ALIGARH: “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women”. Jawaharlal Nehru’s words resonate in my head when I look at the dismissive attitude of the student body and the administration of Aligarh Muslim University towards its women.

In the past few days, much has been said and written about the AMU Students Union and how girls are combating the said norms of male dominance within the Union and making their way in through democratic leadership.

The fact that AMUSU has elected three women cabinet members this year is being hailed as a giant feather in the victory hat of those who have been waiting to witness a change in the power dynamics of the Students’ Union for a while now.

While the numbers sure have increased, it is not a revelation to those who have been closely associated with the University to know that women have always had a place in the cabinet, not because of the Union’s devotion to gender equality, but because it is the only rank in the AMUSU where women could “be allowed” to exist without exercising much power.

As has always been the case, women have yet again failed to secure the top seats (President, Vice-President and Secretary) in the AMUSU and the most blatantly gender-biased male voices have emerged victorious in these elections. If anything, these results shed light on the popular opinion prevailing in the larger discourse on gender within campus.

While women in New Delhi (and all over India) continue their fight against sexist hostel rules through the Pinjra Tod Movement, AMUSU women candidates, like their male counterparts, have been suggesting that women should be locked indoors to promote their “safety.

The fact that the Students’ Union’s meetings can be held at any time of the day and possibly without the participation of its women members who are bound by strict hostel timings is testimony to the exclusion of women from campus politics. Furthermore, the male students of the University have, time and again, demanded an all-male AMUSU citing the absence of women from the meetings due to their hostel rules as the reason instead of standing by their “sisters” in the struggle against patriarchal diktats and demanding an abolition of sexist hostel rules altogether.

The argument for gender equality makes a lot of men and women in AMU uncomfortable to the point where they employ farcical analogies to support their misogyny.

In a recent interview with NDTV, the current AMU vice president’s chauvinism was at display when he compared women to “diamonds” that needed to be “sheltered” by a cloth to protect them from scratches that may render them “worthless”.

Interestingly, this is correspondent with another popular analogy in the Muslim world in support of the Islamic veil (hijab) that likens uncovered women to “unwrapped candy”. Both comparisons objectify and degrade women. But in the mind of the patriarch, they “elevate” a woman to a higher status – a status that, by virtue of its grandeur, demands protection.

Such an analogy proves the vice-president’s indifference to the cause of gender sensitization. Furthermore, he added that his views on women were shared by every student on campus, thereby generalizing the entire study body as a monolithic entity that does not question the set objectionable discourse on gender on campus.

Equally distasteful have been the remarks of the women candidates. A woman cabinet member of the AMUSU reminded the men on campus about their duty to “protect” women. Moreover, by pointing out how they were all “Aligs” (a term for those belonging to the Aligarh Muslim University) who did not need to discuss gender discrimination because there wasn’t any on campus to discuss, she trivialized the experiences of the women who had been, and continue to be, discriminated against on campus because of their gender. By expressing such an opinion, she proved that AMU is not ready for a serious dialogue on gender and people who have made an effort to talk on these issues will continue to be suppressed, or worse, ostracized by their own “Alig” fraternity.

Two years ago, AMU was under the scrutiny of the media and was facing the wrath of the nation when the Vice-Chancellor of the University made some derogatory comments in lieu of providing access to women to the renowned Maulana Azaad Library outside Abdullah Hall (the all-girls’ undergraduate college-cum-residents’ hall). Almost every student stood up for the University at the time by saying that it was “inappropriate” for women to leave their halls and visit the library. What was witnessed at the time were solidarity marches by the students – both women and men – in support of the Vice-Chancellor, and women raising slogans proclaiming the VC as their “father”. What is surprising now is that the same students are openly condemning the Vice-chancellor and his criticism of the students’ union elections as unscrupulous.

Another candidate contesting for the post of vice president said how it was completely unnecessary for women of Abdullah Hall to be given access to the Maulana Azad Library. “The route from Abdullah Hall to the campus is a very unsafe route and because of the governance of Samajvadi party in U.P., cases of chain snatching and theft have become common”, added another candidate. One of them also claimed how the campus is the safest place for women in Aligarh, although there have been incidents of snatching and thefts within the campus, making it an equally unsafe place for male and female students alike.

As a feminist, I feel that the students have an inherent desire to preserve the sexist administrative structure and cultural character of the University. And so, to say that patriarchy unites them all would be a fair analysis of the situation.

To challenge some of these notions, I recently participated in an activity under the Why Loiter – Aligarh initiative. We loitered in and around the campus, visiting public spaces such as dhabas and canteens dominated widely by men. In our attempts to reclaim public spaces, we received backlash from many male students who conform to the norm that not every place is for women.

As a long-time student at AMU, and one who has witnessed many election campaigns first-hand, I have come to accept that the AMUSU candidates will be champions of patriarchy. But to hear it being justified ever-so-boldly year after year makes me fear for the future of the University as a gender-equal place. Many students would argue that AMU has elected three women as their cabinet members and call it “gender equality”.

However, allowing women three seats in the ten-member cabinet is hardly gender-equality. Women have never held the top-three positions in the AMUSU and it is a calculated move by the election organizers and kingpins who sincerely believe that the political sphere is a male-dominated sphere. By treating women as humans and not objects, and by not cringing at the mention of gender equality would be a step towards gender sensitization.

For now, hope exists in the dissenting voices on the campus. Should these voices die down, so will the dream of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who envisioned a safe and thriving space for young minds.

(Cover Photograph: Women loiter at a cafe, as part of the Why Loiter movement in AMU)

(Kaneez Fizza is a nominated member of Women's cell, within the Department of Economics, a volunteer with Committee Against Sexual Harassment for Gender Sensitization (CASHfGS). She is also a participant of Why Loiter?- Aligarh.)