Identity

Feminism Is the New Ideological Battleground at a Muslim University in India

Everyone's talking about feminism at Aligarh Muslim University—but each group has its own ideas.
Students participate in a protest for gender rights on the campus of Aligarh Muslim University. Image: Qafila

Aligarh Muslim University’s quaint campus lives on past glories. It may be just an educational institute for most of the outsiders, but for its residents it’s a symbol of prestige of a distinct tehzeeb and one of the last citadels of Islamic culture in India—a fact which has made it the centre of many controversies.

A common scene on the wide streets flanked by eucalyptus trees and some century-old buildings is men on way to classes on their rusty bicycles or motorbikes and women in rickshaws or riding scooters. On the walls are month-old election posters.

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Founded in 1875, and at the forefront of the Aligarh Movement, a 19th century Muslim renaissance, AMU is no stranger to healthy and sometimes boisterous debate. In recent years, feminism has been at the crux of many of the university's flashpoint conversations. In November 2014, the AMU hit national headlines after the then-Vice-Chancellor Zameeruddin Shah made sexist remarks, leading to protests by students and the HRD ministry demanding a justification from the institute.

Students participate in a protest for gender rights on the campus of Aligarh Muslim University. Image: Qafila

This became the focus of the conversations at the university-town’s popular dhabas, where the male students (and almost never any women) assemble in the evening to talk for hours. They were now talking about something that had earlier only been confined to closed hostel rooms, panels and research papers–gender equality.

Four years down the line, a lot has changed. The debate has shifted to social media and female students are regularly raising gender issues with administration, dealing with judgmental provosts and wardens who don’t want them going outside after evenings.

Two faces of feminism

“I don’t wear hijab because of religion or modesty. Not even as a cultural identity. I wear it as I have just gotten used to how I look in it,” said Fizza Husain, a research scholar in the department of economics. When we interviewed her last year, she had had a long day struggling with staff members over allowing the girls out of the hostel after 5:30 PM, the winter curfew. It’s 6:30 PM in summer.

Husain, 28, is one of the founding members of Qafila, a group of female students who (according to its blog) works to “promote dialogue on gender justice and equality in the light of intersectional feminism.” The group of around 70 girls is talking about feminism in a place widely perceived to be reluctant to the ideas of gender justice.

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Fizza Husain from Qafila on the campus of Aligarh Muslim University. Image: Facebook

One provost told us if you get raped after going out in the evening, it won’t be administration’s fault, According to her, a former Union Vice President compared women to diamonds that needed to be locked away—“meri behna mera gehna”. Inspired by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Kimberle Crenshawan, Gloria Steinem and Indian activists like Kamla Bhasin and Nivedita Menon, she believes the curfew denies women agency.

Hiba Kakul, another member of Qafila says there are elements among teachers, students and the residents who are unhappy with the gender debates on campus. “There is a lot of politics going on to stop such movements. A separate Union was created for the Women’s College as they didn’t really want women as post holders in the Union.” The 24-year-old MBA student said that these groups fear the shake up to patriarchal power structures in place.

Both Husain and Kakul agree that the biggest problem that women in hostel face at the moment is the curfew timings. “They are probably the most regressive timings in any central university in the country. We don’t really want the administration to tell us what is safe for us and what is not. I want to study in the library after 5:30. Is that too much to ask for?” asked Husain.

According to Kakul, AMU is currently isolated from ideas transforming the world. “There is a section threatened by the idea that women might take away their opportunities," she said. "Even now, most women are not finding a platform to express themselves without getting blamed for their opinions. We are trying to change the attitudes of girls towards the ideas of their own empowerment.”

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Hiba Kakul from Qafila. Image: Qafila

She believes female students in AMU need to raise more of these issues to make such discourse mainstream on campus. “The culture of not talking about these things is changing," she said. "When girls go out to participate in debates and contests outside women's college, they get to compete with boys—something they need to do in today’s times."

The members of Qafila include students and teachers, who hold discussions around feminism by organizing panels, debates, poetry sessions and gender sensitisation workshops in and around the campus. Its members often have to contend with sexist remarks and tirades from those opposed to their presence.

