Even as a recent study finds that Muslim children continue to lag behind in education, the women from the community are fighting to close the gap

Thasni, 24, from Vatanapally Orphanage in Kerala, finds life in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University ‘different’ but uplifting. She wears a headscarf and finds the Delhi atmosphere “too free” but is determined to pursue her education and make her family proud.

Femina, daughter of a farmer in Elanad, considers herself “lucky” to have landed in Jamia. She is a Sunni and people in her village do not wear a hijab, but she started wearing it after an Islamic education in Aluva Islamia College, Kerala. “I feel comfortable in this dress,” she says.

Arjumand Shaheen is pursuing a Masters in Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy, a post-graduate diploma in Peace & Conflict Studies, and a certificate course in French simultaneously (she already has a BBA and a PG Diploma). She wants to join UN Women one day. Daughter of a Delhi teacher, she does not wear a head scarf and dislikes the conservatism plaguing the community, especially in ghettoised areas of the city.

The names of these girls have not been changed. They insisted that their real names should be printed. As educated Muslims, they are proud of their multiple identities. “Muslim women are taking advantage of the changing times just like other Indian women. It’s not a lack of desire but a lack of access that has kept them back, but more and more families are allowing young girls to travel for education now,” says Azra Razzack, Director, K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit & Minorities Studies in Jamia.

Open school day

In Delhi, the decision to allow girls into the 350-year-old Anglo-Arabic Senior School had had overwhelming response from parents.

In rural India, female literacy figures are almost identical for Hindus (75 per cent) and Muslims (76.1 per cent) but the gap widens in urban areas and higher education. The number of urban Muslim female graduates is negligible, 0.8 per cent against 4.2 per cent for Hindu women and 5.5 per cent for Christians, according to Seema Kazi’s report Muslim Women in India for Minority Rights Group International.

The Sachar Committee Report, 2006 finds poverty the major barrier to Muslim girls accessing ‘modern’ or ’secular’ education, but the good news is that even if the system may have given up on them, the girls have not, and show a strong desire for education.

“The real challenge is how to make regular schools Muslim-friendly. In a so-called secular environment, Muslim identity gets set aside. But if the need for both identity and modernity is met, there is no conflict at all,” says Razzack. Rather than insisting that girls leave their burqas at home, schools should stop making a big deal about what girls wear or don’t wear, she adds.

Maryam spent the better part of her life in Jeddah and now goes to a convent in Delhi. She wears jeans and t-shirts and keeps fasts but her classmate does not fast even though she wears a headscarf. As the 13-year-old explains, “We are still both Muslim women.”

Everything impacts education

A discussion on education of Muslim women invariably includes religion, culture, and identity. Despite deeply entrenched social mores, Muslim women have emerged from the isolation of traditional roles to claim a greater role in public affairs. Some like Azra try to address the conflict by exploring the unacceptable. An alumna of St Stephens and a captain of the basketball team, she was never overtly religious. But after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, she started wearing a headscarf. “People were shocked and I had a lot of explaining to do. But people who return from a trip to the US show a remarkable change in how they dress. How is my change any different from theirs,” she asks.

“Communal prejudice – though not pervasive – is a cause for concern,” says the Kazi report, as when the Bharatiya Janata Party supplies free textbooks to all primary schools in Rajasthan except Muslim schools; or when school textbooks in Madhya Pradesh have no positive references to non-Hindu religious figures.

“The more communalism grows, the more conservatism will grow within the community, boding ill for the women,” says social activist Shabnam Hashmi, who has struggled to push education. More than 30 years have passed since she started teaching in old Zubeida’s home in Nizamuddin Basti.

“Makaan No. 102 has seen many things and there were times when Shabnam baji was even physically harmed,” says the now 64-year-old Zubeida. “I was there at every step with her and we together fought against detractors. I told them they could not stop us from educating girls in my house.”

The unlettered Zubeida made sure all her seven children and 17 grandchildren were educated. “Education changed our lives; otherwise we never knew where the sun came from and where it went. I have an open mind and am not afraid of anything now. If you keep your fists closed, how will you know what you have? One needs to open one’s fists to fully see what the wonderful world has to offer.”

IN A NUTSHELL

Rural India and junior schooling fares better: 76.1% Muslim girls are educated vs. 75% Hindu girls

Cities and higher education suffer. There are 0.8% urban Muslim female graduates vs. 4.2% for Hindus and 5.5% for Christians

The issue is not so much a lack of desire as a lack of access to mainstream schools

Access is lost because of parental conservatism and perceived loss of ‘Muslim’ identity in ‘secular’ schools