Behind a tall, wrought-iron gate with sparse black paint peeling, the 300-year-old Anglo-Arabic Senior Secondary School at Ajmeri Gate, Delhi, is in the throes of change.
Past the numerous sandstone arches that adorn its façade, a large courtyard spreads into corridors and rooms where dozens of masons are busy restoring the heritage building. A library damaged by last year’s rain has been fixed with fresh white paint and teak-wood doors. The green Kota stone floor of an auditorium, complete with carpeted stage, glistens. Next to the din of renovation, a small, crowded chamber has anxious parents, including women in black veils, exchanging notes on admission fees and dates. As the classes disperse for lunch, a boy tells a girl, “You have been chosen class monitor.” Before the girl can react, he mocks, “In your dream!” They sprint and disappear.
This turn of affairs, principal M. Wasim Ahmad says, is unprecedented. Just last month, the school that admitted only boys until last year, prepared to admit a fresh group of girls as its first batch graduated. With more applications from girls piling up at the admission counters, and several from the first batch marking their presence in its classrooms, the male bastion is crumbling.
While his class XII colleagues nod in chorus, Daraksha says studying with boys makes her two younger sisters and her competitive—they were the first three girls admitted to the school.
“Girls have exhibited their keenness to study further. They are smart, in fact smarter than we expected, and absolute go-getters,” says Faiza Nissar Ali, who was the first female teacher to join the school, in 2006.
The impact is clearly visible. Girls have done better than boys in the internal exams in every stream other than science; Ali tries to explain this. The school lowered its cut-off for admission to the science stream last year to attract more girls. “This means that girls with average marks were also admitted, which is why they couldn’t cope with the science subjects.”
The aggression, however, is slowly giving way to cooperation in classrooms, says Saba Rehman, who teaches English. “The acceptance was slow to come by but the boys are now working with girls in class projects. Being in a class together fosters learning for both boys and girls and helps them deal with situations in rational ways,” Rehman adds.
Nine more women were appointed last year. As the school opened up, employees like Ali and Rehman, who had spent seven years at the school without a staff room or toilets for women, discovered the side benefits: They got the basic amenities.
Change is coming, but slowly, to the school which has produced students like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the eminent educationist and founder of Aligarh Muslim University; Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister; and Mirza Nasir-ud-din Masood, an Indian hockey Olympian.
During lunch break, there is a strict demarcation of spaces for boys and girls. Boys crowd the canteen. There is a separate counter in a corner for girls, but food is served to them in their common room. In the classrooms, boys and girls sit in separate rows. As the school closes, girls are asked to leave 5 minutes before the boys to ensure “safe passage”.
Maqsood Ahmed, a biology teacher, suggests a separate shift for girls instead of co-education. “It’s my suggestion, if you ask,’’ he says, looking at Yasmin, who poses a question, almost rhetorically, “But then, what use will the co-education be?’’
This is the question Nazma Parveen asked herself last year. The widowed mother of Daraksha, Ramsha and Gulafsha, who lives in Ballimaran, couldn’t resist the school’s offer to waive fees and open the science stream to girls in classes XI and XII. But she says she didn’t sleep well for a month when her daughters started attending the school.
The class VI student says she will braid her hair until her school uniform—salwar-kameez with a mandatory headscarf—arrives.