Acute poverty coupled with State apathy disenfranchises Muslim women from pursuing higher education, says a report

Something happens when Muslim schoolgirls turn 14 -- they stop showing up in class. The steadily increasing absence of Muslim girls from secondary schools is worrying and exploring reasons for this has thrown up a range of critical socio-economic factors.

“Muslim girls leave schools faster than any other community,” says a 500-page report on minority girls’ education, released in December by the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI).

In elementary school, the picture is different -- girls go to class as often as anyone from another minority group, and just as frequently as Muslim boys, sometimes outstripping them in enrolment rates in some parts of the country. The same goes for academic performance, according to the report.

“Up to elementary level, minority girls, particularly Muslim girls, are almost at par with their male counterparts in strength as well as performance,” says the report which was prepared by the NCMEI’s sub-committee on girls’ education. But then, “the state of Muslim girls’ education worsens fast.”

The problem has been 60 years in the making. In 1947, 8.5 per cent of Muslim women attended college, compared to just 2.4 per cent today, the report says. “Clearly, Muslim women were quite ahead of Hindu women at the time of partition.”

Now, Muslim girls attend elementary school at higher rates than girls from other minority groups, but fall to last place in their secondary school completion rates and beyond, causing the reports’ authors to conclude, “Muslim women are the worst off, especially the rural ones.”

As per the 2001 Census, only one in 101 Muslim women is a graduate, whereas one out of 37 women in the general population is a graduate. Muslim women at the graduate level are fewer by 63 per cent.

Though popular perceptions may point to cases where Islamist groups have sought to prevent female schooling — such as the October 2012 assassination attempt on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girls education advocate, in India, the more insidious obstacle has been a phenomenon much older than the Taliban – poverty.

Arguing that low levels of education of Muslim girls owe not to religion but to poverty, Dr. Shabistan Ghaffar, Chairperson of the NCMEI’s Sub-Committee on Girls Education, told The Hindu that only 16.1 per cent of Muslim girls from poor families attend schools, while 70 per cent of Muslim girls from economically better-off families do so. Over all Muslim girls’ school enrolment rates continue to be low -- 40.6 per cent, as compared to 63.2 per cent in the case of upper caste Hindus. In rural north India it is only 13.5 per cent, in urban north India 23.1 per cent, and in rural and urban south India, above 70 per cent, which is above the all-India average for all girls.

“Less than 17 per cent of Muslim girls finish eight years of schooling and less than 10 per cent complete higher secondary education. In north India the corresponding figures are 4.5 per cent and 4.75 per cent respectively, compared to the national female average of 17.8 per cent and 11.4 per cent. Only 1.5 per cent rural Muslims, both boys and girls, and 4.8 per cent urban Muslim children are enrolled in senior secondary schools,” Elaborating further, he says, “The average number of years that Muslim girls study is a dismal 2.7 years, as compared to 3.8 years in the case of Hindu girls.”

With Muslim families often poorer than other minority religious groups, parents find it difficult to send their daughters to higher levels of schooling—nor do they think an education beyond basic reading and writing skills will help the family’s finances.

And so far, the report says, the government has not done much to convince parents otherwise.

One government scholarship offers, on average, Rs 120,000 each year to minority students pursuing a professional course, which is 90 per cent lower than the average allocation for scheduled castes, of Rs 963,507. “This is a stark difference in the state support of two different weaker sections of the country,” the report concludes. “The picture will be more or less the same as regards the planning and performance of other government schemes meant for this class of Indian people.”

Though states have significantly expanded schools in rural areas, the report argues that minority communities have largely been left out of that expansion.

Concerns which discourage Muslim girls and their parents to access the available educational systems include lack of girls’ hostel facilities, distance of schools and colleges, lack of transport facilities for girl students, their security and sexual harassment.

The report, which was compiled over a period of three years, draws from accounts of educational experts who spoke at conferences throughout the country, and relies heavily on census data as well as the 2006 Sachar Committee Report, whose survey data debunked many common stereotypes about Indian Muslims and said, “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.”