India: The challenge of educating Muslim girls

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VIHOOR, India — The air feels cool at this early hour in the village.

As roosters yap away, a small truck delivers a crate of plastic bags filled with fresh milk to a roadside shop. A man rides by on a bicycle with a girl in her school uniform sitting in front and two little girls behind him.

On both sides of the road, girls in matching blue and white outfits gather at the bus stops. A young one with braided pigtails and a backpack waits patiently. An older one wearing a white headscarf and matching pants soon joins her, and a mother dressed in a black burqa walks them to school.

In Vihoor village on the Konkan Coast about 100 miles south of Mumbai, the Muslim women almost all stay at home raising their children, and when they go out, they virtually all wear the burqa. In many ways, the village is conservative and deeply entrenched in tradition, yet family after family here said their community is undergoing a significant if gradual change: more girls are going to school, and for longer.

In one home, Firdous Sarang, 22, gathers with her in-laws in the living room as a cricket game plays on the television. A framed Koranic verse written in Arabic calligraphy decorates the wall. Like many families in Vihoor and across the state of Maharashtra, Sarang’s grandmother never went to school, her mother had a little education, and she herself studied all the way up to junior college.

Some families in this village are not only sending their daughters to school, they are spending money on their education.

In another home, Nigar Karbari, 39, raises her four children while her husband works in Kuwait and sends about 10,000 rupees ($220) a month home. Karbari says she spends 5,000 rupees a year sending her youngest daughter to an English medium school. She could send her to the Urdu-language government school, which would be almost free and is where she sent her older daughter. But Karbari and her husband want their daughter to get a better education and learn English and computer skills in case she needs a job.

Karbari graduated from high school but never went to college or worked outside her home, not even before she married. When she was in school she wanted to become a nurse or go into tailoring, she said, but her family did not allow it.

“Before marriage, if a girl went to work, then no one would marry her,” she said as she waited at the village bus stop to take her children to a nearby beach. “They would think, ‘A working girl, maybe she’ll never stay in the house, maybe she’ll never do the cooking.’ ”

Karbari said she wants her daughters to go to college.

“Now it’s valued to study and to work,” she said later that day.

There is great disparity in India in terms of quality of education, with some villages not even having schools or teachers to fill them.

Muslims in India have low levels and quality of education compared to other groups, according to a 2006 government-appointed report on the status of Muslim Indians known as the Sachar Report. The literacy rate among Muslims in 2001 was 59.1 percent. Excluding Muslims and schedules castes and tribes, the national rate was 70.8 percent. Muslim women have a literacy level of 50 percent, which is comparable to national women’s rates.

Leaders in the Muslim community in Mumbai say they are seeing more emphasis on girls’ education in villages like Vihoor across the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital.

“This generation is very lucky,” said Uzma Naheed, the executive director of Iqra Educational Foundation. “Now men are ready, and they are giving a lot of liberty to girls for educational purposes.”

Many consider this a conscious decision among the community to educate their daughters and attribute this mentality shift to the destruction by Hindu fanatics of the Babri Mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya in 1992. The destruction of the mosque, which led to deadly communal riots, forced the Muslim community to “wake up,” Naheed said.

“After the demolition of Babri Masjid [mosque], suddenly all the Muslims realized that without education there can be no future for them,” said Asif Khan, a political cartoonist and general secretary of Needs, a non-governmental organization for Mumbai’s Muslim community. “It has changed this community a lot.”

In Vihoor village, the emphasis on girl’s education marks a big shift in attitude, but it also shows that change in a community like this often comes slowly. Many young women said that while they want to go to school and get jobs, the ultimate decision on if they work will depend on their husbands.

Wafa Karbari, 18, plays with a Henna tattoo on her arm as she says she enjoys school and will become a teacher when she graduates. But once she marries, she says, it be her husband’s decision.

Asked what would happen if her husband says she must quit working, Karbari said, “First I will convince him to let me do [the] job. If he’s not ready, if he doesn’t understand, I will never do.”

Girls across Maharashtra may be getting more educated, but they then get trapped by their marriages, said journalist and columnist Kalpana Sharma who covers developmental issues and gender.

"Marriage is at the heart of tradition in all communities,” she said. “ A change in that would be the real change in terms of women's rights."

For Sarang, her schooling enabled her to speak English and to dream big about her future, with plans to become a teacher. But her in-laws’ traditional ideas about gender roles cut those dreams short.

Sarang’s family married her off while she was in junior college, and her husband refused to allow her to finish school. She ended her education and soon had a baby. As she talks her infant with mini bangles on her wrists sleeps in a bassinet in the middle of the room.

“My life is over,” she said with a resigned smile.

Sarang said she wants her daughter to have a good education, which will give her a “strong foundation.” Asked if she wants her daughter to then get a job, Sarang pauses. School, yes. A job, she’s not so sure.

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