The AMU Library Controversy: How ‘Culture’ Can Be Used To Reinforce Prejudices

Posted on November 18, 2014

By Shinjini Devbarman:

When Sheikh Abdullah and his wife Waheed Jahan Begum had started the Women’s College of Aligarh Muslim University, back in 1906, they wouldn’t have imagined that the same university will be accused of gender bias 108 years later. What had started out as a high school was converted into a fully fledged college in order to encourage women’s participation in higher studies. Over time, it has established itself as one of the pioneer institutes of India with a wonderful reputation, until now.

Picture credits: Thakur Vishant Singh on Facebook
Picture credits: Thakur Vishant Singh on Facebook

When the new students’ union of the Women’s College appealed to the Vice Chancellor for the inclusion of women in the central library, the VC rejected it by saying they would attract “four times more boys” leading to the problem of space. In another statement, he added that the problem of eve teasing is also a threat to the security of the female students. The principal of the college added fuel to fire by objecting against girl’s access to the library which she says could lead to discipline crisis. Furthermore, in a television discussion on the topic, a professor from AMU was reported quoting “cultural constraints” as the reason for the exclusion.

I want to start a conversation about ‘culture’, a word that has come to be associated ominously with almost every argument in India; the notion that it carries an essential quality that defines what Indian society is. I mean how many times have we heard this – using ‘culture’ as a defense for justifying unequal treatment? Our level of tolerance has gone down and so has their ability to come up with better excuses. I want to study how the word has in the present times come to normalize an idea of Indian society.

Let me first start with the gender issue:

Our ‘culture’ has normalized the idea of ‘boys can’t control themselves, so let’s lock the girls in’ as a solution to the problem of eve teasing. Going by this logic, women should just stop stepping out of their houses because some rowdy men cannot respect women. The suggestion then seems to be that women should have to adjust themselves to the situation because ‘prevention is better than cure’. Indeed the cure, which would ideally be discouraging impudence on the part of those rowdy men, is itself missing from the discourse. Why do we always come up with some warped notion of what one should and shouldn’t do, instead of facing the real issue head on?

Moreover, the VC’s statement reinforces absurd gender stereotypes of women as seducers and men as sexual predators. It is ridiculous to suggest that the solution to the problem of eve teasing is by compromising on the freedom of women. If it is the security that concerns them then it is the responsibility of the institute to ensure that the students feel safe on campus, instead of preaching lessons on moral correctness.

Differential treatment, even if done with the best of intentions, is not the answer to the problem; in fact it only makes one party feel inferior to the other party. Denying women access to the library is also a form of the same systematic oppression that denies education to women.

As if that wasn’t enough, the media didn’t fall short of bringing in the politics of hate into the discourse. What ensued was a protest march by the students of the Women’s college accusing the media of using a defamatory campaign against the institution. What was supposed to be an administrative issue in addition to outlandish remarks running along the lines of sexism, it now also included the prejudices that feed the flames of communalism. The students accused the media of biased reporting, and a gross abuse of their power. As the students echoed the idea of ‘daughters can’t be against their fathers’ (father would be the VC in this case), and as the media reprimanded the university for its regressive tactics. the situation became the perfect ground for prejudices to be reinforced.

Now, let’s talk about how dangerous such a mad use of language can be:

It didn’t take long before certain antagonistic sections of the society ran the issue along the lines of religion. I myself came across many hateful speeches in the comment section of various news articles. They were harsh and ruthless – using an issue for provocative statements meant to stigmatize a group. Evidently, as a result of the kind of discussions that took place in the sensationalism driven media, the students had taken upon themselves to show the world why we should refrain from derailing from the main issue. Indeed, while the rest of us were focusing on critiquing gender biased statements, all of us steered clear of touching this sensitive topic.

In India, it is very easy for a small issue to turn into a raging controversy regarding religion and culture. It is our responsibility to monitor the issue at hand and prioritize on how to handle it. In my opinion, all of us are at fault here. The VC for his careless remarks regarding gender, the media for its devious ways of making News and the rest of us for letting this issue slip into that deep dark hole where there is only hate and despair. Prejudices only hurt and restrict. On the offset, there are two things that we can do – deal with the issue at hand and find out the way to solve it, or let it slip into something vain and inane that could only make the matter worse. Using the concept of ‘culture’ to force diktat is always going to lead to the latter. So, let us stop preaching to each other what ‘Indian culture’ is. It is a dynamic concept that evolves with time; it is never a relic of the past, especially not a retrograde past.

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