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A wake-up call

`Based on the first ever national survey of 10,000 Muslim and Hindu women in India, Unequal Citizens covers issues like education, work, socio-economic status, marriage decision-making powers, mobility, domestic violence and political participation of Muslim women.'

THE status of Muslim women in India, as documented by the book Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India does not come as a surprise but is nevertheless a <15,0m,,0>depressing picture of glaring inequality.

Based on the first ever national survey of 10,000 Muslim and Hindu women in India, the book, written by Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon, and published by Oxford University Press, covers issues like education, work, socio-economic status, marriage decision-making powers, mobility, domestic violence and political participation of Muslim women.

Educational deprivation

The study finds that 26 per cent of educated Muslim women have illiterate husbands, a shocking indicator of the low levels of education even among Muslim men. Since boys are frequent dropouts from schools, girls who do reach high school levels, are made to discontinue because they'll be "over qualified" in the marriage market! And hence you have a ceiling put on Muslim girls' education.

In higher education, Muslim women have an abysmal share at 3.56 per cent, even lower than Dalit women (4.25). The authors note that Scheduled Caste women have probably managed a better percentage in higher education thanks to reservation. "But in the bleak scenario, there are some interesting and surprising facts. Muslims in the north have extremely high illiteracy levels (74.36 per cent) and very low proportion in higher secondary level education (6.97 per cent)." But in higher education their share rises to 8.8 per cent, marginally lower than the south (9.11per cent), and higher than in the urban west and east. This suggests that despite a small base of literacy in the north, a decent number manage to go to college.

But overall the Muslim girl child does face educational deprivation. The constitutional goal of eight years of schooling remains a dream with a Muslim girl getting barely 2.7 years of schooling compared to 3.8 years of a Hindu girl. About 59 per cent never get into school and less than 10 per cent complete it. "But Muslims are not uniformly poor and uneducated; they are much better off in the south and also in the west and certainly better off than their counterparts in the west and east zones. The considerable better education levels of Muslims in the south, and to some extent in the west, belie the view that religion denies them education," point out the authors.

Work: double disadvantage

In conservative and patriarchal areas like Bihar and U.P., where work is treated as a mark of low status, only poor women or those from high income groups go out to work. Thanks to land ownership patterns in rural areas and their exclusion from low-level jobs in urban areas, Muslim women's employment in the farm sector and elsewhere is low. We're told that first as Muslims and then as women, they are twice as disadvantaged in accessing jobs, even low-level jobs in the informal sector. This is borne out by National Sample Survey data that shows that only eight per cent of uneducated Muslim women find employment as casual labour in public works, compared to 21 per cent of Hindu uneducated women.

Through the 1990s, though women's employment percentage improved, Muslim women's number didn't go up, perhaps due to lack of skills.

As at work, their status in the home is a dismal story too. The MWS reports that 20 per cent experience verbal and physical abuse in the marital home, over 80 per cent from their husbands. A surprising revelation in the book is that "Hindu women experience greater levels of violence than Muslims in all the four zones." Rural women are worse off and domestic violence incidence decreases with higher levels of income but this could be due to under-reporting by the educated and better-off women for "fear of further violence, shame and rejection that are powerful reasons for women's silence." Extreme and chronic poverty, women's economic dependence and lack of viable options outside marriage and a deeply entrenched culture of male authority makes domestic violence endemic in India, the study concludes.


Coming to the important area of decision making, clearly an indicator of women's empowerment and importance in the family, the study made a "modest attempt to understand the dynamics of decision making" among both Hindu and Muslim women. The queries fell into three broad clusters; work related, housed and family related and expenditure, income and investment related. Questions were asked about who makes the decisions on women working outside the house, their income and how that income is spent and by whom; and how and when a woman is allowed to begin work outside the home and when she has to stop.

One third of the respondents in both communities said they made decisions on household expenditure and children's education jointly with their husbands, and an equal number said these decisions were made only by their husbands. Only 10 per cent of the women — both Hindu and Muslim — said that they take independent decisions on these issues. Predictably, major purchase or investment decisions are made by a negligible per cent.

Most shocking is the revelation on women's mobility; a whopping 86 per cent of Hindu and Muslim women surveyed said they needed permission from their husbands to move out of the house. The chapter on decision-making concludes that the combination of extreme material deprivation, neglect and patriarchal control intensifies women's subordination. It quotes Srilata Batliwala to say that men's traditional power over women "is reinforced by control over her body and physical mobility; by the right to abdicate from all responsibility for housework and care of the children, the right to physically abuse or violate her; the right to spend family income on personal pleasures (and vices); the right to abandon her to take other wives".

Participation in politics

There are no surprises here. While 85 per cent women have voted in elections, a staggering 95 per cent has never participated in an election campaign. On contesting elections, nearly 80 per cent of Hindu and Muslim women said, "No thank you". Though keen voters — Muslim women being keener than Hindu women — a minuscule proportion, engage in political activities like election meetings or campaigning.

Access to mass media

The study found Muslim women's living standard to be lower than that of even the OBCs, and well below that of upper caste Hindus. On consumer durables it found 45 per cent households with TV sets, 40 per cent with radios, and only six and 19 per cent own refrigerators in rural and urban areas respectively.

The study found 43 per cent Muslim women literate compared to 59 per cent Hindu women. But only 20 per cent of Muslim women responded to questions on reading habits and of these only a third said they read newspapers and magazines regularly. About 45 per cent Hindu and 42 percent Muslim women watch TV regularly.

The book should serve as a wake up call to the Muslim leadership on the urgent need for better education, for men as well as women, and targeted campaigns to delay marriage — the average age of marriage for a Muslim girl is 15.6 years. In rural India, it is a shocking 13.9 years. More than purdah impacting a Muslim woman's mobility, it is the attitude of the men that puts shackles on their mobility — for education or work.

Overall, the findings are a grim statement on the gender scene in India, because the authors say that the differences between Hindu and Muslim women, be it in marriage, autonomy, mobility or domestic violence, are so insignificant that they point to similar cultural practices and patriarchal control across communities.

Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India, Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon, OUP, 2004, p.288, Rs. 595.


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