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A study in education: How Muslim women are getting into the classroom

Muslim women from lower income groups are becoming aware of the benefits of education even as the country debates the need for a uniform civil code.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2016 13:08 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Despite a passionate espousal of the interests of Muslim women, neither the government nor its ideological allies have taken any steps towards more obvious ways of their empowerment such as education.
Despite a passionate espousal of the interests of Muslim women, neither the government nor its ideological allies have taken any steps towards more obvious ways of their empowerment such as education.(HT PHOTO)

Nine-year-old Rizwana Begum was at a ‘cabinet meeting’ on the morning of December 6. Last year, the fourth-standard student of Khatbinshai School in Cuttack was appointed ‘welfare minister’ of the student cabinet. She’s been a vocal advocate of her fellow students’ rights since.

Like most students at the government-run primary school, Rizwana comes from a low-income colony with a large population of Muslims. Forty-two of the school’s 50 students are Muslims. Twelve of them are girls.

“It’s a better ratio than the one we used to see six or seven years ago,” says Rajashree Mahapatra, the principal, as she goes over the notebook of Nazia Sanam, a first-standard student who looks anxious about the performance at the math assignment.

Read | Big data to cameras: How technology is empowering Muslim women

Mahapatra attributes this upswing in the number of Muslim girls to the execution of the Right to Education. She equally credits the dedicated efforts of local NGOs such as the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) in enabling the community to claim their rights under the act. The other reason some of the government schools have a larger proportion of Muslims and Dalits, according to Mahapatra and others, is that most children from poor caste Hindu families go to Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, a chain of schools run by the RSS across the country.

Among other things, the BMMA works towards understanding and ameliorating the marginalization of Muslim community and Muslim women.

Khatbinshai primary school in Cuttack where the enrolment of Muslim girls has gone up in the past few years. (Snigdha Poonam/HT Photo)

The Centre has been testing the waters to abolish triple talaq and establish a uniform civil code. While the BMMA backs a ban on triple talaq, the Muslim Personal Law Board is equally opposed to the government’s moves. But despite a passionate espousal of the interests of Muslim women, neither the government nor its ideological allies have taken any steps towards more obvious ways of their empowerment such as education. The politics though, hasn’t held back Muslims women from classrooms.

“The government is still holding on to the survey of Sachar Committee that came out with the data that 66.6% of Muslim women can read and write. They didn’t ask the women what they can read and what they can write. If they had, most women would have said they can read the Quran and they can write some Urdu. The problem is that documents detailing their state entitlement happen to be in English or vernacular languages. So most Muslim women are left in the lurch,” said Farhat Amin, the Orissa coordinator for the BMMA.

One of the principal ways in which the organization gets more Muslim girls in classrooms is by getting parents involved with the affairs at the schools. “Earlier,” Amin said, “the schools used to be unwilling to elect Muslim and Dalit parents as members of the school monitoring committees by citing excuses, saying these people will not be able to speak at meetings, file applications. But they have been proven wrong.”

Jugna Begum of Diwan Bazaar, another Muslim-majority locality in Cuttack, has been a member of a local school monitoring committee since 2007. She has also been an RTE activist for two years now. When the homemaker first decided to become involved with school enrolments, hers was the rare family in the area to send their daughter to high school.

“Currently most of their daughters are in high school or college. When I go home to home to persuade the parents to let their daughters continue studies, I tell them, ‘the world is changing, you have to change with it,” she said, pointing at a row of houses outside her window.

Read | Triple talaq is neither constitutional nor a Quranic form of divorce

Her daughter, Sapna Begum, is now training to become a teacher. The 18-year-old’s most prized possession is a computer her father, a butcher, gave her as a present on her last birthday. It’s placed under a pink cover on a table in a room she shares with her two siblings. “There is nothing I liked more than to study. I feel I am the luckiest girl in the world to be allowed that freedom.”

Noorjahan Bibi, an RTE justice worker, says she is working hard to provide better facilities to the students. (Snigdha Poonam/HT Photo)

In another house in Diwan Bazaar, Noorjahan Bibi, another RTE justice worker, tells me about the changes she’s achieved as an education activist. “I have got schools to give kids better food as midday meal, arrange for carpets in the classrooms, fix the lights.” The one she’s proudest of is having pushed 12 children in her colony to go to school.

“If a man is educated, his family will be financially secure. If a woman is educated, she will make sure generations of women who follow her in the family will also be educated,” says 26-year-old Raheema AV, one of the eight young Muslim women selected by Delhi-based Zakat foundation for a fully-funded training for the civil services examination. Launched in 2007, the fellowship programme is meant to confront the glaring lack of Muslims in positions of state authority.

“There are 1100 seats in UPSC, so going by their numbers at least 170 Muslims should make it every year, but only 34 do on an average. No more than six are women,” said Syed Zafar Mahmood, the foundation’s president. Ten Muslim women have made it to the civil service over the eight years of the programme. It’s been three months since Raheema travelled from Mallapuram in Tamil Nadu to Delhi with her husband. “I have already changed so much—my viewpoints, my personality, the way I look at the world.”

Two things drove 24-year-old Fathima Nadackal from coastal Kerala to take the qualifying test for the fellowship. “Growing up, I saw every girl in the community get married the moment she was out of high school. I wanted to break the pattern by any means. I also wanted at least one girl in my town to say that she wanted to follow my path.” Nadackal has seen to both already.

In 2014, Sana Akhtar from Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh was one of the two Zakat foundation fellows to make it to the civil service. I asked Akhtar, currently an IAS officer in West Bengal, what she considers her biggest achievement. “The idea is that anyone can do it. It’s our own insecurity that holds us back.”