Dialogue January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3
Educating Muslim Women in Modern India: Problems and Perspectives
You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women. — Jawaharlal Nehru
According to the 1991 Census, there were over 48 million Muslim women in India; in 2001 the number rose to 62.5 million. In popular perception, these women are typically seen as a monolithic entity undistinguished and indistinguishable in their homogeneity. The spotlight, when it falls on them, tends to do no more than view the role of religion in their lives and reinforce the usual stereotypes: pardah, multiple marriages, triple talaq, the male privilege of unilateral divorce and the bogey of personal law. The truth, however, is that like women from other communities, Muslim women too are differentiated across class, caste, community, and geographical location (including the great rural-urban divide). Despite these differences within their lot, when compared to women from other faiths in India, the majority of Muslim women are among the most disadvantaged, least literate, most economically impoverished and politically marginalized sections of Indian society. While debates on personal law and divorce are pertinent and timely, and one is not for a minute running down these issues, Muslim women need to be seen as social beings too, entitled to the same rights that the Constitution of India grants to all its citizens. The right to education, especially at the primary level is mandated by the Constitution, yet over six decades after Independence less than 50% of Muslim women in India are literate. Compare this with other women from other minorities: 76% literacy among Christians, 64% among Sikhs, 62% among Buddhists and a whopping 90% among Jain women!
According to an ORG-Marg Muslim Women’s Survey — commissioned by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi — conducted in 2000-2001 in 40 districts spanning 12 states, the enrolment percentage of Muslim girl children is a mere 40.66 per cent. As a consequence, the proportion of Muslim women in higher education is a mere 3.56 per cent, lower even than that of scheduled castes (4.25 per cent). On all-India basis, 66 per cent Muslim women are stated to be illiterate. The illiteracy is most widespread in Haryana while Kerala has least illiteracy among Muslim women closely followed by Tamil Nadu. Muslim women are found to be more literate than their Hindu counterparts in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Most of the northern states are in urgent need of vigorous and sustained literacy campaigns.
The very low level of schooling is one of the most depressing findings of the survey. In fact, nearly 60 per cent of the total Muslim respondents never attended school. There is a negative correlation between education and employment among Muslims and the minuscule proportion of Muslims in formal employment or wealth-creating occupations. The proportion of Muslim women who are illiterate is substantially higher for rural north India than for the entire country — more than 85 per cent reported themselves to be illiterate. Fewer than 17 per cent of Muslim women ever enrolled completed eight years of schooling and fewer than 10 per cent completed higher secondary education, which is below the national average.
One of the most striking insights into the situation of Muslim women comes from their dismal work participation rate — estimated at 11.4 per cent for urban Muslim women and 20 per cent for rural Muslim women. This low figure is especially striking in the light of the obvious deprivation of most of these women. Significantly, only a minuscule 0.14 per cent of Muslim women respondents cited pardah as the reason for not working.
So what is it that makes Muslim women so badly placed at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid (lower even than OBCs) and so disenfranchised in every sense of the word? A sprinkling of high-profile Muslim women judges, academics, ministers, sportspersons does not offer a complete picture. In the hamlets of rural India and the slums of urban India, young girls are still encouraged to stay within the home (first their own, then that of their husbands’). A complex web of circumstances makes the schooling of Muslim girls a daunting task. There is, of course, a fair degree of conservatism, a general mistrust of Western-style education, even a tendency to regard education for girls as being not entirely necessary, sometimes even viewed as an impediment in getting a girl married. But this is not the complete picture.
Historically, while there has always been a gap between the education of boys and girls in India in the case of Muslims, the gap has been a yawning chasm. The education of girls has always demanded higher investment in terms of more facilities, more women teachers, separate schools, transport and scholarships to provide the much-needed incentives. Muslim educationists and thinkers themselves, and as a consequence the state and central governments, have been tardy in redressing this imbalance. While there are numerous instances of minority-run institutions among Christians, Sikhs and Parsis that have made special efforts to provide free education to their girls, among Muslim faith-based organisations this consciousness has been late in coming.
Those involved in the education of the Muslim girl child have not been able to reach any consensus on the sort of education to be given to the Muslim girl child and ambivalences persist about the merits of Deeni Taalim vs Duniyawi Taleem. Meanwhile, there is a growing hunger for education among Muslim girls and women that can no longer be ignored. Several initiatives have been taken by women themselves when they feel the State or patriarchal society is not giving them their due. The Minorities Vikas Manch in Jaipur is doing great work to raise Muslim women’s literacy levels in Rajasthan. Elsewhere, private educational institutions have stepped in providing both secular and religious education. Often women have come forward to set up coaching schools to redress the high dropout rate among school-going girls. The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, to some extent Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, have more successful stories to tell largely due to overall higher literacy rates and greater persistence on the part of NGOs. Established in 1966, the Anwar ul-Ulum Women’s Arabic College in the village of Mongam near Calicut, is one such institution that provides a blend of modern and Islamic education. Lok Jumbish (People’s Movement), an NGO specializing in education, has done excellent work among the Meos in Haryana who have almost 90% illiteracy among their women. Lok Jumbish found a simple but workable solution to the steadfast refusal among Meo fathers to send their girls to school. It offered Urdu as a medium of education.
