdah at that stage, it had a deep impact in the founding of the institution and fixing its nature and rendering it more respectable.

The purdah had been so strong that even letters for the girls would be first scanned by Wahid Jahan and then passed on to girls. When Abdullah addressed the students there was a screen put up between him and the students. Students who were not blood relatives could not go out to meet him. So while confinement of women in the smaller settings of house hold spaces was regarded as excessive and there for eg hair sharii; confinement of girls in the larger enclosure of the boarding school with only conditional guarded movement was regarded as perfectly legitimate”.

Also read: We Are Seeing, for the First Time, a Sustained Countrywide Movement Led by Women

The campus has witnessed rebellion several times in recent past, girls have broken locks to protest only to face severe ramifications and character assassination as a result. In 2013, a manual made it compulsory for women to be dressed in decent ‘salwar kameez’ with a ‘dupatta’ and imposed a fine of Rs 500 if the regulations weren’t followed.

In 2012, female students were barred from entering the university’s Maulana Azad Library, one of the biggest libraries in Asia. The issue made several headlines and for four long years, the central library was closed for the women students.

Such cases are countless: four girls in a two-seated room were caught smoking cigarettes in the month of September, 2019. Smoking inside the premises of residential halls is an unstated offence that does not apply to men who are employed in the hall, the gate-keepers and the workers. The canteen behind the Maulana Azad Library offers a spectacle where boys can be seen smoking cigarettes along with their professors.

Women protest at Shaheen Bagh. Photo: PTI

Thus, smoking, indeed hazardous, is an offence inside the campus for girls because it is directly associated with the character of the girl caught smoking. Does an offence of this magnitude give the head girl and the wardens the liberty to snatch a girl’s phone and scroll through her personal pictures? Five wardens with the then provost, interrogated the girls for four hours, used abusive language for them, “yeh tawaif hain (these girls are harlots)”, and instead of punishing them, used it as an excuse to call a girl’s parent and say, “Apki beti ke nudes hain, dekhenge aap? Bhejoon aapko? Puchiye kya karti hai (Should I send your daughter’s nudes to you? Ask her about her activities)”. The girl’s father suffered a heart stroke. Her phone was unlocked and kept in the warden’s custody for three days.

Such an instance, observed closely by many, was a sheer violation of Article 21 of the Indian constitution: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.”

Also read: The Brave Women of Shaheen Bagh

With augmented oppression and curtailed rights, women have institutionalised the suppression of freedom of speech. Ironically and unfortunately, the revolt of students faces three layers of resistance – the administration, women who are radical anti-feminists and a section of male students in the university, sherwani posh who claim to be the protectors of Aligarh tehzeeb (tradition).

Newman once wrote:

“A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society…It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.”

The idea of a university is challenged every day by the administration, the soul of this institution is asleep, and it needs to be reawakened. While Delhi burnt, Shaheen Bagh rebelled and ‘Jamia ki ladkiyan’ fought at the forefront against the state. ‘Aligarh ki shehzadiyan’ sat with a suspended internet connection and no outing.

Hayaat Fatemah is an undergraduate student at Aligarh Muslim University.