When the Church Missionary Society of England established CMS College in Kottayam in central Kerala in 1815, it marked a radical step forward as the then princely state of Travancore lacked an institution teaching English.
Promoted by the East India Company’s resident and Travancore’s Dewan Col John Munro, the college taught Greek and Latin, along with English, and helped in the educational empowerment of the Christian community.
With an inclusive vision, the college also made significant contributions to Kerala’s growth as a knowledge community with common interests extending beyond religion.
However, in the case of the equally strong Muslim community of the state, it took many more years before a similar institution — the Farook College — was established and became a tool of educational empowerment.
Started at Feroke in Kozhikode district in 1948, it is today one of the largest co-educational institutions in the state with a vision that transcends religious and social barriers.
In the last 75 years, it has addressed the educational backwardness of Kerala’s Muslims, apart from inspiring the establishment of similar institutions.
Started as an all-male institution at a time when Muslim women of Kerala were confined to their homes, the college now has a rare distinction: It is a co-educational institution where 83 percent of the students are women. Girl students from across Kerala, irrespective of religion, prefer the college for their higher studies.
Incidentally, it is the largest residential postgraduate aided institution in Kerala.
Thursday, 1 June, marks another significant milestone for the institution: For the first time in its history, Farook College is elevating a woman faculty member as its principal.
In an exclusive interaction, English faculty member KA Aysha Swapna, 50, who assumed charge as principal, spoke to South First about her elevation, and the challenges ahead. Edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. Kerala’s foremost Muslim educational institution is creating history by appointing a woman head. How do you view this significant shift?
A. As far as I am concerned, this is purely accidental. I just learned last week about my elevation. This is exclusively a decision by the college management. All credit goes to the management that has always maintained an inclusive vision and treated academics as something beyond religion, community, and gender.
The college indeed had no lady principal before. But you can see the transformation we have achieved over the years. It began as an all-male institution as most women of north Kerala preferred to stay indoors. Even those from Hindu and Christian families were prevented from accessing higher education at that time. In the Muslim community, establishing the college itself was a remarkable move, ignoring regressive and orthodox elements.
Over the years, the college started giving admission to women applicants liberally. It also started hiring lady teachers. Now we have more girls than boys. And women power is visible in all areas of college activities.
The college has had 12 principals till now. One among them was the youngest across the state while assuming the position. The management is progressive and knows the needs of the changing times well. It has always celebrated professional brilliance.
Q. You are becoming the principal at a time when regressive elements within the Muslim community continue to warn women against entering the public sphere. Despite its progressive moorings, Kerala continues to fear an open debate on the educational empowerment of Muslim women. Is it challenging to be the principal of the state’s largest minority institution?
A. I verified the college records. The college had no girl students only in the first two years after its inception. Then it became co-educational. Our founders visualised the institution as a means to fight regressive elements and to uplift the community from the backwardness that engulfed it. In all these years, the college has stood for progressive ideals.
It’s only a Muslim-managed college. Not a Muslim college.
We have alumni comprising Kerala society’s best and most powerful, hailing from different communities. We always stressed on maintaining high standards in imparting education. Scientific values and thoughts are introduced to our students. The faculty have been chosen purely on academic brilliance. The college’s success proves that we are on the right path. Social change is a continuing process. It can be achieved through continuous and collective efforts.
Q. Would it be challenging to lead an institution with over 80 percent women students?
A. It’s not a challenge. It gives a clear message to all concerned about social change. The growing women’s representation in academics in Kerala indicates the progressive shift of society in general. A sizeable portion of society still needs to understand the value of education, pushing the new generation to opt for innovative courses and evolve as professionals. Now we have huge alumni of women who continue higher education in different global universities. They will inspire more young women. I feel happy, as education empowers women and creates professionals and experts who enrich different segments of life.
Education is real empowerment. And Kerala Muslims now know that educating their girls would bring positive results. The increasing number of women’s college enrolment also indicates the positive result of the campaigns against child marriages and keeping women outside the realm of knowledge.
Q. Farook College is known for its discipline. There were strict regulations against intermingling by boys and girls. How do you respond to the criticism that the campus lacks gender parity?
A. There may have been isolated incidents in the past. But we always encouraged healthy interaction between boys and girls. There is nothing that dispirits the co-educational concepts in the college. We are committed to quality. We have a campus where any knowledge-seeker can enrich their expertise and knowledge. We are committed to upholding the spirit of quality and universal education.
Q. What are your immediate priorities?
A. I wish to evolve an action plan for the next 15 years. As an autonomous institution, we have the right to innovate existing courses and to alter the character of some courses. So we will focus on the changing needs.
There would be a focus on improving the communication skills of the students. There would be efforts to train and motivate them to pursue continuing education and research in reputed universities abroad. Placements would be a focus area for us. Also, we would avail the help of the alums to initiate projects addressing the educationally backward people of our region.
Q. For readers outside the state, will you say a few words about the college?
A. Farook College is a significant milestone in the Kerala Muslim’s resurgence. Now it is a government-aided, autonomous arts and science college. It is the largest residential postgraduate aided institution in Kerala, and the college is affiliated to the University of Calicut. It has had autonomous status since 2015.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has identified the college as a College with Potential for Excellence (CPE), the first college under Calicut University to receive the status. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) accredited it at a 5-star level in 2002, and re-accredited it at A+ in 2016. It has won many awards for being one of the best colleges in India.
Q. Do you have any emotional connection with the college?
A. I studied elsewhere. And I became a faculty here hardly 15 years ago. But I have a long emotional connection with the college as the grand-niece of the late KM Seethi, a former Speaker of the Kerala Assembly and leader of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). He was instrumental in setting up the college from scratch. So his memories are helping me to undertake this task with confidence.
I did my BA (English) from St Teresa’sTeresa’s College in Ernakulam, MA from Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam, and PhD from the University of Calicut. My husband, PK Maqbool, is the principal of JDT Arts and Science College in Kozhikode, and I have two children, Adnan and Afreen. I feel happy about being elevated as principal. It’s natural. But this responsibility prevents me from lecturing daily. I will miss my classes. Fundamentally, I am a teacher.
Q. A few words about the college management.
A. Rouzathul Uloom Association comprises a set of religious reformers in Kerala that established the college in 1948 to dispel the darkness that enveloped a society rendered helpless by great colonial oppression and unfair laws. Right from the beginning, they preferred a secular educational system.
Today, the college provides 21 undergraduate, 16 postgraduate, and 11 research programmes in various subject areas. The association has always been progressive and has always upheld an inclusive vision. That keeps us in moving forward.