Another myth about Muslims is that they refuse to opt for secular education and prefer only madrasa education and madrasa education makes them religious fanatics. This flies in the face of not just common sense but also statistics — according to the Sachar Committee Report only 4% of all enrolled Muslim children go to madrasas; 66% go to government schools and 30% to private. No middle class person sends his children to madrasas; it is only poor Muslims who cannot afford secular education or happen to live in areas where the State, whose duty it is to provide primary education, fails to do so that children are sent to madrasas. In fact, the cause of lack of secular education is poverty, not religion. But so popular is this myth that madrasa education is ascribed to religious fanaticism and orthodoxy rather than to poverty.
The link between poverty and illiteracy among Muslim women can not be over-emphasised. Regardless of whether illiteracy is a consequence of poverty or vice versa, regardless of the debates between the ‘modernists’ and the ‘traditionalist’, regardless of the merits of an English-medium western-style education and an Urdu-medium traditional education, what Muslim women want today is some form of knowledge that empowers them to better their lot.
Individual initiatives — few and far between and laudable for their courage, no doubt — will not take the Muslim woman very far. While much is being achieved in pockets, in an isolated, random, almost ad hoc manner, a lot still remains to be done. What is needed, and needed urgently, is a more proactive role on the part of the state. More cash incentives, attendance incentives, special stipends to meritorious girl students, special bus services, more morning shift schools, more emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy, adult-education classes, public reading rooms, gender-sensitive learning materials – these need to be factored into any schemes involving education among Muslims. Given the increasing incidents of communal violence where women are the easiest victims, parents are often wary of sending girls to “unsafe” neighbourhoods. The Sachar Committee Report talks of the co-relation between place of residence and education. If more schools were located in or closer to Muslim-dominated areas, more parents would be willing to enrol their children. While this co-relation is especially strong in rural areas or communally-sensitive neighbourhoods, the positive co-relation has been seen in big cities as well. The Delhi Public School at Mathura Road runs a free school for poor children from the Basti Nizamuddin area. Called “Ibtida” (meaning Beginning), its catchment area is almost 98% Muslim. It caters to the poorest and most disadvantaged by offering free western-style education from nursery till Class VII, using its own classrooms and teachers and providing free books and uniforms. At the Ibtida school, one can actually find a student whose mother begs on the streets of Nizamuddin! Likewise, the feeder schools of the Jamia Millia Islamia cater to the disadvantaged sections, to those living in the urban ghettos of Jamia Nagar, Shaheen Bagh, Batla House, etc. and manage to attract – and retain – enough girl students right uptill middle and senior school because of its location. The morning shift school is Urdu-medium till the VIII standard and English-medium thereafter and has been showing consistently good results for both the Xth and XIIth Board examinations. Those students who make the ‘switch’ from Urdu-medium to English manage to do well due to better teaching aids, better textbooks and most of all enough Urdu-medium teachers – a combination that is found to be lacking in most government-run Urdu schools. The government’s much-hyped madrasa-modernisation scheme or catchy slogans such as ‘Education for All’ will amount to little if the so-called incentives fail to meet ground realities.
The state of the Muslim girl child is such that no single institution – be it government or private – can bring about lasting change. What is needed is an ideal mix between non-governmental organizations, local community, government and international donors. A survey of availability of textbooks in regional languages needs to be undertaken. More Urdu medium schools with better facilities, more women staff, more books in Urdu too would go a long way in encouraging girls to go to schools and stay there. There is also a need for debate and mobilization by the Muslim community itself to make a clear-eyed assessment of the situation.
Finally, let’s remember that literacy alone is not the key. It will not magically open the doors of opportunity. The quality of education is just as important. It has been seen that after the first few years of the primary education afforded to the Muslim girl child, one of two things usually happens. Either the girl is plucked out of formal education by the time she reaches puberty and for all practical purposes lapses into virtual illiteracy, or, if she continues in school and does climb up the education ladder, with every rung, the quality of education available to her is so inferior that it equips her for very little. The quality of education in some Urdu-medium schools as also the calibre of teachers in such schools is so inadequate that the girls who do come out from such institutions – many privately run, others with dubious affiliations from quasi-religious bodies – cannot cope in a competitive environment.
However, to conclude on a less grim note, I want to quote once again from the Sachar Committee Report: “While the education system appears to have given up on Muslim girls, the girls themselves have not given up on education. There is a strong desire and enthusiasm for education.” It is this enthusiasm that we clearly need to tap.