Vicharak is another group active in the university which promotes feminism. However they find themselves at odds with Qafila on the grounds of intersectionality. They describe themselves as “freethinkers, rationalists, and philosophers who are ready to analyse philosophical, political, cultural, religious, and social ideas from an unbiased and rational perspective."

Fahad Zuberi from Vicharak. Image: Facebook

“I consider it intellectual dishonesty to combine two opposing ideologies. Feminism and Islam are totally opposite of each other,” 25-year-old Fahad Zuberi, an ex-architecture student and the president of Vicharak said. The core problem, he feels is that “people are struggling to reconcile their own liberal self with the religion that they have been brought up in."

Nashra Ahmad, 20, a third-year psychology student at the university and a member of Vicharak, agreed with Zuberi. “In the Quran and Hadith, it is clear that women are unequal to men. Islamic feminists say hijab is their choice. But it is compulsory to wear. So, it can’t be a choice.”

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Ahmad and Zuberi argued that Aligarh desperately needs feminism. “Locking up girls in Abdullah Hall (one of the hostels for women) for a week and only allowing them to go out on Sunday is not just a violation of human rights, it is also a violation of UGC guidelines,” said Zuberi.

Nashra Ahmad from Vicharak. Image: Facebook

Ahmad moved out of the hostel due to the attitude of the staff members. “I used to go to the Cultural Education Centre because of my interest in music," she said. "The provost treated the girls who went there as sort of prostitutes. The head girl was deputed to keep an eye on me. Everyone knew me as the girl who got permission to remain out till 8 PM."

The feminist hunter

The attitude of the administration and ideological differences aren’t the only things that the feminists of AMU have to contend with.

Twenty-eight year old Nabeel Firoz is a former student and film-maker who completed his Bachelors in Economics in 2010. He is very active on social media and has 5,000 friends on Facebook (the maximum allowed by the site). He describes himself as a “Feminist Hunter, but respects women”. His posts often compare feminism to cancer and he has posted about wanting to “beat the shit out of feminists."

Firoz told us he believes most feminists in Aligarh are simply trying to "be cool" and pose as "intellectuals." He called them “farzi feminists.” “Some of the boys I know have confessed that they talk about feminism just because girls are happy to talk to them.”

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Nabeel Firoz at a cafe in Aligarh. Image: Zeyad Masroor Khan

According to Firoz, Aligarh is not yet ready for women roaming out at night. Feminism in AMU is simply "PC culture" gone too far, he said. “The other day some girl put up a Facebook post that boys comment when they smoke in the campus. My point is that it’s just comments, nobody is coming to beat you up.”

Kakul dismissed Firoz as man with a grudge against women.

The battle of ideas

Qafila and Vicharak agree that they are working towards the same larger goals, however they have their differences. “You can be a Muslim and a feminist, but keep your religious beliefs to yourself, and practice feminism,” argued Zuberi.

Husain believes one cannot address cultural oppression unless they work with every woman regardless of her class, caste, colour, sexuality or religion. She accuses Vicharak of colonial thinking. “They call women oppressed based on if they wear the hijab. It’s judging a person based on their dress code. We believe strongly that if we are going to speak about women's rights, we cannot ignore those women who have faith in the Quran and consider themselves religious. If we do that, we will lose half our battle.”

Students participate in a protest for gender rights on the AMU campus. Image: Qafila

Kakul felt Vicharak was simply all talk. “Preaching is very easy, what is important is to convert theory into action. If you can’t implement them, these ideas are of no use.”

Ahmad disagrees. “What should I do to prove myself a feminist? Should I go door to door and distribute sewing machines?" she said.

Both groups agree on the overall need to break gender stereotypes in Aligarh. Husain believes in co-existence of different feminist ideologies to further the larger cause. “I think fighting against gender discrimination on campus is important and if other groups are able to do that at any level, we definitely will support them.”

Though there are many nuances to the debate, feminism has firmly taken root at AMU.

This article originally appeared on VICE India.