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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Educating Muslim Women

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 2011 Government of India Census, there are 66,814,106 Muslim women in India. 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. 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, 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 compared to the overall literacy level of 65.46% for women in India.

According to an ORG-Marg Muslim Women’s Survey 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 almost universal in Haryana while Kerala has least illiteracy among Muslim women, i.e., 21 per cent 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.

According to the Muslim Women’s Survey (MWS) commissioned by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 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 seems to be a negative correlation between education and employment among Muslims and the "proportion of Muslims in formal employment or wealth-creating occupations is small". 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. The survey also discovered that as one moves up the "education ladder", there is a significant drop in the presence of Muslim women — 3.56 per cent of Muslim women actually made it to the higher education tier, which is even lower than the figure for the Scheduled Castes.

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 (against 16 per cent for Hindus) and 20 per cent for rural Muslim women (against 37 per cent for Hindus). 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 an impediment in getting a girl married.

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 Muslims this consciousness has been late in coming.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan spoke of the need to educate girls only after Muslim boys had been educated. Others such as Ashraf Ali Thanvi, in his famous Bihishti Zewar, a compendium of ‘useful knowledge’ for women, advocated only scriptural education for women. In the face of stiff opposition, Sheikh Abdullah and his wife Wahid Jahan Begum established a separate school for girls at Aligarh in 1906. In 1913 the Purdahnashin Madarsa was started in Calcutta. In 1914, the Begum of Bhopal, an early and vigorous proponent of education for Muslim women, started a school for girls. Increasing literacy among women – formal education was still a distant cry – caused a spate of women’s journals to mushroom all over the country. These were mostly in Urdu and provided a judicious mix of literature, home and healthcare tips, recipes, sage counsel on good housekeeping. But, in their own way, they also pursued the cause of female literacy; the common spiel in most of these journals being: education can make women better women, better wives and mothers. From the 1920s there was a spurt in women’s educational institutions. The Bulbul-e-Khana was set up by the British in Delhi in 1921, the Nampalli Zenana School came up in Hyderabad, to name just two. But these catered to the elite; education for the poorer Muslim women continued to be India’s deepest, darkest shame

Things, however, are changing. Though there is very little 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, there is a hunger for education among Muslim girls and women. Several initiatives have been taken by women themselves when they feel the State or patriarchal society is not giving them their due. At a school in Jogeshwari, Mumbai little girls have become the first generation of literates in their respective families thanks to the single-minded dedication of two young women. The Minorities Vikas Manch in Jaipur is doing much good 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 intent on providing 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 (associated with Islam) as a medium of education. Villagers in the state's Bharatpur district firmly believed that the Hindi-medium education offered in local government schools was unsuitable for Meo girls because the language was associated with Hindus!

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. No middle class persons send their 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 us 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. What is needed is also 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 school and stay there. There is also a need for debate and mobilization by Muslim women to overcome patriarchal structures within Muslim communities. The debate on legal reform is linked to debates on women and Islam. Muslim women in India need to participate in the contemporary debate on Islam and women's rights. It is imperative for Indian Muslim women to reclaim their right to religious knowledge which does not in any way preclude them from obtaining secular education.

If Muslim mothers, daughters, sisters remain uneducated, can Muslim fathers, sons, brothers better their lot? To paraphrase the words of the famous Urdu poet, Altaf Husain Hali:
Ai maao, behno, betiyon
Is jag ki aas tum se hai

Rakhshanda Jalil


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