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The veil goes up: English means empowerment

Samar Halarnkar writes on the new breed of teachers in a growing set of schools imparting a strictly English and strictly Islamic education to those Muslims rediscovering their religion. Read the full story in The New Muslim.

india Updated: Oct 25, 2007 16:16 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Suraiya Khan knows why she is here — teaching junior kindergarten in the classroom where customers once flung fistfuls of rupees and leered at dancers, in the classroom that today sits directly atop a bar and overlooks a mall-construction site.

The wide-eyed, cherubic little boys — about half with illiterate parents — in green skull caps and matching pyjama pants mirror the struggle of Khan’s own family to be educated and create both a destiny and an identity among the 14 million who cram India’s rickety but booming commercial capital.

“My father was illiterate, and came to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh knowing nothing more than to deal in scrap,” said Khan, a slim 21-year-old whose expressions are hard to discern. You can only see her gray eyes through her elegant leopard-print niqab, or face veil; the rest of her is enveloped in a jet black abaya.

“We found it hard to speak even Hindi when we came,” said Khan in fluent English. “We speak the local UP dialect, Bhojpuri, at home… but my father put us all through convent school.”

So, here she is: an articulate, confident — and proudly Islamic — Indian, part of a new breed of teachers in a growing set of schools imparting a strictly English and strictly Islamic education to those Muslims rediscovering their religion, queasy about the changes sweeping India and the world, but eager to make the most of globalisation.

Khan works at the Al-Mumin Islamic English school, all of six rooms, run by the Moral Education Trust, set up by a group of Muslim builders and businessmen in 2003. It is one of 14 Islamic English schools that have sprung up across Mumbai in less than a decade, the teachers an unusual mix of ulema (preachers) and convent-educated — but conservatively garbed — women like Khan.

Some schools boast air-conditioned classrooms, swimming lessons and the latest computers; others like Al-Mumin must endure disrepair. Some schools require parents to discard television altogether; others permit specified cable channels (Discovery and Animal Planet are popular). Some teach science but leave out Darwin’s theory of evolution; others teach Darwin but make sure Islamic preachers insist on a creator, not natural selection. Some parents pay Rs 50, some pay Rs 5,400 per month.

“Till about a decade ago, children from backward Muslim families landed up in madrasas (Islamic seminaries), the richer ones joined convent schools,” said Mohammed Riyaz, 41, Al-Mumin’s “caretaker” and a mechanical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology. As he talks, parents — drivers, seamstresses, lathe-machine operators, labour contractors, accountants — wait to pick up their children, some of whom come from homes upto 90 minutes away.

“The year 1992 (when 900 died in Mumbai’s worst religious riots) was a jolt,” explained Riyaz, who supplies specialised refrigeration units to the Bhabha Atomic Centre in eastern Mumbai. “We want to remove the inferiority that Muslims feel, the victim mentality. Education is the only solution, the only way to grab opportunities that globalisation is throwing up. Once you have quality, no one will ask your religion.”

The schools follow a variety of state and central education boards. However, arriving at an Islamic syllabus has involved much innovation. A few lessons are borrowed — interestingly, from the US, which has nearly 400 Islamic English schools.

“A for Allah, B for Bismillah, D for Doomsday, E for Eid, H for Heaven…” go the alphabets on posters in the carpeted, airconditioned classrooms of the Al-Jamiatul Fikriya Islamic International School for boys, affiliated to Cambridge University in the UK. A giant signboard atop the school declares: “We are Proud to be Indian.” The school has five Hindu teachers, all wearing ultra-conservative hijabs with only the eyes showing.

“Twinkle, twinkle little star, Allah made you what you are,” recite little girls at the Al-Muminah school nestled in a teeming, treeless sidestreet in Mumbai’s Muslim heartland. Garbed in shoulder-length head coverings, schoolgirls are trained in Koranic Arabic, karate, Marathi, Hindi and English.

Parents eager for an English education but wary of the modern age love the school’s slogan: “Education for both worlds (the living and the dead).”

“Accountability in the hereafter must come in from the start,” said Shahnaz Shaikh, a medical doctor and former French pharma company manager who started Al-Muminah six years ago with 18 students in a small room (there are now 450 students upto the 9th standard).

Shaikh wants her students to understand what the Quran really says, on everything from personal life to jihad (holy war).

“If we give them the best English and Islamic education, no one will take them for a ride,” Shaikh said. “They are like sponges till the 8th standards, that’s all the time we have.”

Tabassum Khot, 29, mother of Al-Muminah students Sania, 8, and Anara, 4, is happy that her daughters — previously in the Sir Jacob Sassoon Jewish School closer home — will be absorbing Arabic. “I read the Quran in Roman English, and it bothered me that I didn’t understand, that my pronunciation was not perfect,” said Khot, an MBA from Newport University in the US, who took to wearing a hijab after her husband requested.

A few parents, worried about assimilation issues later, given the strong emphasis on Islamic values and dress, have pulled children out. “There may well be assimilation problems,” said Shaikh. “But I have to be true to my faith and my beliefs.”

Tanveer Ahmed Shamsi, 38, an affable handicrafts exporter and father of two girls at Al-Muminah, is willing to go along with Shaikh’s experiments. “Except crying, Muslims have done nothing,” he said. “There are so many changes today, it’s hard to guide my daughters. I want them to first be good human beings. I’ve taken the first step."