Even as Raisa Ahmed, a final year BA student of the Women's College in Aligarh, prepares for the final-year examinations which will determine the course of her life, she is facing an epic struggle -- getting through the gates of the university library.
Lodged in the heavily secured, almost sequestered Abdullah Hall, of the Aligarh Muslim University, Ms. Ahmed is one of the several thousand young women who are fighting for equal rights -- not, like their peers in other universities and hostels, for night-outs and other such non-academic pursuits, here the quest is for something simple: reach the gates of a public library.
“The Maulana Azad Library is one of the biggest and the best, but girls from non-professional undergraduate programmes who are enrolled in the Women's College are not allowed in. We have a library inside the Abdullah Hall, but the quality and the quantity of books is inadequate and worse still, we have to get past officials who are not just rude, but plain unhelpful,” complained Ms. Ahmed.
The struggle to use the Maulana Azad library dates back to several decades. Each year the demand is made, and each year, the administration declines. “When we were students in the College, we faced the same problem. For long now students and teachers have been seeking permission for the UG girls to use the Library and relax the rules for Abdullah Hall, because they are discriminatory,” said Dr. Shadab Bano of the History Department.
It is only after the girls join post-graduate programmes, they are allowed to use the books in MA Library. Even in the Women's College Library, students are allowed access to the reference section only, for issuing books they need to give the reference number to the library staff, who then find the books for them. “Most of the times they tell us the books are not there. The library staff is intimidating and most girls choose to stay away,” said Bilkis Khan, a second year student.
Vehemently denying all the allegations against the college administration Prof. Bilquis Nasim Waris, Principal of the Women's College, said the college library is “equipped with what the girls require”.
“These are just things that the girls say; nobody uses the library that we have here. Why do they need to go to the MA Library when all the books that they need are here? Everyone knows that UG students don't need reference material and journals, they only need textbooks and even if they insist on reference material, our teachers can fetch those from the MA Library and hand out photocopies,” she said.
Dismissing the demands for relaxing rules and allowing more freedom to the students to step out as “needless”, Prof. Waris said the college's austere rules are only “to protect” the girls. She went on to elaborate: “We allow them to step out on Sundays. These girls are young and just want to go outside. These restrictions are for their good and to save them from wrong things. Otherwise we are not so orthodox.”
Dismayed by the restrictions for the UG students, noted historian and Professor Emeritus at AMU, Prof. Irfan Habib described the practice as “unconstitutional”. “India's Constitution calls for affirmative action for women's education and not against them. Arrangements should be made to end this discriminatory practice. When I was part of the library committee there was a suggestion that books can be transferred between the two libraries, but it never worked out.”
He said with the number of women seeking admission to the University increasing each year, the infrastructure is inadequate. “Earlier the number of women was just one-fifth of the total strength, now it is two-fifths. Hostel spaces and classrooms are small, seats are limited and women have to work doubly hard to get in.”
(Names of the students have been changed)