Sitting in a rented room in Alwar’s Heera Bagh area (Rajasthan), Shabnam, 19, laughs as she recalls how her father Faiju and she had left their village in the wee hours to get admission into the Alwar Government Polytechnic College.
“He was scared of people,” she says. “He didn’t want to be seen taking his daughter out of the village for education. They had warned him that education would ‘pollute’ my mind.”
But Shabnam had her way.
She also recalled how she cried in front of him for nights on end to convince him to let her pursue the polytechnic course. That was 2012, after she had cleared her matric exams.
While Faiju had relented, the men in her village still believed girls should not be sent to school – let alone to one outside the village. Sending them to madrasa for religious education was enough.
Till 2005, Shabnam, a resident of Mirjapur, a small hamlet 53 km from district headquarters in Alwar, had never been to school.
It was the same story for other girls across Mewat, a region comprising 906 villages spanning eight blocks of Alwar and three blocks of Bharatpur, which has a majority of Muslims, known as Meo in the region.
Then, the Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development (AMIED) stepped in. The organisation volunteered to conduct a bridge course for girls in Mirjapur under the Sarva Shikha Abhiyan (SSA).
Six AMIED teachers went to the girls’ homes to bring them to school – the course was conducted in the government school building – stayed with their families, learnt their customs, like greeting them with ‘salāmu alaykoom’ instead of ‘namaste’.
They made all efforts to convince the parents that they were not there to defile their religion.
The bridge course began with 20 girls, who were taught for six months and then mainstreamed in the village government school in class six.
This year, seven of the girls have cleared the senior secondary exam. They are the first batch of girls from Alwar’s Mewat – 515 villages – to have achieved the feat.
Shabnam’s younger sister, Isma, is one of them. Moreover, 32 girls have passed Class 10, too.
Faiju says that till a few years back he too believed that girls were meant to do the household chores, look after cattle, lend a hand in the fields during sowing and harvest seasons, and get married once they were 12-13 years old.
“As a child Shabnam would often declare she wanted to become an engineer. I don’t know where she had heard that word. We mocked her: do girls ever become engineers? And see today, she’s well on her way to becoming one,” he says proudly.
Barkha, Shabnam’s friend from the bridge course, got married during the second year of her under graduate course. In 2011, she had been the first girl among the 500-plus villages to have passed secondary school.
Four of the seven Class 12 girls are also married now. But, all of them want to continue studying; most want to become teachers.
“I am doing my BA second year and preparing for the B.Ed. entrance exam,” states Barkha, who stays in a hostel in Kishangarh Bas. Her husband, who is in final year of BCom, says he also wants her to become a teacher.
“When we began going to school, people ridiculed us – ‘kya naukari karegi’ (will she work?). I want to show them that education actually gets you a job,” Barkha, 22, says.
These girls and their success stories are the result of Noor Mohammad’s hard work.
The executive director of AMIED was the first man from his village, Ghansoli, to have a master’s degree (MSc Mathematics) before he did his Bachelor of Education and joined the Lok Jumbish Project, a government of Rajasthan initiative to facilitate access to education for deprived rural communities, in 1994.
He worked for a decade among the Saharia tribal people in southern Rajasthan’s Baran district, and that’s when he thought of working with Meo girls in the age group 6-14 years to integrate them into the schooling system.
“The aim of the bridge course was to build a level of learning equivalent to the norms of class five so that they could start attending regular school from Class six,” Mohammad says.
AMIED is currently working 359 villages in Tijara, Kishangarh Bas and Ramgarh tehsils of Alwar, and Nagar tehsil of Bharatpur.