Even as Raisa Ahmed, a final year B.A. student of the Women's College in Aligarh, prepares for the 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 (AMU), Ms. Ahmed is one of 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 library.
“The Maulana Azad Library [MAL] 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 MAL 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 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, are they allowed to use the MAL. Even in the Women's College Library, students are allowed access to the reference section only. For getting books they need to give the reference number to the library staff, who then find the books. “Most of the times they tell us the books are not there. The library staff are intimidating and most girls choose to stay away,” said Bilkis Khan, a second year student.
Vehemently denying the allegations against the college administration, Bilquis Nasim Waris, Principal of the Women's College, said the college library was “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 MAL 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 MAL and hand out photocopies,” she said.
Dismissing the demands for relaxing rules and allowing more freedom to the students to step out as “needless,” Professor Waris said the 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, 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 that with the number of girls seeking admission to the University increasing each year, the infrastructure was inadequate. Insufficient and rundown infrastructure is another problem that hostellers at the Women's College complain of. Within the periphery of the fortified Abdullah Hall there are five hostels that are cramped for space.
“There are six people in one room, we have two small wardrobes to share, there are no spaces to study, and there is no privacy. The washrooms are filthy, the food unpalatable and hostel staff rude. But we cannot help it because education and lodging here is cheap ,” said Samina Siddiqui, a hosteller.