Breaking the invisible door at Aligarh Muslim University

June 1, 2016

Members of “Why Loiter? – Aligarh” movement at the Café de Laila tea shop at Aligarh Muslim University.

Café de Laila, one of the many dhabas in Aligarh Muslim University, is named after a woman. That’s a bit of an irony because women aren’t welcome there.

Dhabas, or cafes that serve tea and snacks to the students, have played an important role in the social, cultural and intellectual atmosphere of the university. Entering Café de Laila through its mausoleum-like door is like travelling back in time.

The cafe lies in the midst of centuries-old hostels that form an important part of the university’s residential character. The arched door with an iron gate leads into a small compound with a lazy earthy ambience, twenty-odd rusting chairs and an open teapot brewing continuously on a gas stove.

Scores of students, peons, clerks and priests sit on antiquated chairs in the tea shop. All men.

There are women who want to change that.

“By asking for equal access to public spaces in the campus, women are not taking anything away from anyone,” says Asiya Islam, a former student at the university and a member of the Why Loiter? – Aligarh movement.

Keeping women out of the dhabas means barring them from what English professor Madihur Rehman called a fixture of the university’s “social, cultural and intellectual atmosphere.”

“In our times in the 70’s, there were separate dhabas for intellectuals, others for political activists, cultural types, while few others were mostly inhabited by ruffians,” Rehman says. “It was often said jokingly in Aligarh it is not blood, but tea which runs in the veins of the students.”

Aligarh Muslim University evokes strong affection and emotions among its alumni. For many former students, the varsity remains a second home and the time spent here forms the narrative for stories of the golden “old times” they spent in the institution.

“I can say with conviction people from very few universities are as much emotionally attached to their alma mater as Aligarh. It has a very admirable relationship between senior and junior students, a long list of illustrious alumni and is a thriving atmosphere for Urdu poetry and literature. I have seen alumni getting all teary-eyed when we mention Aligarh and its life or when they hear the varsity anthem,” says Ankur Agrawal, a former engineering student.

However, more often than not, it is the men who recount fond memories of their Aligarh days. Most female students have to deal with conservative school principals, nosy hostel wardens and strict rules to protect them from going “astray”.

Going astray, in broad terms, means going to cinema halls, wearing jeans, smoking, going to literary festivals or returning late to hostels. Interacting with the opposite gender is a surefire way to get classified as women gone astray.


Members of “Why Loiter? – Aligarh” movement at a tea shop near Aligarh Muslim University.

Why Loiter? – Aligarh is part of a larger Indian gender-rights movement called Why Loiter? The name is taken from the title of a book written by three Mumbai-based academics — Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade — who argue that “loitering” encourages women to reclaim public spaces in their cities.

The question, says Shaiqa Shauqat, a member of Why Loiter? – Aligarh, is whether the female students of the university, usually hailing from conservative Muslim families, are ready for change.

“The university will not become a gender equal campus overnight. We are just the agents of change,” she says.

The university has been long known for its orthodox Muslim culture and segregation of the sexes. In most cases, men and women do not even study in the same campuses until they are doing their postgraduate work. Male and female students rarely sit together or walk around the school together without receiving disapproving frowns from clerics, old-timers and populist student leaders.

Most dhaba owners are open to hosting female students, but girls seldom sit there as they will most likely attract long stares from their male counterparts.

“Girls coming here would only mean more business to us, so it will only be beneficial to us. If there is no objection from others, we would love to host them. However, there is often trouble,” says Guddu, as he serves tea at Sufi’s dhaba just outside the varsity campus.

Last year, Vice Chancellor Zameer Uddin Shah said he would not allow female students to enter the main library as “it would attract boys”. No women are visible on the main campus after sundown, and self-styled “saviours of the university’s culture” chastise couples for walking together.

It is not as if women have been absent from the university’s culture and administration. Aligarh Muslim University was one of the first places for higher education in India where women were allowed to study. In the early 20th century, Begum Waheed Jahan Begum and Sheikh Abdullah founded the university’s Women’s College, going against the mindset of most Muslim families of that time.

