100 years of Aligarh Muslim University: Women, Wisdom & Wonders

 vajūd-e-zan se hai tasvīr-e-kā.enāt meñ rañg

isī ke saaz se hai zindagī kā soz-e-darūñ

The Aligarh Muslim University, since its inception, has been famous for its historical superlatives. The varsity, embossed after an ardent affray, stands as a witness to the contribution rendered by uncountable women who diffused themselves all in all, along with its other stakeholders. Women in Shahar-e-Tarab, as remarked by Rahi Masoom Raza, having broken the proverbial glass ceiling, have come a long way. Year after year, they’ve gone against the grain of the male-dominated societies and made it roar ‘success’ with their sterling record of achievements. From pioneers of the past to innovators of the present, the grande dames of Chaman-e-Syed have never bargained in consolidating the spirits of its bulbuls.

It would be the eighth wonder to say that HRH Sultan Jahan Begum, the Begum Sahiba of Bhopal state, was designated as the first chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University; not only of the varsity but also the first woman on the subcontinent. Her donation of fifty thousand rupees towards a grand building on the campus—Sultan Jahan Manzil—reinforces the love for the university she had in her bosom. The first-ever Convocation in 1922 was also addressed by her. Aala Bi, formally known as Waheed Jahan Begum, is credited with establishing Women’s College along with her better-half, Sheikh Abdullah. When the Muslim Educational Conference was called in 1903, it was an all-male affair. However, under the tutelage of Aala Bi, the women were invited to listen, albeit from behind the curtain. The vogue tale of the voguer ‘Zaidi Sisters’ can never be off the list. The great-granddaughters of the pioneering educationist Altaf Husain Hali; the elder, Prof. Sajida Zaidi, professor of education, received 11 awards, including the Sydney Literary Society Award, the Canberra Literary Society Award, and the Urdu Academy Award in 2009 for outstanding contribution to the Urdu language and literature. Her sister, Prof. Zahida Zaidi, a professor in the Department of English, was the protagonist in shaping Naseeruddin as the “Shah” of Indian Cinema. In tandem with her sister’s achievements, she too was awarded the Urdu Academy Award as early as 1971. A great translator of her era, her translations include the literary works of Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett, Sartre, and Ionesco. Prof. (Dr.) Hamida Saiduzzafar has a history of her own. She was a highly respected ophthalmologist and was among the earliest female doctors to graduate from India. Here she was—the first female student to complete her MBBS from the King George Medical College, Lucknow, and eventually become a professor of ophthalmology at Aligarh Muslim University. She was a birdwatcher par excellence and contributed her writings to the Newsletter and Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, also setting up a library named Gul-o-Rana, having collected issues and volumes on birds. Another dynamic figure in JNMCH was Prof. (Dr) Jameela Majid Siddiqui, Professor of Biochemistry and President of the AMU Ladies Club. She was felicitated by the UP government for her outstanding contribution to the field of female education in 2014. Presently, she’s been working for the upliftment of underprivileged girls under the banner of “Ismat Literacy Centre”. This school started with about ten girls and now boasts more than a thousand. In addition to academic learning till grade ten, girls are taught various crafts as a means to earn their livelihood.


The mid-1990s at Aligarh Muslim University were a period of great turbulence which also witnessed the making of administrative history. This period saw the appointment of Professor Shadbano Ahmad as AMU Proctor (1996–1999) – the first woman to hold this position to date. Within days of her assuming office, there was a food poisoning incident, leading to widespread unrest on campus. Responding to the needs of the hour, she also took on the role of Vice-Chancellor for a brief period. To date, she remains the first and only woman to grace the office of the Vice-Chancellor of AMU. Professor Ahmad was the first female member in charge of the AMU guest houses and also supervised the construction of the AMU central canteen as the disbursing officer. She was one of the founding members and secretaries of the Imad-Ul-Mulk Creche and the Women’s Welfare Society at AMU. In addition, she also became the first female Executive Member of the AMU Teachers’ Association. Her administrative skills were equally well-matched by her academic excellence. She was the first female faculty member of the Department of Sociology and served as its chairperson on three occasions. In 2015, she received the prestigious Rehma Community Services award in Toronto, Canada, for her contributions to administration, academia, and society.

The ‘Lady on a bicycle’, Dr Renate Helga Brigitte Sarma, a professor of German, contributed in a big way to making the campus lush, luxuriant, and lovely with flora of rare varieties. In her stint as member-in-charge of Land, Gardens, and Parks, she had flower beds made and rare flowers grown on the sidewalks of the university.

Resonating with the strong female ethos of the university, these women were among the sprinklings who broke the suzerainty of societal shackles and steered the way into a world of freedom and education for subsequent generations. And, that too, during a time when women’s leadership was considered, let alone rare, an inappropriate and blasphemous affair. They exhibited, to their core, the motto of the Aligarh Muslim University—”Teach the man what he knew not”—effectively, becoming the torchbearers of tomorrow. In cognizance of what Keats said, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter; therefore ye soft pipes, play on…” But then, that’s a story for another time!


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