Meo girls look towards education as a liberator

Every morning, Shahida Bano, a student of Class VIII, looks forward to going to school. It is the only time she is allowed to step out of her home. Shahida lives in the Mewat district of Haryana. Even though she must at all times cover her head and wear appropriate clothes like a devout Muslim girl, she feels unshackled, liberated. But she also knows that this freedom could be short lived.

Shahida belongs to the Meo community, an extremely marginalised group, who predominantly live in Mewat. Caught in a time warp, the Meos are mired in tradition. Illiteracy is very high here and livelihood options are limited. Submerged in poverty and an absent administration; families hold on to age-old beliefs. Few girls can exercise their rights here. A majority of them are married off at 14, much before they can complete their schooling. Shahida is afraid that the community and the Maulavis will force her parents to get her married as well. She says, “I am lucky that my parents are teachers and want me to study. I want to work and I hope I can. But everyone tells them to get me married early.”

Like her, Maiman, aspires for a better life through education but the challenges are many. She says, “My parents face a lot of pressure from villagers living in surrounding areas. Many people tell my father not to let me study. Very few Muslim girls get jobs here because they have not completed their studies. We are told to study only Urdu. Even the Maulavis tell our parents not to send girls outside the villages. We are able to go to school because the school provides us with a bus service, otherwise, I would have to drop out of school as well.”

Denied of education and married off as soon as they enter adolescence, the Meo girls have remained voiceless. The government also consistently ignores the Meo Muslims and governance is absent in Mewat. There are just three secondary schools. Only one school offers bus services. Neerja, who studies in the ninth standard, says, “Girls are afraid to go anywhere, including schools, on foot. We are afraid someone in the community will say something about us.” Modern clothes are taboo too.

Apart from custom, access and poor infrastructure is a major hindrance. Once girls reach the eighth standard, families are hesitant to send their daughters away to distant schools since there are no schools in the vicinity. This, in turn, has fuelled child marriage. In fact, there are instances of boys fathering children while still in school.

Despite these barriers, seeds of change have been sown and girls are ready to fight this complex web of tradition and religion that prevent them from shaping their lives.

For the first time, a group of 20 adolescent boys and girls traveled together along with the Principal of their school to the capital on International Women’s Day to share their stories at a cultural event organised by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

“It’s a significant step, a sign that the community is open to change. The fact that young girls were allowed to come so far without supervision shows families are willing to give their children the space to grow freely and express themselves. Despite the restrictions that have been placed on them for so long, adolescent girls are fighting for their rights to get the same opportunities as others and be achievers, says Dr Bobby John, Executive Director, Global Health Advocates, India.

GHA (India) has worked closely with the community in Mewat and interacted with adolescent boys and girls to understand how they could become change agents.

At a painting contest organised by the organization, students put together remarkable art works depicting cultural barriers that women face while seeking healthcare. Their paintings were showcased at the art exhibition at the IGNCA. The students also had the opportunity to meet the Union Minister of Culture, Chandresh Kumari Katoch. The interactions and the exposure was a unique experience for the students. Each of them shared their stories, their dreams and broke many myths.

Nancy studies in the ninth standard, the only girl in a class of 15 boys when she joined school. But she never had any problems. “The boys were all supportive and helped me with my studies. Today many more girls are coming forward but I think we need more schools and colleges close to our homes.” But she did not want gender based schools and colleges to come up. “If we do not interact with boys, then it gets very awkward later in college. A girl cannot even ask for help from any boy because girls do not know how to speak to boys in Mewat because we are not allowed to. Co-ed schools are very helpful but parents oppose them.”

Lisa, in the same class, says she loves science and wants to be a doctor because there are no lady doctors in Mewat, which is why women don’t access treatment on time. “Girls are believed to be physically, socially, mentally weak. I want to be an example for other girls and show that girls can do whatever they choose to do. It will help them.”