These Kerala colleges' all-woman unions strive to break gender stereotypes

On Women’s Day here are the stories of a few student activists who have become the flag-bearers of change and gender equality across the colleges of Kerala.

Published: 08th March 2018 02:53 PM  |   Last Updated: 09th March 2018 06:35 AM   |  A+A-

Victorious candidates after college union election at CMS College Kottayam (facebook/ SFI CMS)

Online Desk

The college campuses of Kerala have always been politically spirited and colourful. Prominent colleges of the state have seen student organisations working freely, enjoying great support among the student community. Elections to student bodies at the college and varsity levels have been an integral part to student activism. But when it comes to female representation even Kerala doesn’t have a good record to show.

The current academic year, was however different, with many leading colleges getting their first “Chairpersons” in place of Chairmen. Even a university union of only female representatives entered office earlier in February.

On Women’s Day here are the stories of a few student activists who have become the flag-bearers of change and gender equality across the colleges of Kerala.

First women-only university union of the country

On February 5, Kalady Sanskrit University created history by electing a University Union with only female members for the first time in India. The milestone comes only months after the campus union of the varsity entered office in a similar fashion with only women representatives.

The all-woman University Union of Kalady Sanskrit University

MPhil scholar Anjuna KM of the Kalady campus was elected as Chairperson, along with Simy Mattummal and Ambily Sivadas of Tirur campus as Vice Chairperson and General Secretary respectively. All the victors belong to the leftist Students Federation of India (SFI), who won the election for the seventeenth time, unopposed.

None of the candidates were chosen just because they were women. We respect gender politics but the point that all of them has been struggling for the students’ cause in their colleges also need to be noted. They are all able student leaders,” said Nithin Joseph of SFI.

Recollecting the negative responses that she faced initially, Anjuna said, “Even some teachers were unhappy with our panel. They tried to demoralise us saying that leading the varsity union is not easy like handling a college union. They said it is too much work for women.”

Anjuna said her team is determined to answer the critics through action. Their experiences in leading student movements can serve this cause. “Negative remarks are something that girls have to face from childhood; this is nothing new. Girls dominate even the protest marches and gatherings organised at the university. So this is only a routine task for us," says Anjuna.

Parvathy KB, Jijy M, Ramzeena Majeed and Chimmu Jayakumar are the other members of the student council.

Anjuna said after the initial hue and cry, the political significance of their victory is dying out. She added that she wishes the model they have put forth at Kalady be followed by students organisations across India, bridging the gender gaps existing in the field of education.

For the first time in 200 years

Established in 1817, CMS college Kottayam is fondly called the “College granny of Kerala” for being the first of its kind in the state. But Chairperson Rubina Mol of the Home Science department has not got a single predecessor from her gender in the college’s long history to connect with.

CMS has always been a politically vibrant campus, where the authorities find it extremely difficult to control student activism. Even seven years after a High Court ruling banned all political activities, there is the visible dominance of SFI in every nook and corner.

SFI's election campaign board announcing the candidates for the election to the union at CMS College, Kottayam, Kerala (Photo courtesy Ajmal Rasheed)

A fort of the left-wing student organisation - claiming to be exponents of progressive politics, and with over 75% of female students, their representation has been largely limited to the reserved seats alone. Why?

Arts Club Secretary Sharon Shajy said changes are happening gradually. “The present Kerala cabinet has the most number of female ministers in history. But they are still a minority compared to their male counterparts. This is the general character of society,” she said. “Traditionally, the Chairman seat was given to a third-year male student, but we brought a change to that by fielding Rubina who is a second-year student."

Sharon said student activism altogether changes the outlook of girls who come to CMS. Being politically active provides them certain values that girls generally fail to receive from homes.

It is not easy. We had to organise struggles against gender oppression even in recent years. There were departments which forbid girls from wearing jeans and leggings to classes. This is the reality and we are fighting wars on multiple fronts,” added the final year BA Malayalam student.

