Updated: December 19, 2017 1:17:15 pm
At 10 am on December 9, dressed in white skinny jeans, an embroidered kurta, her head covered with a white dupatta, Sharba Tasneem set off to campaign for a cabinet post in the Women’s College, Aligarh Muslim University’s student body elections. Unlike her peers, she didn’t bank on speeches and posters to gather votes. Instead, the 19-year-old BCom second-year student hopped on to the pillion seat of a Royal Enfield Bullet and rode around the campus amid cheers.
“I stood behind my friend on the bike as she drove. About 20 of my friends followed us on their scooters… The entire college had gathered on the grounds,” laughs the Aligarh resident, who is the second of five children. “I convinced a friend all night to lend us the bike and then found a girl who could ride it. Everyone thought only boys can campaign on bikes… par ab woh soch badal gayi (that thinking has changed),” she says, adding that a lot of students who came to vote for her recalled that she was “bike-waali ladki (the bike girl).”
Little did she know then that her small attempt at breaking a stereotype would go viral on social media — the elections were held on December 11 and the results were declared a day later, with Tasneem emerging as a winner. “A friend of mine was riding on a scooter ahead of us, and another sat the other way on the pillion seat and recorded the rally. I simply put the video on my Instagram and then it was just everywhere,” she says.
After graduation, says Tasneem, she wants to study to become a chartered accountant. Her father works in Saudi Arabia and the family moved from Bihar to Aligarh when she was a child.
Established in 1906 as a school, the Women’s College has 2,767 students studying in 33 courses across six faculties. Although the college is a part of the Central university, it is not a part of the Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union.
That, however, hasn’t stopped the young women from asserting themselves, says Naba Naseem, the newly elected college president, who lists the former US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice; daughter of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Ayesha, and Indira Gandhi — “barring the Emergency” — among her role models.
“I love reading autobiographies and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father is my favourite book. I have been a student activist, taken part in protests against cow vigilantism and intend to pursue a career in politics,” says the 18-year-old second-year BA Political Science (Hons) student. Naseem’s family hails from Azamgarh and shifted to Lucknow several years ago. But ask about her family, and she responds with a curt, “No more personal details.” “You can write about my mother, Shaista Naseem, though. She has motivated me a lot,” she adds, tugging at her copper-streaked ponytail.
Naseem says she wants to focus her tenure on helping abolish “unreasonable restrictions” on girls. “Girls who stay in the hostel are not allowed to join the horse-riding club. We cannot step out of campus on weekdays. Even on Sunday, we have fixed timings — 10 am to 5 pm. Although we can participate in cultural activities of the University, we need a string of permissions,” says Naseem, who promised “outing on all seven days” during her campaign.
“The reason we are given for these deadlines is ‘security’. But this argument is just a hegemonic tool to suppress women,” she says.
Says college principal Naima Khatoon, “The bike rally is fine, but girls always outshine boys in academics as well. Even in the last academic session, of the 222 gold medals of the University, women bagged over 190.”
Areesha Khan, 19, a BA Economics (Hons) second year student, says the conversations on campus have shifted from “security of women” to “freedom”. “I have begun to ask questions more bluntly now. My cousin urged me not to contest in the elections. He raised the old argument of ‘acchi ladkiyan ye nahi karti (Good girls don’t do this)’. But what does being a good person have anything to do with elections?,” says Khan, who is now a ‘senior cabinet’ member in the union.
She has raised her “questions” within the new union too. “All union members are supposed to wear white, but I don’t like the colour and so I wore black today. There are is another unwritten ‘protocol’, that we must cover our heads. I don’t do that either,” she says. He friend Fabeha Ahmed, 17, the new union secretary counters: “It’s a tradition, there is no harm in carrying that forward. But we will fight for things that are right.”
Tasneem says she has no qualms in wearing a hijab and abaya. “I take it off on reaching college. Also, it saves me from getting sunburnt and I can wear anything inside, even pyjamas,” she giggles.
The young women also have strong views on “national issues”. Talking about the recent killing of Mohammed Afrazul in Rajasthan, Areesha says, “I won’t say that politicians fuel such violence, but such incidents are used to divert attention from primary issues… I am not sure if I support the BJP, but what is the alternative?”
“Look at the Hadiya case, as far as I know it is a love marriage, why is the government and the court interfering… But the Supreme Court was right in banning instant triple talaq. I had read about the practice in first year, it is not good for women,” she says.
What about her own marriage? “Have you seen the film Raanjhanaa? Sonam Kapoor calls AMU a ‘marriage college’. I think marriage is not an end, it should be a part of life. In the future, I want to join the civil services,” she smiles.
Assistant professor Shadab Bano, who teaches history, says although the girls “copied the boys” in holding the bike rally, she would have been happier had they sought a ‘joint students’ union’ with AMU. “That would have been a stronger symbol of assertion,” she says.
Among the boys at the University, Sharjeel Usmani, a BA Political Science student feels the bike rally helped break the “burqa wearing, biwi banane ki factory (wife factory)” image of the Women’s College.
Standing outside the Women’s College, a group of men who claimed to be from the AMU students’ union, said, “No rally happened, nothing went viral… Aapko galat khabar mili hogi (You must have got the wrong information).”
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