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Article 420

Educating Muslim Girls: A Comparison of Five Cities 

By Zoya Hasan, & Ritu Menon, 

(This book was published in New Delhi at  Kali Unlimited, 2005,

pp.186, ISBN: 81-88965-16-2. Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand)


Muslim girls are among the least educated sections of Indian society. Yet, very little literature is available on the education of Muslim girls, indicating a certain indifference on the part of community leaders, the agencies of the state and non-governmental organizations to their concerns, which makes this study a welcome addition to the limited corpus of writings on the subject.


Based on findings of a survey conducted jointly by the authors and backed by official statistics, the book highlights the dismal state of Muslim female education as well as the efforts being made by several Muslim social activists in different parts of India to address the issue. The authors claim that over 75% of Muslim women in India are illiterate, literacy being officially defined rather generously to include just about anyone who can read and write a sentence or two. The situation in the northern states, especially in rural areas, is said to be particularly dismal. 85% of rural north Indian Muslim women are unable to read or write. On the other hand, the situation in the south, especially in urban areas, was found to be considerably better, with 88% urban south Indian woman said to be literate.


In India as a whole, the authors reveal, Muslim girls’ school enrolment rates continue to be low: 40.6%, as compared to 63.2% in the case of ‘upper’ caste Hindus. In rural north India it is only 13.5%, in urban north India 23.1%, and in rural and urban south India, above 70%, which is above the all-India average for all girls. Only 16.1% of Muslim girls from poor families attend schools, while 70% of Muslim girls from economically better-off families do so, thus clearly suggesting that low levels of education of Muslim girls owe not to religion but to poverty. Less than 17% of Muslim girls finish eight years of schooling and less than 10% complete higher secondary education. In the north the corresponding figures are 4.5% and 4.75% respectively, compared to the national female average of 17.8% and 11.4%. Only 1.5% rural Muslims, both boys and girls, and 4.8% urban Muslim children are enrolled in senior secondary schools. The average number of years that Muslim girls study is a dismal 2.7 years, as compared to 3.8 years in the case of Hindu girls. The number of years that a Muslim girl studies in north India is half that of her south Indian counterpart In other words, on the whole, Muslim girls are characterized by a low enrolment rate and a very high drop-out rate from the formal schooling system.


The study then moves on to examine the condition of Muslim women’s education in five cities in India: Delhi, Aligarh, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Calicut. It highlights the efforts of valiant Muslim women, many of them from poor families, in promoting girls’ education in their own localities by setting up small schools or launching educational awareness drives. Through a series of interviews with these activists, the study points to the numerous hurdles that these women face in their struggle to educate their sisters. These include the indifference of the state to the conditions of Muslim women, reflected in dismal budgetary allocation for their education; widespread poverty in the community; opposition to co-education after a certain level; shortage of girls’ schools and women teachers; and early marriages. The authors also speak about a growing enthusiasm among many Muslims for educating their daughters, although, they argue this is hindered by an anxiety to preserve their cultural identity in the face of the Hindutva onslaught and what the authors term as a ‘widely-shared lack of confidence in being employed by the government’ (p.17) (presumably, a euphemism for ‘discrimination’). While this argument is valid, the authors do not deal with the very contentious issue of the general Hindu ethos of the government school system in large parts of India, the marked Hinduisation of the state school curriculum as well as the negative references to Islam and Muslim personages that abound in many state-approved text-books, which are crucial factors in accounting for the reluctance of many Muslim families to send their girls to school. Likewise, in accounting for the low levels of school enrolment of Muslim girls the authors ignore the influence of the traditionalist ‘ulama, many of whom frown on girls’ secular education, especially higher education, claiming that it would lead them ‘astray’. Further, while the authors’ claim that Muslim educational backwardness does not owe to religion as such is tenable, since the Qur’an itself stresses its importance, it does not interrogate the role of the traditionalist ‘ulama in seeking to limit ‘Islamically’-valid education for girls simply to religious education narrowly defined.


The study shows significant regional similarities as well as difference on the issue of Muslim girls’ education. In Kolkata, where Muslims account for more than 15% of the population, the study found that Muslims lag far behind other communities in terms of education. Although Muslims form 22% of the West Bengal’s population, 64% of them are illiterate, the figure being far more dismal in the rural areas, owing principally to widespread poverty as well as neglect by the state. According to the study, West Bengal has the  dubious distinction of having the lowest proportion of Muslim girls studying at the middle and matriculation levels in both rural and urban areas and the highest disparity between Hindus and Muslims in terms of education. The state, despite being ruled by a party that claims to be ‘Marxist’, has done little for Muslim education, although the Muslims rank among the most economically deprived communities in the state. A good indication of this, the authors say,  is that in 2004 the state spent only 1.84% of its allocation for implementing the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme meant ostensibly for the universalisation of education in the state. Teachers in government schools in the state are often involved in politics and the average number of days that they work a year is a mere 90. The report quotes a former West Bengal minister as saying that the government is insincere in its profession of its commitment to primary education for all. ‘The party in power’, he is quoted as saying, ‘plays a negative role in the education sector as illiteracy gives them an assured vote-bank. Literacy may lead people to switch their loyalties’.


