The excuse given here is “overcrowding,” but likely has more to do with the strict separation of men and women.
The supposed accommodation of allowing women to request books to be brought to them is not enough. Browsing the shelf and browsing an online catalog are different experiences, and the women are being denied one of them. The ability to go to the physical library gives those who are able priority access to its contents. And there is still an intermediary between the women and their information, who can find ways of acting as a censor or gatekeeper: “sorry, ma’am, we can’t find this book on the shelf.” There is also the matter of privacy: every book the woman handles must pass through someone else’s hands, and what she is reading and researching can be monitored.
Totalitarianism depends on control, and depends most fundamentally on the control of access to information. “Aligarh Muslim University’s library out of bounds for undergraduate girls,” by Manash Pratim Gohain for the Times News Network, February 21 (thanks to The Religion of Peace):
NEW DELHI: Students of the Women’s College in Aligarh Muslim University are waging a bitter struggle for a facility their counterparts in other institutions would take for granted-access to the university’s central library.
Now, in a concession to these undergraduate women students, AMU has decided provided them online access to the catalogue of books. The varsity says the girls can choose the books which would then be issued and delivered to them.
The 100-year-old Women’s College, a constituent of AMU-a central university which had built a reputation for an enlightened social outlook-is housed in the fortress-like enclosure of Abdullah Hall. Except for professional courses, this is the only college providing undergraduate education to women in the university.
The women boarders of the hall are not allowed out of the college campus except on Sundays, so membership of the university library is ruled out for them. Even day scholars of the college are not allowed into the library, considered one of the best in Asia.
A delegation of students recently made a representation to HRD minister Kapil Sibal alleging gender discrimination and demanded they be allowed to use the Maulana Azad Library, considered one of the best in Asia. Although the college has its own library, the central library is far better stocked.
Politicians such as Brinda Karat have also taken up the issue with the ministry. Following letters sent by the central ministry, AMU decided to allow online access of the library’s catalogue of books. It refuted charges of gender discrimination, saying postgraduate women students had access to the library.
“According to university officials, the rule is in place to avoid overcrowding of the library,” an HRD official said. The official said the ministry did not wish to press the matter further as it “respected the autonomy of the institution”.
But teachers and students of the college leading the struggle trashed the “overcrowding” argument. “One can go all the way to deliver the books to girls of Women’s College but not let them visit the library on their own? If this is not discrimination then what is? Logistics can be managed if they really want to let girls access the library,” said Shadab Bano, assistant professor of History at Women’s College.
Times View: It is shocking that a place of learning as respected and well-established as Aligarh Muslim University should discriminate against female students in prohibiting them access to the library. The fact that it is a central university only makes it all the more unacceptable. The notion of segregating boys and girls in an institution of higher learning and that too in the place that is supposed to be the repository of knowledge – the library – has no place in a modern society and the government certainly should not be party to the continued existence of such practices. This should not be viewed as an issue of religious sensibilities but one of gender rights. The government should demand immediate access for all girl students to the library.