Women Leadership Summit
Aligarh Muslim University is in the news again. This time it is about women, anti-Hijab comments and the freedom of speech.
Women’s College Students’ Union had called for a Women Leadership Summit and invited over a dozen renowned ladies from across the country. The step was widely appreciated at the campus and was taken as a positive step towards women’s activism.
The three-day-long event was scheduled from March 26 to 28, in the University’s Kennedy Complex and the guests included Teesta Setalvad, Najeeb Ahmed’s mother Fatima Nafis, Vrinda Grover and most importantly Arundhati Roy. The event was truly grand and many called it a historic event. It however could not save itself from a controversy.
The controversy erupted in the name of Ms. Arfa Khanum for a couple of her remarks on Muslims and Islam. Some students argued that Khanum does not deserve a seat in the grand event because of her ‘irresponsible comments’ made with apparently with ‘intent of insult’.
Khanum had tweeted on AR Rahman’s daughter’s choice of clothing but had questioned her choice for Niqab. She had claimed that Quran doesn’t ask for Niqab. She called it as a kind of conditioning/patriarchal brain washing that convinces a woman to hide her face to look modest or pious. In another tweet she had said, ‘Har rang Khuda ka hi to Hai. To Holi khelo kah Bismillah’.
Some students argued that these comments were irresponsible and that Ms. Khanum needs to explain her intent before speaking at the university, else they will protest against the comments. These students related these comments to Islamophobia. The Women’s Students’ Union and the President AMUSU argued that Khanum should be allowed to speak and should be questioned on these issues at the event. Nobody appreciated the content of her tweets. The disagreement ended up with no cancellation of speaker but the shift of the venue. The issue was settled and the program continued as normal at the Women’s College.
The Triple Points of Debate
The debate is now revolving around Free Speech, Islamophobia and the Idea of University.
Those who wanted the controversial speaker to join the event stood by her freedom of speech. They argued that dissenters were violating the freedom of speech and scuttling the peaceful mode of engagement. They argued that India is already ranked low when it comes to free speech and that the Human Freedom Index shows India as regressive on free speech. They wanted AMU to set a different example. They wanted to uphold the basic tenet of modern day engagement in a free and fair manner. Most of them disagreed with the choice of words employed by Arfa Khanum in her tweet. However, they wanted the speaker to address AMU students and face questions on the remarks she made.
Those who wanted the speaker to be dropped from the list of invitees said that the guest speaker was fuelling Islamophobia. They argued that attack on Niqab is the brand design of Islamophobes to begin with. They said that anti-Niqab remarks create an environment to demonise Muslims and contribute to the climate of hostility against Muslim Women. They believed that Niqab is a matter of choice and terming it as a product of brainwashing is abusing the Muslim mind. Their arguments extended to quoting the already repressive and violent environment against Muslims in India and thought that statements of Khanum only legitimise the anti-Muslim feelings. They did welcome other speakers and wanted them to continue at the scheduled venue. Their concern was little about curbing the right to speak and more about insulting the Muslim mind. They expressed fears that Indian PM shied away from tweeting against New Zealand terrorist attack for his right wing Islamophobic position and such thinking should not be intellectualised in India by providing space to Islamophobic language.
The idea of University
The debate is settling at the Idea of the University. AMU is a Muslim institution and has a particular cultural setting. It values the concept of freedom of speech but wants other important values of tolerance towards Muslim faith and diversity of choices to be equally celebrated. It accepts modernity but equally questions the rampant prejudice against Islam and Muslims. It accepts the intense scrutiny of Islam in a responsible manner but doubts the intentions when abhorrent language is adopted to make a point. It is tolerant to criticism but is sensitive to its identity. AMU is an institution in India, a country where anti-Muslim feelings are state sponsored and have powerful backing, it is difficult to expect Muslims to open themselves to absolute values of freedom. The Muslim sensitivities cannot suffer an influence from majoritarian communalism. The intra-campus debate must go on.
The campus is debating the controversy. The best would be to open channels for a continuous dialogue and communication. Talking to each other and learning the resolution of matters is important. The three terms, Free Speech, Islamophobia and the idea of University are important points of debate. A healthy campus should debate ideas without tagging each other with heavily loaded attributes of no sense. Arrogance, hooliganism and labelling cannot be accepted at the university campuses. The forcible removal of posters, banners and tents by some ill minded people is reprehensible and must be condemned in one voice. Peaceful engagement and dialogue cannot be replaced by muscle power. A gross majority of the students stands for respectful engagement and dialogue to sort out the issues.