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The Gender Experience At
Aligarh Muslim University

By Nazia Y.Izuddin

10 June, 2004

Aligarh Muslim University is a romantic dream for Muslims all over the world. True that in the late 80's, the university, then, the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College, revolutionized education for the backward Muslim community. The founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan envisioned that this institution would educate men and women who would lead Muslim community to modern thought, liberation and progress. A vision that progressive Muslims globally are still trying to achieve.

Whenever I talk about Aligarh Muslim University to its alumni, many have been offended by what they think is criticism by a westernized wannabe-feminist Muslim girl who has forgotten her roots and culture. It has been difficult for me to not express concerns not just as a present student of the institution but also as a member of the Muslim community wanting to uphold the sanctity of an institution as great as AMU. After enough contemplation I have decided to share my experiences even if it may raise discontempt from any quarters.

When I joined Aligarh Muslim University, I had in mind a grand central university fulfilling international standards in adult learning. An institution that would expose young men and women to radical thinking and action. Where, the community would find a vent to overcome the backwardness it has been crippled with educationally and socially. Unfortunately my four years has revealed the reasons why we cannot break through the great cultural divide between education and progress. One of the reasons being my gender that pre dominates categories for judgment in the still biased university.

It was only after a month in the university that I discovered that classes in bachelors degrees and courses till twelfth grade were separate for men and women. Well the question might be "is this a genuine issue that needs deliberation"? My answer being, yes, it is.

The reasons that women still are restricted in Abdullah Hall, an exclusive hall for women, including all facilities from classes to shopping to play grounds is succumbing to the so called Islamic view that women need to be protected. And since the authority, every one from the watchman to the Proctor claim that Aligarh Muslim University upholds Islamic values, they have to cater to women's education within these so-called values.

These values made it very difficult for the men to accept my presence in the arts center, in the debating societies that were exclusive to men, the drama club that hadn't cast female roles in years and even the university roads and playgrounds. Women were expected to take rickshaws and not walk. And all the while, you are a subject of scrutiny to male eyes examining righteousness and piety in your clothes, actions and speech.

Power has always been a male phenomenon here. They make the rules, to their convenience and enforce it in the guise of Islam and the need for protecting women. Isn't education about equipping individuals to protect and defend themselves. If the system endorses your cripple status, who will liberate you? Here begins the concern to take Aligarh Muslim University for the values that it truly upheld at one point in history.

Aligarh Muslim University has never had a female member in the students union. It has never had women representation in intervarsity sports and games competitions, for thirteen long years, women did not represent the university in the national youth festival. It was in 2000, the year I joined college, the secretary of the literary club convinced the Coordinator that the girls could be part of the team. After severe deliberation, finally the university took its first mixed group of men and women. Though it was historical and might sound primitive for an age old institution, the opposition and the criticism and scrutiny the girls had to go through can't be stated in words. We are not talking about a team of students here. But a team of men who have renounced the student status and taken upon themselves to guard women in their university from the clutches of modernity and liberal influences. They would watch whom you talk to, the way you talk and tell you when to move, when to sit and when to eat.

When I am at Aligarh Muslim University, I am quite often reminded that I am a girl and how indecent it is for me to be moving with men, even if there is an educational cause. Scared of these value judgments, girl students restrict themselves to their hostels. Which means a life of only lectures and classes in a residential university where a student spends on an average at least three years. I see a few of my class mates, girls who had come with ambition and talent who are now silent residents in their respective halls. There is no life beyond tutors and classes in the university campus for women while on the other hand men play football and basketball in the playgrounds, learn sitar and tabla in the music club and spend their night hours in the university's 24 hour Maulana Azad Library.

Who will take up our cause? Is it that Muslim girls don't deserve quality education?

Or is that they are second to men and should only live in the shadow of their male members always? Or is it that Aligarh Muslim University for women is only an elitist qualification for a good social marriage?

Whatever it has been, I don't think I would be one of those to silently accept the majority endorsed status of segregated education. Our identities can't be crushed within the walls of the university campus. For all I know, as the students gain more exposure, they will stand up for themselves. And if the university does not shed its feudal and dictatorial qualities, it is going to go down on quality, both in terms of education and students. We need professors and lecturers who can give us the strength to attend to our minds and the needs of higher education. We need guardians who will come out of the 50's mindset and adapt to the changing scenario. We want support from students, academicians, scholars and most importantly from the alumni who share with us the love for and spirit of our alma mater. From this short piece, I surely hope that I can draw attention and support to revive a great institution which otherwise might kill its own self because of an identity crisis or an imposed identity. I hope the coming years spell change and action for this inevitable cause.

Nazia Y.Izuddin
Student of Law
Aligarh Muslim University