In Delhi, the authors note a growing enthusiasm for modern education among many Muslim families, although this is generally thwarted by widespread poverty and the fear that well-educated girls might find it difficult to find suitable husbands because of the relative paucity of well-educated Muslim men. Another hurdle is the desperate shortage of Urdu schools, which many parents would prefer to send their girls to. There are only 15 Urdu-medium government primary schools in the city, and when students pass out from these schools they are faced with either being forced to enroll in Hindi-medium secondary schools or drop-out from the formal schooling system. The Delhi Government has not appointed a single Urdu teacher in over a decade, indicating its lack of interest in promoting Muslim education. There is only one government Urdu-medium primary school in New Delhi, although a large number of Muslims live in this part of the state as well. On the whole, Urdu schools in the state  suffer from shortage of funds, trained teachers, textbooks and inadequate infrastructure, all of which make the task of promoting Muslim girls’ education doubly difficult.


In Hyderabad, where Muslims form almost 40% of the population, the study found that 84% of Muslim women are illiterate. However, a growing number of girls from economically better-off families are now enrolling in English-medium schools and in colleges. Girls’ education has witnessed a considerable degree of progress in recent years due to economic prosperity among some Muslim families because of remittances from relatives working in the Gulf, reservation for girls and  for Muslims in professional colleges and government jobs, state aid to Urdu schools, and recognition of Urdu as the second official language of the state of Andhra Pradesh. A similar enthusiasm among some Muslims for girls’ education is noted by the author in Calicut and Aligarh, although, for the same economic and social reasons mentioned above, Muslim girls’ continue to be characterized by a high drop-out rate from schools. In addition, the book reveals that in recent years a number of Muslim-managed girls’ schools have been set up that impart both modern as well as religious education, which make them more culturally relevant and acceptable to many Muslim families.


The authors conclude by stressing the need for Muslim community leaders as well as the state to take the issue of  educating Muslim girls with the seriousness that it deserves. Given the poor condition of Muslim women’s education, there is a special need, they rightly argue, for the state to take a pro-active role in this regard in order to promote social justice and the empowerment of Muslim women and to remove the barriers that systematically reinforce their marginalization.


The major contribution of the book is the detailed statistics it provides that highlight the levels of Muslim women’s education in different states and in India as a whole, as well as its analysis of the various factors that impede Muslim girls’ education. Although the interviews of Muslim women working to promote girls’ education in the five cities that this study looks at provide interesting information, they appear rather superficial and lack the necessary depth  and rigor, giving the book the appearance of being done in a tearing hurry. In addition, some of the claims that the authors make are untenable. For instance, they claim that 98% of Muslim girls study in government of private schools and only 2% in madrasas, the majority being from poor families. No reference is provided for this claim, which appears factually incorrect. The authors do not define what they mean by the term ‘madrasas’, and appear to conflate maktabs or mosque-schools and madrasas, institutions for  higher Islamic learning. Other studies have indicated a relatively high proportion of girls, from poor and lower-middle class families, who study in maktabs, after which they often do not carry on with any sort of formal education. In many places, girls outnumber boys in the maktabs. Clearly, the figure of 2% that the authors provide is a gross under-estimate. Further, the authors do not refer to the phenomenon of girls’ madrasas that are intended to train girls as religious specialists (‘alimas and fazilas), some of which also provide a modicum of ‘modern’ education as well. Although the number of such madrasas is still small, they are a growing phenomenon, popular not just among the poor but also among some lower-middle class Muslim families, being seen as providing a more culturally relevant and appropriate form of education than do government schools. Yet, the authors seem to labour under the impression that ‘education’ is simply ‘modern’ education, which explains why no t a single of the people interviewed in this book is a madrasa or maktab teacher. This impression is also reflected in the authors’ statement that appears in the very first page of the book: ‘The emergence and spread of women’s education in India in the pre-independence period is the legacy of British colonialism and nineteenth century reform movements among Hindus and Muslims, which were primarily a response to the Westernisation implicit in the colonial process’ (p.1). By thus equating ‘education’ with ‘modern’ or Western-style education, the authors completely ignore the long history of Muslim women’s education in pre-British times. Likewise, ‘ulama voices are totally ignored in the book, further strengthening the view that what the authors consider as education has little for traditional Islamic learning.


Equally untenable is the author’s naïve claim that Hyderabad’s Old City, where most of the city’s Muslims live, is thriving and prosperous (‘Indeed, a visit to the Old City was an eye-opener because it bore no evidence of pervasive poverty; if we had not been told we would not have known we were in the heart of the Old City’, the authors claim [p.105], although, three pages later, they speak of the fact that Muslims in Hyderabad ‘are among the poorest’). So, too, is their argument that West Bengal has the ‘lowest number’ of government schools in the country (p.53). Readers are presented with yet another unsolvable riddle in the authors’ claim that the government of West Bengal has neglected Muslim education while they argue the fact that 27.7% Muslim children in the state attend government schools in contrast to 18.6% in the case of the Hindus suggests the large availability of such schools in Muslim-dominated areas! Equally distressing are the numerous spelling errors: Qoran, instead of Qur’an, salal-e salaam instead of salallaho aleihi wasallam (a phrase generally used after taking the name of the Prophet to beseech God’s blessings on him) and upper caste, instead of ‘upper’ caste or so-called upper caste. All this, however, should not detract from the obvious merits of what is undoubtedly a valuable and insightful book.



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