The first programme conducted by the union was a Taekwondo self-defence class for girls, which was led by Rubina herself, who is a state-level referee of the sport.

College Union General Secretary Jinsu Babu, Vice Chairperson Varsha Prakash, PG Rep Geethu Maria and lady representatives Amina and Aquilin Anna Shajan are the other female members of the CMS union.

With the college getting autonomous status, it witnessed girls becoming a big majority in the college. SFI wanted to set an example by giving them maximum representation, said former SFI college unit President Ajmal Rasheed.

Proving critics wrong

Categorised among the finest arts colleges of Kerala, Kozhikode's Farook College has a rich academic and co-curricular tradition to be proud of. Still, it took 70 long years for the largest PG institution under the University of Calicut for a woman to lead its student council. Minah Farzana of the Muslim Students Federation (MSF) is the first.

First Chairperson of Farook college Minah Farzana (Facebook/Minah Jaleeel)

Not just here, but in most colleges, girls outnumber boys in figures. But when it comes to student councils, we always choose boys as representatives. The best response is to show that nothing changes (for the worse) if women are given a chance,” said the final year Sociology student, who tasted defeat twice before winning in the final year.

What defines Farook in the line of campus politics is the strong influence that the MSF, the student wing of IUML enjoys, making it one among the few institutions of the district where the SFI has always struggled. Minah’s victory is important for MSF, as it has come under fire for keeping the gender divide steep by denying women representation at higher organisational levels.

Over 80% of students in Farook are girls. So there were no second thoughts before fielding a female-Chairperson candidate. Minah’s calibre and organisational skills made her the apt choice,” said Muhaimin, unit secretary of the MSF. He reminded that it was from the MSF panel that a female candidate was elected to a general seat the last time - three years ago. Interestingly, the contest for the Chairperson seat was fought between three women this year.

Farook in recent times had also been criticized for allegedly banning the intermingling of boys and girls. But the Chairperson said she has never come across any sour experiences in the campus because of her gender. “At times the union members have to stay back until nightfall. Nobody has questioned our presence on the campus even in such instances,” said Minah who is also the state secretary of Haritha, the women’s wing of the MSF.

Minah said her union is planning to organise women empowerment programmes involving eminent personalities from various fields. Rishana CM (Joint Secretary) and Rizwana Shirin KM (Vice-Chairperson) are the other women members of the body. 

Struggling without a room of their own

Mannanam KE College is another institution that elected a female student to lead the student body for the first time ever since it’s establishment in 1964. Under the leadership of Anns Joseph, a final year BSc Physics student, the college union is busy organising a week-long Women’s Day programme on campus. However, even the most creative activities in the college are struggles for Anns as the union is denied an office room.

KE College Union Chairperson Anns Joseph (Facebook/Nithin Sunny)

Her team had conducted a panel discussion with Transgender activists to begin the weekly celebration, and is planning to reach out to the public through street plays and flash mobs outside the college in days to come. However, the unavailability of a place to coordinate activities has slowed them down.

It isn’t fair. The college management has given strict instruction not to allot an office for the union. Since there is no particular place where the students can find us, we have to go from place to place spreading word about the programmes,” she said.

Teachers too, are reluctant to cooperate with the union as they had disagreements with the previous union. The students say this is the reason why the management took back the office room that was allotted last year.

However, principal Dr Antony Thomas said the college has never had a union office in history. “When a room was allotted for the entire year, they used it to store flags, banners and sticks. We’ve seen students rushing in to get these out when clashes erupt. This can’t be allowed and I am very sure that this hasn’t tampered any of their activities.”

Anns said a teacher in a PTA meeting had criticized the students for electing her as Chairperson being aware of her association with the previous union. “Only a handful of teachers are with us. I know none of this is personal, but it can make things hard.

Students have never discriminated against me because of my gender, hence I am determined not to give up,” she said. 

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