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Claiming their space on a campus

Challenging the exclusion of women from public spaces often on the grounds that they’re not ‘safe’ for women.

Ask any student who holds Aligarh dear to the heart about the good old university days and you will become acquainted, over the next few minutes, perhaps hours, with the leisurely time spent sipping hot tea at dhabas at Purani Chungi, the heated debates at Café de Phoos and Café de Laila over several rounds of matri-omelette, the trips to the cinema Tasveer Mahal to kill time, among other landmark Aligarh spots and trademark Aligarh activities. In short, idyllic student life, largely free of worries and responsibilities.

However, if you ever want to hear about Aligarh’s slow paced romantic student life recounted above is that you’d have to talk to a man. Women hardly frequent the dhabas at Purani Chungi, the Cafés and Tasveer Mahal. That it is men’s life in the university that has become representative of student life here, says something.

I grew up in Aligarh and studied at the University. In my three years of campus life, I ate samosas and dosas at the Women’s College canteen, went to the General Education Centre to participate in literary and cultural activities and, occasionally attended lectures at the Faculty of Arts. Not even once did I think about hanging out, just hanging out without purpose, sipping tea at a dhaba until the twilight hours. I never ventured to the spaces that are so representative of Aligarh life. Not because I was told these places are out-of-bounds for me – such things are hardly ever said – but because I understood that it would be grossly inappropriate for me, a woman, to step into these domains that so clearly belonged to men. It’s never spelt out how transgression of this unspoken rule would be handled, but it’s somehow quite obvious it wouldn’t be taken well. This changed recently when a few alumni and students participated in the nationwide campaign, ‘Why Loiter’.

‘Why Loiter’ challenges the exclusion of women from public spaces often on the grounds that they’re not ‘safe’ for women. It encourages women to ‘loiter’ in public spaces not only to reclaim them but to also counter the expectation that women should be in public spaces only with a purpose (and that if they are wandering purposelessly, they are ‘asking for it’).

Women have been sending wonderful photos from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and even from across the border from Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

With protests against sexual violence, there has also been a counter-productive sense of women being ‘in danger’ in urban public spaces. Therefore, ‘Why Loiter’, and other similar campaigns such as Pinjra Tod and Women at Dhabas (in Pakistan), are important and necessary at this time to reassert women’s right to public spaces.

Simple in its approach, I experienced the power and fun of loitering when a small group of us spent half a day walking around the campus. There were lots of discoveries, discussions and debates on the way; there was also some staring, curiosity, amusement, but mostly of the ‘good-natured’ kind.

We met at the athletics ground and decided to first venture to Purani Chungi, a stretch dotted with numerous dhabas, a particularly favourite hangout space, perhaps for the range of goods on offer, from tea and samosas to biryani. We sat at the dhaba on the corner and figured out it’s called ‘Dorewala’ from a grimy, almost hidden board on the top and were told by the man managing it that it’s named after his father. While we ordered bread pakoras and tea and bought papaya from a nearby stall, there were a few quizzical and bemused looks. The manager mostly seemed pleased to have us there and I would have no hesitation in recommending the tea! It was with great relish that we told someone who wanted to join us in our day of loitering, Chungi a jao (Come to Chungi), something I never thought I would ever say.

With a spring in our step (it must have been the tea), we strolled over to Strachey Hall. It has iconic status, probably because it was the first building to come up on the campus and the foundation stone of the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College, which later became Aligarh Muslim University, was laid at this site in 1877. We signed a register at the entrance and were happily let in by the guard after he had counted how many of us were going in!

After taking some pictures in front of the grand building and soaking in the sun, we continued our walk and landed at Café de Laila. None of us had been there before and it was surprising how much at ease we felt, though we were the only women there, once we had overcome the initial hesitation of stepping into ‘men’s space’. We enjoyed delicious paranthas and matri-omelette in the cosy space, and with very full stomachs, brought the day of loitering to a close.

We enjoyed the campus and the city in a way we never had, so it goes without saying we plan to continue loitering. Maybe the famed evening biryani at Sufi’s is next for us – we’ve heard it’s reason enough for loitering!

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 12:14:07 AM |

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