The edited version of this article was earlier published in Scroll.in
Bleary eyed in the library
At 8 am on Sunday morning, when most students were probably catching up on sleep, eight students of Aligarh Muslim University’s Women’s College were ready to board a bus from inside the College to visit the university’s famous Maulana Azad Library (MAL) for the first time. They waited for half an hour, expecting more students to turn up, but those keen to go to the library were all on time. So they set off, accompanied by two teachers, at 8.30 am.
This was a momentous occasion because this is the first time, reportedly since the 1960s, that undergraduate students of Women’s College have been allowed access to the MAL. This decision was taken following several reports in the media that when questioned about Women’s College students not being allowed in the MAL, the Vice Chancellor of AMU said that there wasn’t enough space in the library and also if women were allowed, there would be four times the number of men in the already over-crowded library.
However, not all is it might appear to be – although it’s good news that students of Women’s College finally have access to the Maulana Azad Library, this access is limited. According to the vice-chancellor’s order, dated 3 December 2014, “…undergraduate students of Women’s College will visit the Maulana Azad Library on every Sunday effective from 7th December, 2014 between 8 am to 11 am.” This obviously didn’t deter the eight women who visited the Library on the first Sunday but Aisha, a second year student of English literature, said she’s going to try to go next Sunday: “If I’m up all night studying for exams (which begin next week), it will be difficult to wake up in time to board the 8 am bus.”
It’s not clear from from the vice-chancellor’s concise order whether only those who travel on the bus as a group, accompanied by teachers from the College, would be allowed into the Library or if students could go on their own. Sundays are also ‘outing’ days for resident students of Women’s College (the only day they are allowed to leave the campus) – Aisha wonders whether this means that a student could possibly go to the Library at a time they wish, obviously still within the 8 to 11 am window. It’s also not apparent why this particularly inconvenient time slot has been assigned to Women’s College students. These are questions that men at AMU, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, don’t have to ponder.
Although at an early hour, the students who visited the Library are very pleased with the decision and hope that more students would want to go after learning of their experience. The very well organised visit started with an introduction by Library staff on using online catalogues. Shabnam, a final year Zoology student, said that being allowed in the Library made her feel like she too is “part of AMU”. Syyedun Nisa, a Mathematics student, echoed similar sentiments but said that if books were made available in the Women’s College Library they could save time spent on travelling to the MAL – “I’ll go there again if I need to, not just because I want to,” she added.
Interestingly, both Shabnam and Syyedun Nisa, said their parents had no objection to them accessing the library. The vice-chancellor had earlier claimed that when he wrote to parents of all Women’s College students “explaining the situation and asking them if they would take responsibility for security of their daughters/wards in case they were permitted to visit the Library”, only one parent consented.
Not all students are entirely content with the three hour access once a week but feel like if objections are raised, “we’ll be told there’s no satisfying us”. There’s also concern about the low take up of the weekly visit to the Library. The university had argued, in its response to the High Court PIL, that although the MAL catalogue is available online, “it is regrettable that the number of demands for books [from Women’s College students] has been minuscule”. Hopefully, this time around, the university will think of ways to encourage Women’s College students to access the resources of MAL rather than naively (or perhaps deliberately?) expecting all 2,456 of them to turn up at the library entrance at 8 on Sunday mornings.