There has been a tremendous brouhaha over the issue of access by undergraduate women students of the Women's College, Aligarh, to the Maulana Azad Central Library on the AMU campus. The issue has received much media attention because of the unacceptable reasons cited by the Vice-Chancellor for not allowing undergraduate women students the opportunity to visit the library and, even more, because of his completely misguided and foolish attempt to ban the Times of India from the AMU campus.
Lost in the sound and thunder, however, is what is perhaps the most important aspect of the controversy - the tremendous courage displayed by the students and teachers of the Women's College who have been raising this issue repeatedly for the last five years despite confronting tremendous opposition ranging from criticism to outright abuse.
In fact, the courage that Muslim girls and women are exhibiting in their pursuit of gender justice is inspiring. This is not confined to denizens of Women's College, Aligarh, nor is it exhibited only by Muslim women fighting for their rights according to their interpretation of Sharia law. It is much more widespread and needs to be given the same attention and support that others fighting against gender injustice receive, if not more.
There have been wonderful examples of this in the last couple of weeks gleaned from careful readings of newspapers and reporting of events on the Internet.
Three years ago, a group of young girls in Mumbra (a Muslim majority township in Maharashtra's Thane district) were wondering about pursuing their ambition of playing football. They went from pillar to post looking for support and then for a ground to play, and after about a year of unrelenting effort, they succeeded in finding both. A year ago, they organized a successful signature campaign in which 900 Muslim girls participated and were able to get their own ground to practice and then went on to win two women's football tournaments in the State. Needless to say, they have had to face criticism and hostility from their own family members and community. But they are unfazed. Not content to rest on their much-deserved laurels, they have formed an organisation called Parcham in memory of the famous poem by Majaz (a student of Aligarh Muslim University in another era) in which he exhorts women saying: "Tere maathe par yeh anchal bohat khoob hai lekin, Tu ise ek parcham bana leti to achcha thaa" (The veil that covers your forehead is praiseworthy but if you could convert it into a flag, it would be so much better).
A few days ago, these brave fighters from Parcham organised a cycle rally of 150 young Muslim girls in Mumbra. All of them had been taught to cycle, in great secrecy, by the Parcham volunteers. Most of them cycled with their heads covered with scarfs and hijabs, but what they experienced as they went flying past their astonished neighbours and parents was not only exhilarating but transformative. As one of the Parcham activists said "We, too, have transformed something that many see as a sign of repression into a symbol of revolution".
On the same day, two activists who belong to the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan - the same group that has finalised and circulated amendments to Muslim Personal Law to make it more gender-just along with a Model Nikahnama - filed a PIL in the Mumbai High Court demanding that Muslim women be allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum at Haji Ali along with male pilgrims. Apparently this right was withdrawn a few years ago, and these brave women are now demanding its restitution. It is interesting that Hindu women pilgrims face a similar discrimination at Sabarimala in Kerala. Maybe they will be inspired by their Muslim sisters.
Another brave young woman, a dentistry student, is braving the wrath of her community in Kerala because she has dared to marry a young Hindu man of her choice. The young couple is staying with his family protected by the police and CPI(M) activists, but with their freedom of movement completely curtailed and threats being hurled at them from various directions. The young woman, Anshida, has expressed her determination to live her life with her partner of choice.
Most incredibly, there have been a sprinkling of Muslim girls at various versions of the 'Kiss for Love' event in Kochi, Delhi, Mumbai and so on.
It is widely believed that while it is difficult for women of all communities to fight gender discrimination that is alleged to have religious sanction on its side, Muslim women and girls, perhaps, face the greatest odds. If that is true, then those who are fighting discrimination in so many different ways are worthy of our attention and support. As half of a community much demonised in the present time, they are standing up to be counted while they break not only rules but also stereotypes.
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