They just wanted to study. But it wasn’t easy. They were made to fight for it, and they did. Samina Sheikh Yasim and Zarina Sheikh Yasim live in one of Mumbai’s many chawls. Their father Mohammad Yasim Sheikh is a man of modest means, and mother is a housewife.
They are a god-fearing family. The local cleric is much revered and feared. So, when Samina and Zarina said they wanted to study more, go to college after school, the family ran into the cleric.
He ruled that it was unislamic for girls to go to college, said Samina, the elder of the two. And for good measure he threw in a few more scary thoughts, college-going girls are characterless, he told the parents.
As my father is a simple peace loving person and mother a housewife they started pressuring us to drop out, Samina said. The cleric was also taking some direct action against the girls.
One day, he found Samina with her head buried in a book, the physics course book, and gave her one tight slap. I should not be studying in the passage, he told me, said Samina.
There are 20 families living in their building in a mostly Muslim neighbourhood of Madanpura. And each of the 20 establishments is quite tiny, just enough for four humans to eat and sleep.
The cleric probably understood that. But his problem was something else; he didn’t want them to go to college. Like others that age, he wanted Samina and Zarina to drop out of school, get married and raise a family.
Our parents were succumbing to pressure. We were frightened but were determined not to abandon studies at any cost, said Zarina.
Zarina said, we read the Quran and follow his (Prophets) edicts. Prophet was never against education. Instead he wanted all to study. The girls said they knew they were on the correct path. That was their strength.
And there was then Mohammad Abdullah, an uncle. He was not frightened of the cleric and he took the girls under his wings. Abdullah was now more determined than the girls to see they went to college.
Abdullah said, Prophet had said anyone can go to China in pursuit of education. China was far from Arabia and his message was that one could go as far as China to seek education. And he never discriminated between genders.
The uncle knew that only an argument such as this could beat back the cleric, anything else would have been irreligious or unislamic, and would have thus further strengthened the cleric’s case.
Thus armed, he took on the cleric. He went to court seeking protection for the family from the cleric and his associates. Emboldened by the fact that the parents were scared, he had turned up his opposition.
He had them assaulted and threatened to get the girls kidnapped or murdered. This was despite giving the local police an undertaking that he will stay away from the girls.
Abdullah said the family first complained to the police. But they did not lodge our complaint and when they did finally on pressure from some community leaders, they refused to act against the cleric.
The high court was more sympathetic. The cleric was summoned. But he wasn’t changing his mind. He told the court that Islam does not permit women to study and therefore the girls shouldn’t go to college.
The court overruled him, of course, and the police were instructed to provide protection to the family. And the girls, it added, could go to college without fear of the cleric or anyone else.
Samina is a student of BSc at Mumbai’s prestigious St Xavier’s College and Zarina Sheikh Yasim is studying commerce at Maharashtra College. They both want to become professors.
Things are better, but the battle with the critic has left behind some scars. The conservatives accuse us of defaming the religion and the community, said Samina. And that hurts.
But there are those educated members of the community who understand. That matters. Also, they have heard that more girls want to follow them now. And the fear of the cleric is gone. Almost.