Joint response by Mariam Shaheen, Wajiha Mehdi, Md Adil Hossain.
(They worked for the new CASHFGS or anti sexual harassment rules at AMU as a team during 2011-12)
There are attitudes within the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) with regard to the gender discourse that have often left us both rattled and angry because they smack of hypocrisy. Many people in AMU may idolise Teesta Setalvad for her brave work on riot victims, but they would never like (or even detest) the same milieu, or opportunities, for AMU girls that made this woman today what she is. We had proudly worked there in our alma mater to create an atmosphere to change this situation.
Before we move further let us make it absolutely clear that we categorically believe that any kind of dress for women is a matter of choice and could be an expression of their identity, which should be defended till the end. But we are dead against the theory that it is linked with sexual violence, a theory which many propagate, as it ultimately leads to the appalling victim shaming discourse.
Unfortunately, in an event organised after the Delhi Gang rape in December 2012, the “Students of AMU” discourse and speeches (while ironically discouraging sexual harassment against women) revolved around what women wear.
With regard to the controversy surrounding the recent event held by the organisation named “Students of AMU”, or rather the reporting of it. We have been accused of causing unnecessary controversy by supporting ‘negative publicity of the university.’ Hence, there are certain points we would like to raise in that respect.
We knew of the fact that an organisation named “Students of AMU” was going to celebrate Women’s Day at AMU with an exhibition of certain models and lectures by Vrinda Grover and others in Kennedy Hall, via a Facebook page. On the morning of 7th we received an email with photographs of the exhibition that happened in Abdullah Hall (residence for undergraduate women) premises which were, quite frankly, shocking.
The problem is NOT that girls in burqa were at the helm of the exhibition. The problem is in the message itself. In a Women’s College, where women teachers and staff are working to support their families a group is preaching “job is optional, family is the real responsibility for women” or how economic independence has emerged from the ill effects of capitalistic discourse (an argument that defies all sense of norms and basic knowledge of history).
In an educational institution, that was established so that women may gain a better foothold in society, a group is allowed to hold exhibits that depict things like ’identity’ and ’equity’ lead to an abyss. The irony is that it is all done on International Women’s Day in the name of “empowerment redefined”.
This assertion has a huge class angle as well, as such a proposition in the name of religion holds no water for millions of poor working class women in India who carry bricks on their head in inhuman conditions, feed their child at the same time and face domestic violence at the hands of abusive husbands, or the domestic workers who go from house to house braving all sorts of harassment. Why not ask them too to wear hijab, talk in soft tones, and maintain distance from men while working at construction sites, or doing her work in NREGA? This message is for the privileged who can afford to follow it.
How does a community that falls short on every development index hope to go forward if they dismiss the economic potential of half their population? Advocating against economic independence for women not only creates more dependents than workers, but also leaves women open to abuse.
None of us can deny bearing witness to various kinds of abuse the women around us suffer at the hands of men they are economically dependent upon, be it their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons. Also, why is a group hell-bent on reminding only women of their family responsibility on Women’s Day and not to men?
Putting up posters of Pratibha Patil, Sarojini Naidu, Indira Gandhi etc. at the exhibition and then at the same time, distributing books that criticise financial independence of women or put many restrictions for them to work is only a subtle form of moral positioning. And sadly this is being done in the name of religion whereas it is more concerned with varied cultural practices.
To those taking the free speech plea, we agree, the group has every right to hold an event promoting its philosophy, but why are contrary voices not allowed to speak? Our campaign for a Committee Against Sexual Harassment and For Gender Sensitisation (CASHFGS) was always viewed with suspicion.
A seminar on gender sensitisation ended in such a ruckus that the organiser was close to resigning from her post. May we also point out that the efforts for a more gender-sensitive campus never got any administrative support; increased restriction on the movement of women was the only solution given by the majority male population, and the only one taken by the administration. By all the accounts, we have heard, and our own few visits to the campus since we left reflect, that the situation has only worsened.
Groups still working in the university for a more gender-sensitive campus continue to face various roadblocks. The fact that they continue to persist despite everything is a ray of hope, but the kinds of pressures brought down upon them to mellow down their messages is cause for concern.
But the greatest fault is of the University authorities who have huge resources and mandate to promote gender sensitisation in the campus as stated by the Supreme Court of India in the Visakha guidelines. Why could the AMU authorities (especially CASHFGS) not organise a programme to celebrate International Women’s Day and called leading personalities working in the field of gender rights? CASHFGS is still functioning with the support of a few student volunteers (who, to this day, barely have any administrative support), why? It is administrative inaction and non seriousness on this issue that has led to a vacuum in gender discourse that has been captured by independent student groups with no commitment to gender equality.
The concept of gender equality is simple – it is to consider women at par with men, it is to provide them with equal opportunities in all fields to explore their human potentials, and it is to consider the inherent right of any adult male or female to be financially independent without questioning their intelligence to handle family responsibility. If this stand sounds radical to few people, then they don’t know what radicalism is.
In both the Indian Express and TOI news, there were some factual errors (especially with regard to the group’s funding and stereotyping of Purdah system) but the fact of the exhibition was not incorrect. We agree with the demand that factual errors should be corrected by the newspapers. Also, purdah or hijab are not hindrances in the freedom or empowerment of women, it is a choice and should be treated as such.
But the bigger point remains, why do AMU students fidget or feel so uncomfortable when the media reports on women on the campus? Why not defend your views, your pamphlets, and your publications to a larger audience as those who think of celebrating Women’s Day from a different perspective? Why blame the media for stereotyping Muslim women when a large group of students themselves support a stereotypical representation or remain silent when it is being done?