Educating Sabina Bano
Education for a Muslim girl in backward India is fraught with challenges. She not only has to contend with gender biases but also with more insidious religious constraints.
Sabina Bano, 15, was a student of class 4 at Makhtab Moinul Islam, Barabanki district, 28 km from Lucknow, capital of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. (A makhtab is an exclusive Muslim centre for learning. Initially, Sabina's parents didn't want her to study in the village primary school, as it was co-educational. Only when the makhtab was built in her village in 2000 (under a primary education initiative for Muslims and other disadvantaged children) did she enter a classroom.
Sabina was a keen student and wanted to become a teacher. Her teachers also expected her to do well. But in one academic year she dropped out of school four times - during the Id festival, when her brother was born, when her mother fell sick, and during harvest time. Each time her parents had to be cajoled to send her back. And one day she quit class 4, without completing the basic primary cycle. Her parents gave various reasons: she had reached puberty and could not go to a mainstream school where there were boys; she was also needed at home for sibling care.
For several Muslim girls, education remains a short-lived experience. Despite concerted efforts since 1998 through various educational schemes to mainstream Muslim children, especially girls, there has been little impact. Muslim community leaders and educationists are anxious to see the inclusion of Muslim girls in the formal educational process, but have made little progress.
In Barabanki, there are 47 makhtabs where grown-up girls learn the three 'Rs' after they have completed their domestic chores. Parents don't mind sending the girls as the school has Muslim teachers. Attempting to mainstream the students, the makhtab teachers also spend an additional two-three hours teaching them non-Islamic subjects. The girls are coached from textbooks available in formal schools.
But there are obstacles here. Even the Muslim teachers cannot lure the girls to school for a long period. Sabina's teacher had to go from door to door, persuading parents to continue sending their girls to the makhtab. Men are particularly resistant to the idea of their adolescent daughters going to school and studying different subjects.
Assuming that a girl is retained in school, the next problem is to ensure that she is emotionally and psychologically prepared to enter a mainstream primary school. In addition to not wanting their girls to study with Hindu boys, parents find it humiliating to send their 15-year-olds to study with 10-year-olds.
Educating Muslim girls thus becomes a daunting task, although wherever community members have shown initiative, people have reacted more positively. A pilot project in the Muslim-dominated Hardoi district showed promise because of the proactive role of the religious leaders in the area. Mohammad Warsi, a Maulvi (religious teacher) was appalled at his community's resistance to change. Some years ago, he objected to the withdrawal of a 12-year-old girl from school to get her married. He couldn't prevent the marriage, but his objection made many realize how damaging early marriages are to girls. Yet, such instances are rare. Several Muslims are apprehensive about government educational schemes. The violence and rioting that followed the Babri mosque incident in 1992 and the recent Gujarat riots have also left many Muslims alienated from the socio-political mainstream and insecure about their future. Many in the community are unwilling to send their children to government-run primary schools. In fact, post the Gujarat violence, several leaders expressed their community's reluctance to be part of the mainstream educational system.
Policymakers and educationists suggest that literacy levels would be higher if there are separate schemes only for Muslim girls - not clubbed with disadvantaged groups like children from the backward castes or working children. Simultaneously, the curriculum must include vocational training as an incentive for the future. Until then, girls like Sabina will not have much of a future.
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