A section of male students of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) bullied members of the Women Students Union and tried to prevent their Women Leadership Summit from progressing on Tuesday. The men not only prevented senior journalist Arfa Khanum from speaking at the event they also tore up posters, burnt banners and even had the canopy erected for the event dismantled!
The male students were led by the Vice President of the AMU Students Union. They first tried to disrupt the summit, failing which they demanded it moved to the women's college campus. It is alleged they did this with full backing of the AMU administration.
While on the surface the opposition was to the presence of journalist Arfa Khanum who had tweeted a secular sounding Holi greeting a few days ago, if one scratches deeper the entire sexist power play by the male students appears to be an attempt by the men to put women in their place.
AMU Women's College Students' Union president Afreen Fatima says, "This was a one of a kind event organised entirely by undergraduate women students and that too without any corporate sponsorship. This was a start-studded summit and it was being held on the main university campus. Speakers included several accomplished and influential women such as senior advocate Vrinda Grover and Human Rights activist Teesta Setalvad." She adds, "We drew praise from all quarters, including faculty, guests and even several male students. Many people even compared it to events organised by male students' union and pointed out how our event was better. Perhaps this is why their male ego was hurt and they tried to stop using a flimsy excuse."
Arfa Khanum agrees that the grounds for attempting to stop the summit were rather flimsy and not thought through hard enough to even appear vaguely convincing. She says, "If you see my tweet, I am quoting poet Bulle Shah. India has a long history of Hindus and Muslims coexisting peacefully and celebrating each other's festivals. Yet, not only did I get trolled on twitter, the backlash followed me all the way to this college campus!"
Her so called offensive tweet may be read here
Feminist Sisterhood emerges stronger
"As an outspoken woman, I am not new to the experience of being trolled. I am also aware that a lot of conservative people don't want a Muslim woman to decide how she defines religion for herself. That is what lies at the heart of the problem," says Khanum. She adds, "Fundamentalists on both sides challenge the idea of India as a liberal democracy that celebrates diversity of thoughts and opinions. We will have to take them head on. The fight is on!"
Expressing solidarity with the women students as well as fellow journalist Arfa Khanum, Teesta Setalvad, journalist and secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), has decide to speak only if Khanum is accorded the same respect. Setalvad says, "To say that what’s happening is unfortunate is too mild. It’s part and parcel of a hardening of attitudes, sway of the exclusivist Muslim right wing here on the campus. Yes not allowing Arfa Khanum to speak was the trigger. That’s why I insisted I will speak here only if she shares the stage." She elaborates, "It’s also about the whole issue of gender spaces within a Central University. The fact that the WSU (Women’s Students Union) segregated and elected from the Abdullah Women's College dared to have a three day programme on Women’s Empowerment."
The chain of events appears to corroborate this theory. "40-50 male students first appeared at the venue with placards saying Arfa Go Back and started chanting slogans," said Afreen Fatima. When the men were asked to stop disrupting the event they insisted that it was their democratic right to protest. "When we pointed out to them that what they were doing was actually against democracy, they got agitated. They started using foul language, some of it directed towards the female anatomy. Then they tore down our posters, burnt our banners and threatened to dismantle the canopy in a bid to intimidate us. But we undergraduate women students stood our ground and refused to budge daring them to break down the structure upon our heads," says Fatima. "This was to be a three day event and they demanded that we move it out of the main campus. They want women students to go back into their allotted space on the women's college campus," she explains.
The women students had complained to the University Proctor, but feel that the university administration is siding with the male students. Fatima says, "The men were not only successful in preventing Arfa Khanum from speaking on Tuesday, they also had the structure dismantled after we left the venue!"
When Sabrang India contacted the Proctor's office at 9 pm on Tuesday, we were asked to call back on Wednesday at 10 am. Meanwhile, the students plan to go ahead with the summit after moving it to the women's college campus. However, there are still apprehensions of disruption. Fatima says, "The male students had told us that if women can come out on the main campus, we can also go into their territory and teach them how to behave. This underscores the sexist nature of the entire opposition to the event."