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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 26 Jan 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Aligarh: A century of battling women

By Arfa Khanum Sherwani

Jan 26 2011

“There are some defeats more triumphant than victories” said Michael de Montaigne.

Indeed, the women candidates who contested in the AMU student union elections got more than victory could have given them. Though there have been some women who have contested the elections in the past — and won too — this was never for the top three positions together. In the 136-year history of union elections, this was the first time that as many as 11 young women expressed the desire to lead. They were followed by hundreds of young men and women that chanted election slogans, who heard their eloquent speeches and clapped for them too.

Also, for the very first time, the undergraduate students of the women’s college (Abdullah College) were allowed to exercise their right to vote for the candidate of their choice, though within the hostel’s four walls. So far they have had a separate union, a separate election and of course a female president elected by them. So, in more ways than one, this election was special for women students at AMU. AMU students, teachers and of course the administration, deserve appreciation for providing a conducive environment for women to present their candidature.

Let’s look at the results. The elected presidential candidate, Abu Affan Farooqui, received a total of 4830 votes; the girl candidate for the same position could manage just 181. Amir Qutb became honorary secretary with 3878 votes; his opponent, Naheed Mustafa, with 370 votes, was sixth of seven candidates. Girl students are 40 per cent of AMU; some departments, like medicine and education, are up to 70 per cent female. Clearly, even girls did not vote for girls.

Before the election results were announced there was an unprecedented euphoria. Especially about Naheed Mustafa, a confident law student, who likes to drive a car in a small town and has won hearts with her go-getter attitude and articulate election speeches. Encouraged by the number of female candidates, there were murmurs on campus about nurturing talent as we await 33 per cent women’s reservation in parliamentary elections.

So what came in the way of this rewriting of history’s course? What went so terribly wrong that, out of 11 women candidates, only one could make it to the cabinet?

Some like to believe that, since most of the women candidates did not have a strong support base among even other women students, and decided to fight the elections just before they filed their nomination papers, they couldn’t convince the majority of their leadership potential. Some others were putting out preconditions before they could vote for them — that women candidates should have enough safety paraphernalia, like a separate car, a separate room and women security guards. There is also said to be a very small group of women students who were fundamentally opposed to women candidates contesting the elections citing religious reasons. If true, in 21st century India, nothing could be more disconcerting.

The AMU student union was established on August 26, 1884, as the Siddons Debating Club, named after the college’s first principal. “In this club, learned discussions on topics of general and academic interest will be held from time to time .The rules and regulations of speech would be exactly the same as those of Cambridge”, said AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmed Khan at the inaugural ceremony.

Sir Syed’s perseverance with modernism and modern education caused Muslims of that time to he was “England-obsessed”; they blamed him for emulating the English and not the Arabs. Yet this great visionary was ahead of his time, and was aware of the importance of women’s education in modern India. It topped his agenda: the very first Siddons Club debate was held on the subject of female education. “The first Vice President of the students’ union was Khwaja Sajjad Husain, and the first secretary Syed Muhammad Ali, both staunch supporters of female education,” writes AMU PRO Rahat Abrar, in his book on female education.

In early 20th century India, when home tuition was the best Indians could think of for their girls, AMU was producing graduate and post-graduate women. The first post-graduate women passed out of AMU some 85 years ago, in 1925. The first chancellor of the university, Sultan Jahan Begum, also happened to be a woman.

The Aligarh movement has always been a supposed engine of Muslim liberalism and confidence; but this institution, proud of its tradition and values, has always been a battleground between its hardliners and its liberals. The defeat of women candidates is a reflection of this old battle in this new age.

In the 19th century, Sir Syed initiated the move to educate Muslim women; in the 21st century, shouldn’t Aligarh Muslim University take the lead in giving them leadership roles?

The writer is a TV journalist and Vice President of the AMU Old Boys’ Association, Delhi

Source: Indian Express