Young Muslim Girls Are Redefining ‘Minority Politics’ in Azamgarh

The thinnest of edges off the bat has carried the ball into the waiting gloves of the wicket-keeper. Inside a fenced, verdant cricket field, where a match is on, the bowler screams an appeal. The batsman is adjudged out. As the fielders gather in a huddle, the next batsman walks in.

On the other side of the fence, a bevy of burqa-clad girls hurry down the narrow road, unruffled by the loud appeal from the cricket pitch. They slip through the metaled gates of the grey-white building of fine architecture before disappearing out of sight.

Welcome to the girl’s hostel of Azamgarh’s Shibli National College, the alma mater of Kaifi Azmi, Urdu poet of repute and actress Shabana Azmi’s father.

Entering the hostel, the first thing one sees is a board on a dull-grey wall, announcing the rules — in-time by 4 pm and permission to meet local guardians on Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm. But inside the hostel warden’s room, a group of four girls dressed in colourful salwar kameez, seem intent on changing the rules — albeit in their own way.

In a Girls Hostel, SP Passes the Exam

“I want to study aeronautical engineering after BSc, but there are only a few colleges in the country which offer the course.”

The board outside the girls’ hostel in Shibli National College, specifying the rules. (Photo: Maanvi/The Quint)

Sharaf Bano is a second-year student of BSc and from Mohammedabad city in Ghazipur. Her eyes light up when she talks about the possibility of giving the GATE entrance examination and enrolling herself in an MTech course. She admits it would have been difficult for her to leave home and come to Azamgarh without the Rs 30,000 scholarship she received from the Akhilesh Singh Yadav government when she passed out of Class 12 (or Inter-college).

Sharaf and her three friends are first-time voters, and are in purdah, shy of being photographed, but probe a little further and they emerge as articulate, passionate and opinionated young women.

An informal discussion reveals that for these girls, the intense swirl of electoral politics in Uttar Pradesh boils down to two issues – making education more accessible and women’s safety. In this regard, they unanimously agree that the Samajwadi Party (or more specifically, Akhilesh Singh Yadav) passes the criteria with flying colours.

Why the 1090 Helpline is Important in Azamgarh

Especially when it comes to the Uttar Pradesh government’s 1090 women helpline.

Fariah Naaz, a final year student of MSc Botany, has used the 1090 helpline many times, complaining about prank calls she gets and boys who indulge in “chhed chhaad waghera”.

She rates the helpline as immensely helpful, since it takes efficient action and ensures the anonymity of the caller. “Whenever we call the helpline, the prank calls stop. At least the police doesn’t reveal our names when we call and complain.”

The hostel is named after Kaifi Azmi, distinguished poet and father of Shabana Azmi; both of whom belonged to Azamgarh. (Photo: Maanvi/The Quint)

Founded in 1883, Shibli National College offers degree courses in Urdu, Hindi, Psychology, Chemistry and Physics, and draws young girls from surrounding districts of Mau, Ghazipur, Goarakhopur, Kushinagar in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The college is widely considered to be a ‘safe’ college for girls to study in; mostly because of the famous Azamgarh tehzeeb and the security provided by the Shibli college girls’ hostel. However, in an interesting reversal of commonly-heard ‘liberal’ argument, they assert that the onus of ensuring safety lies with the woman herself.

“If a girl is assaulted, then half of it is her fault as well. It’s half her responsibility. When we know boys behave like that, why do we need to wear a mini-skirt?”

Sharaf Bano asks indignantly, as the other girls around her nod, while she explains how a girl is blamed when she registers a complaint of assault and harassment. For Sharaf and her friends, it’s easier that the woman absolves herself of potential blame; even if it means covering one’s body to expose no skin and maintaining no contact with boys.

It’s an argument which would invite a quick ‘regressive’ label on Twitter or in the hallowed lanes of elite, urban spaces in Delhi; but in a girl’s hostel in Azamgarh, where financial hurdles to education is a reality, its put forth as common sense wisdom.

“But what about triple talaq?”, I ask.

Pat comes the reply, “Bina wajah ke mudda bana diya hai.” Explaining how triple talaq is a rare exception in Islam, Fariah Naaz believes that the triple talaq is an attempt at communalism — a non-issue brought up for election gains.

“Why Is Everyone Obsessed with the Muslim Vote?”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Umair Al-Siddique, a research scholar of Islamic Studies in Shibli Academy a few kilometres away. The afternoon sunlight filters in through the door and refracts in a room filled with Urdu journals, as Siddique angrily asks why the government is insistent on focusing on the ‘Muslim vote.’

There is 15% Muslim population in UP, so why is no one addressing the issues of the remaining 85%? Pata nahin kya musibat hain ki kabhi kabristan, kabhi triple talaq laate rehte hain.

Umair Al-Siddique is a research scholar of Islamic Studies in Shibli Academy. (Photo: Maanvi/The Quint)

Nestled between Ganga and Ghaghara rivers, there are nine Assembly seats in Azamgarh district; Nizamabad, Phoolpur-Pawai, Didarganj, Lalganj, Gopalpur, Sagri, Mubarakpur, Azamgarh city and Mehnagar.

Featured regularly in newspaper headlines as a ‘terrorist hub’ and an SP stronghold, Azamgarh comes across as a relatively developed city in the Purvanchal belt. In the middle of the city, Shibli Academy is an oasis of green, dotted with colonial-style buildings, housing a conference hall and a large library, which was established in 1914 to nurture scholars in the city.

UP Elections Or ‘WWF Contest’?

Speaking out strongly against PM Modi’s kabristan-shamshan comment, he said that the speech before the elections was not only an attempt at polarisation, but was proof that ‘vikas se naqaab nikal chuka hai.’

The Shibli Academy, is a research academy in Azmagarh, which was established in 1914. (Photo: Maanvi/The Quint)

While political parties are using every political strategy to woo the Muslim vote, in a ‘WWF contest’ as Siddique calls it, politicians seem to have forgotten the main issue in the city: unemployment.

Siddique says that every house in Azamgarh has a young man who has left the city for better employment opportunities, but the ‘jadoo’ of a rhetoric of a Yogi Adityanath or Asaduddin Owaisi makes people forget about the issues in the city; whether it is a small business affected by demonetisation or lack of access for Muslims to economic and social opportunities.

“Polarisation is used to get votes, and if you think about it, it is a 10-day issue. Jitna garma dijjiye, jitney zakhmon ko kuraid dijiye. Na marham rehta hai aur na tees reh jaati, unka kaam ho jaata hai.”

But what about vikas?

Siddique pauses, as his wise eyes thoughtfully look outside at the sun-drenched Shibli Academy, its impressive white structures showing signs of ruins and disrepair.

Vikas kya hai? Sirf Lucknow mein ek flyover bana lo, toh kya vikas ho jaata hai?”