Things must have changed since I studied  at Aligarh Muslim University for three years until 2009. This week, the vice chancellor of the university, Lieutenant General (retd) Zameeruddin Shah, justified the policy of not allowing undergraduate women to use the main Maulana Azad Library. If more women are allowed, the vice chancellor said, the number of men in the library would swell by at least four times. Somehow, I just do not remember hordes of studious men at AMU. 

It is worth noting that the vice chancellor has only upheld a ban that has always existed and articulated his reasons for doing so. The issue is not new. It just seems to surface periodically – the media gets interested, makes a bit of noise, after some time it all dies down, and sadly nothing changes.

Undergraduate women being barred from the library was already an issue when I went to AMU Women’s College for my bachelor’s degree and I wrote about it in 2011 – one of the years this debate came to the fore again. But in 2011, I would not have thought I would be agreeing with Smriti Irani on anything. The human resources development ministry has been quick to take up the cause,  and is reported to have asked the AMU vice chancellor to send a report on the matter.

Keeping the 'enemy' at bay

For the first time in many years, liberal women and men at AMU find that Hindutva hardliners are on the same side as they are – undoubtedly a bizarre conundrum. So, it is not a surprise that even liberals in AMU have been hesitant about protesting too loudly. When I raised the problem as a student, I was told by well-meaning men that we should resolve this library problem internally – let us not wash our dirty linen in public because it would give Islamophobes fodder for propagating anti-Muslim messages. We were labelled as community traitors who had betrayed our allegiances.

Of course, the controversy and its coverage should be viewed in the political context of the BJP government and its anti-minority sentiment – but not at the cost of gender equality.

Co-opting liberal women

There is an implicit allegation that when it comes to women’s issues, women get emotional and can be easily misled. There is the suggestion that Hindutva hardliners can influence and co-opt liberal women and their fluffy ideas about gender equality for their own sinister agendas, thus distracting from the real issues. Rational intellectual men can, on the other hand, hold their ground and should therefore be left in charge of determining priorities.

Begum Waheed Jahan Begum and Sheikh Abdullah, the founders of AMU Women’s College, demonstrated bravery in radically proposing a place of study for Muslim women in the early 1900s. Their ideas were progressive, perhaps even anachronistically so, at the time. So, it is unfortunate to see that the institution that they fought for has today become riddled with apathy towards, and ignorance of, social and political issues that affect women.

In this current political climate, we need to realise that inequalities are multifarious. But demands for gender equality do not compete with other social justice issues at hand – rather, they are complementary. We cannot excuse continued discrimination against women while asking for minority rights. Therefore, we should question the government’s and media’s sudden concern with gender equality in AMU (this is after all a deeply conservative government), but let us not discount the gravity of the library issue for women who study and work there.