“Women are professors, principals, librarians, part of the non-teaching staff. They are always at the forefront of organizing events for the University’s Cultural Education Centre, the arts and literary activities. However, when evening sets in, they are supposed to retreat to their hostel rooms or homes or wherever they live,” says Sumiayah Naaz, a research scholar and a member of the Why Loiter? – Aligarh movement.

“And yes, the general perception is that they should just be at places which are meant for them. Mingling with the opposite sex is frowned upon; something which they say is not expected from an Aligarian girl.”

This was not always the case. Until the 1970s, women were more welcome at the dhabas. “As far I can remember, girls used to sit alongside boys at various dhabas such as Café de Phoos, the university canteen and one near the arts faculty,” says Professor Rehman. “When I was president of the drama club, we often used to take girls with us to Café de Phoos.”

The women of Why Loiter? – Aligarh “loiter” by occupying the cafes. They visit the dhabas when they are less crowded during the summer afternoons and order their specialties — matri-omelette, half-fry eggs, oily paranthas and the well-known over-steeped tea of Aligarh. They hang out, wander the city, and tweet pictures with the #WhyLoiter hashtag.

For some people, this is a welcome surprise. But this is not one of India’s big cities, so most people don’t like it. The girls ignore the wide-eyed stares of men in the dhabas. Other boys try to gain their attention by talking a bit louder than usual. Some pretend to ignore the women. Most don’t seem to mind girls sitting at the dhaba, but it is still a rare sight.

“Girls sitting at dhabas of males is against Islamic traditions and the famous tehzeeb (culture) of Aligarh. Female students have their own cafes in their own exclusive campus. My advice to them is that they should sit there for their own safety,” says Masood, a student at Mohammad Bhai ka Dhaba.

Members of “Why Loiter? – Aligarh” movement at the Café de Laila tea shop at Aligarh Muslim University.

Members of “Why Loiter? – Aligarh” movement at the Café de Laila tea shop at Aligarh Muslim University.

Though Aligarh is known for its sleepy, peaceful campus life, women often face threats and abuses from men. In a much-publicized case in 2006, a postgraduate journalism student was harassed for wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

But most incidents don’t make it to the headlines. A few students told Reuters they faced threats of “physical repercussions” when they ventured out near the library canteen in the evenings. Even if accompanied by male friends, strangers would ask them to “remain within their limits”.

Ashraf, another student thinks that the city is not yet ready for more male-female interaction. “Aligarh is not Delhi or Mumbai. It’s a small city with its own ethos and culture. It may sound really cool to ask for more male-female interaction in the campus, but I believe this will take away the unique beauty of the place and turn it into a carbon-copy of institutions in big cities,” he says.

That kind of attitude requires women to join men more, says Riad Azam, a research scholar in the English department.

“I feel the absence of healthy relationship between sexes on the campus, which often borders on the verge of treating each other as an adversary. There is an unofficial, unsaid demarcation of space,” he says.

Aiman Jafri, a history student, says she has noticed a gradual but certain change in men’s outlook towards women in the recent years. “We went to some of the shadier dhabas, but the attitude of the people was surprisingly not that hostile as we had expected. Though there is much scope for improvement, there is still hope,” she says.

Asiya says it will take a long time to change the perception of Aligarh’s students and citizens about women. “Access to public spaces is not just a matter of physical spaces,” she says.

“It’s also a matter of up to what time women residents of the university are allowed to stay outside the hostels. It’s a larger issue of policing of women’s mobility on the campus.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; You can follow Zeyad on Twitter @Zeyadkhan and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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The things will change gradually as I witness from the number of female students visiting the Maulana Azad Library and sitting there till late evening. The female students has to reclaim their spaces in their own way and there will always be opposition but the voices supporting them will often be more than opposing their reclamation of public spaces.

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