On a sultry June afternoon in 2001 Vinod Kumar Kanathia realised a dream he had cherished for long. The sarpanch of Mewat, an area in Haryana not too far from Gurgaon, had given him the go-ahead for a girls’ education centre. But many friends warned against such a step among the conservative Meo Muslim community of the region. “‘Women’s education, and that too in Mewat? You must be mad,’ they would say,” recalls Kanathia. But nothing could stop him, not even the blazing sun. With Rs 50,000 and a small, hot room provided by the Panchayat, he set up the first centre in Nagina village.
At first there were only 25 girls and five teachers. Today, supported by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Kanathia runs 95 Shiksha Muhim centres in Mewat. The challenge, Kanathia says, was to make sure it was an inclusive exercise. “I would consult the villagers on all matters, be it choosing the venue for the centre or appointing female teachers,” he says.
One of the teachers was Roshanara, a 19-year-old Meo Muslim girl from Ferozepur Namak, who, villagers felt, was “one of them”. Roshanara knew her task wouldn’t be easy. Her father Abdus Samad had started the Jahan Ara Islamia Girls School under the Wakf board, but was forced to shut in 1997 because no one was ready to pay the fees.
The conditions here are such that even Kanathia had to waive the meagre monthly fee of Rs 10. Roshanara, a BA final year student who runs one of the centres from a room in her house where her father had started, says, “I still have to persuade mothers to send their girls. Most parents want them to work at home or in the fields. Ke karna hai chhori ne padhke (what would the girl do after studying), they ask me.” She herself hasn’t received a salary for months, but says it’s her duty to teach the girls jeene ka saleeka (way of life).
Kanathia started building rapport with the locals by introducing Urdu in the curriculum. But cultural resistance was hard to overcome. Education meant deen ki taleem (religious studies). Though the influential local clergy advocates women’s education, they do so only when it is “in accordance with Islamic law”.
Mufti Anisur Rehman of the local madrasa lays down the rules: “There should only be women teachers. After 15 years of age girls should remain behind the veil. They can’t study with boys. If these rules aren’t followed taleem should be stopped immediately.”
This is directly reflected in the experience of girls such as Afsana of village Punagwa. “The Maulvis say, ‘School mat jaao, namaaz padho aur Urdu seekho’ (don’t go to school, read the namaaz and study Urdu),” she says. At 14, Afsana is still a student of Class 3, and used to study at the mosque before she joined the centre. Asked if her parents would be willing to send her against the clergy’s wishes, Afsana says matter-of-factly, “Parents say we should go with what our respected elders say.”
Shiksha Muhim, however, is helping change a thing or two in these boggy backwaters. Roshanara says the women are more in support because they don’t want their daughters to grow up like them. “Many mothers send the girls against the wishes of the family,” she says, pointing to the hazel-eyed Sarjeena, one of seven sisters in a village family. For Sarjeena’s uncles, who want to keep the seven daughters out of the family property, the girl’s education could result in an assertion of her rights. “They keep citing Islam to stop her,” says Roshanara.
“Awareness was so low that they thought only a married woman had the right to vote,” says Kanathia. They realised it would also enhance the girl’s marriage prospects — and that helped loosen up the community’s tight fist.
Eye on the world beyond
Still, the picture is only as bright. Currently 475 girls in Mewat are enrolled at the SSA’s vocational training centres and another 219 are on the more traditional ‘alternative and innovative education’ stream.
“This is 20-25 per cent of the eligible population. There’s cultural resistance to co-education and financial gains are the top priority,” says Abdul Majeed, assistant project coordinator of the SSA in Mewat. He says the dropout rates are high: only one in 10 continue into standards V-VIII.
Part of the problem, says Majeed, is the non-availability of girls’ schools in the neighbourhood and of women teachers who respect the cultural concerns. It is one of the major reasons plaguing education of Muslim women across the country.
Says Zakia Jowher, founder president of the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, “While literacy among Muslims is low in general, in the case of women these factors make the gap larger. Fear and insecurity is still high, which is why they are always scared to send their girls outside the confines of their homes or village.”
Jowher says that in areas like Mewat a “religiously sensitive” curriculum — at Kanathia’s centres god is both bhagwan and allah — more trained female staff and a “feminist interpretation of Islam” is needed. As Shiksha Muhim shows, vocational training makes the whole package even more attractive.
The girls themselves are happy, as education enables them to dream bigger. Little Razia can’t say how old she is, but she knows her Sunday from Monday, January from February. Pointing to my notepad and pen, the bright-eyed girl says: “I want to grow up to be like you.” At the moment it may seem like a distant world beyond their village. But the girls of Mewat are already on their way.