"In the last 10 years since I started teaching Muslim girls, I have seen a change. Earlier, they dropped out by the sixth or seventh standard but today, more and more girls want to study further. But I am impatient. Ten years and only so much? Why are we still struggling so hard?"
Rehana, 30, who fervently asks this question, is a teacher but in an unusual endeavour, she is also a student. In a community where access to basic education for girls is fraught with a myriad obstacles, including social pressures, crushing poverty, gender discrimination and even the language of instruction, 20 teachers have been educating young schoolgirls for free. The students teach even as they learn, constantly and continuously, pushing the envelope just a little, every day.
Rehana teaches 58 students from the first to the 10th Standard. Even as she explained the intricacies of Trignometry to ninth standard students, she prepared for her Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examinations. "Some of my students were diffident about giving the examination so I decided to give it too. Six of us appeared for it this year. It was tough to study, take care of my home and children, work in an 'anganwadi' (government-run childcare centre) in the mornings and teach the other students in the evening. But everyone was so supportive. "The girls kept telling me not to worry about their studies and concentrate on mine. Now let's see what the result brings," she says, with a laugh.
Under the banner of 'Uncle's Free Coaching Classes', a dozen centres spread over the Western suburbs of Jogeshwari and Andheri have successfully helped at least 400 students through their Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examinations, 50 girls to graduate, and have sent several girls into professions like nursing, the beauty industry, tailoring and even pharmacy, banking and law.
The classes began around a decade ago by journalist and social activist Firoz Ashraf, and his wife, Arifa, from their home in a Muslim locality in Jogeshwari. The Ashrafs (known affectionately as 'Uncle' and 'Aunty', hence the name of the classes) moved here when they were forced to leave their home in a predominantly Hindu locality in Malad after the Mumbai riots of 1992. The move was an eye-opener, exposing them to the extreme poverty of their neighbours.
Education is a distant dream for most of them, struggling to make a living as autorickshaw drivers, tailors and domestic workers. Though girls are exempt from paying school fees in civic schools, the cost of textbooks and exercise books, stationery, uniforms or even shoes are prohibitive. Besides, the girls do housework, rear younger siblings and often pitch in with embroidery, box-making, jewellery-making and other home-based work that help buttress the family income. While their brothers may have access to tuitions, the girls invariably fail and by the seventh standard, drop out of school.
The civic education department estimates that girls form 60 per cent of the annual 20,000 dropouts in municipal schools in Mumbai. "Our foremost task is to bring down the dropout rate. We've had to go to their homes and convince their families to send the girls. Then, we had so many students but not enough teachers. And that's how our first batch of students, who had passed their exams, has begun teaching the younger ones," says Arifa.
Modules were developed to teach difficult concepts easily and tackle the two bugbears - English and Maths. The success of the student-teacher model attracted the attention of civil society organisations like the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Asha for Education and Majlis. With their funds, 12 teachers were sponsored at Rs 1,000 a month (US$1=Rs 40). But the funds were erratic and the Ashrafs now dip into their own savings to pay the teachers.
Initially, the coaching was just a way of keeping the kids in the housing complex out of mischief. Kalima would have been yet another mischievous brat who failed her seventh standard examination and was about to quit school. But today, she is a graduate with a diploma in journalism. Successfully stalling her family's plans to get her married for the last five years, Kalima has worked in a bank, with an NGO, in an Urdu newspaper and now wants to get a Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) degree.
Nazneen, 23, is studying hard for her SSC examinations. "My mother supported me - everyone else in the family stopped talking to me. But I want to graduate and continue teaching other girls," she says quietly but firmly.
Nilofer, also 23, graduated in Arts two years ago and teaches over 70 children in her home. Her parents are supportive. "I got a job as a tele-marketer but the timings became a problem. A schoolteacher's job pays very little. But now, seeing the state of education in schools, I think we should start our own school. I think we can do a better job," she says confidently.
Nazia, 21, is studying for her BA final examination, even as she teaches around 50 children in her home. "I failed Maths and English in the ninth but didn't want to give up. Ashraf uncle spoke to the principal to give me another chance and I gave my examinations privately. We just need a bit of help and then we can make it," she says.
For some, the choices may already seem limited. Tasleem, 21, is doing her Bachelor of Arts degree in Urdu literature in the government-run Ismail Yusuf College in Jogeshwari. She would have preferred Sociology or Psychology but no professors were available for these subjects. Besides, these subjects are taught in the English-medium and are confusing for the girls, who have studied in the Urdu medium, she explains.
Grappling with a highly literary Urdu is difficult enough. "But the poor standards of teaching and the unsympathetic attitude of teachers in the regular schools is a bigger problem," says Rehana, adding that if schools improved, students wouldn't need tuition. As Firoz says, "I told the principal of a college once that his refusal to give admission to a girl was like signing her death warrant. People espouse lofty ideals but nothing happens when it comes to putting them into practice."
Poverty is always a crucial factor. Rehana says, "One of my students walks to school to save money to buy a book. I can make out from the face of another that she hasn't had anything to eat all day. Some girls do go to the 'madrasa' (school) and learn to read the Qur'an by the age of 10 or 12. After that, what is in store for them?"
A determined Kalima wants to take the movement for education forward. "I feel we have done so much and reached this stage. Now, we must do something more useful. The girls must know about the opportunities available, the jobs they can take up, the courses they can study. Our teachers must be taught new methods to teach even the dullest kids. If parents don't send them outside their homes, we can still teach them a skill that'll help them earn from home. They must know there's a world outside and they must reach out to it."