Fifteen-year-old Sabina Bano is a student of Class 4 at the Madrasa Moin ul Islam in the backward district of Barabanki in central Uttar Pradesh. A late starter, she is a hard-working student and her teacher hopes that she will soon be able to learn enough to be able to enroll in the regular primary school in village Madanpur.
But Sabina is silent, almost sullen when you tell her how happy her teacher is with her progress. "I will not study in the primary school. My parents will not allow me to," she says.
Most of the girls studying in the 96 'makhtab madrasas' (makhtab meaning small school, madrasa meaning traditional Muslim school) in this district of Barabanki on the outskirts of the state capital, Lucknow, face the same problem as Sabina. Their parents will not allow daughters of marriageable age to study with Hindu children.
This seems a real pity since it is common to see grown up girls, well past primary school level (Class 5), learning the three Rs after they have finished with household work. The parents of the girls don't mind their studying in the makhtabs, where the presence of Muslim teachers bolsters their confidence, but put their foot down when it comes to studying in regular schools.
Because of this attitude, there are more girls than boys in the makhtabs. For instance, in Moin ul Islam, there are 25 girls and only 19 boys on the rolls. And according to statistics from the state Education Department, nearly 1,100 girls and 890 boys study in the 96 makhtabs in the district.
The state government started reinforcing makhtabs in select districts in 1998 as part of an ongoing strategy aimed at integrating Muslim children, especially girls, into the primary education system. Muslims comprise 21 per cent of the population in Barabanki district.
Though no quantitative figures are available on the makhtab experience since its inception, according to the field staff, the feedback on the qualitative aspect of this experience has been positive. Says Vrinda Sarup, State Project Director, DPEP, "The experiment is giving more children, especially girls, a chance to learn mathematics, science and social sciences, instead of only Urdu. It is also helping the community realize the importance of education."
Educationists and liberal Muslims were convinced then - as now - that integrating Muslim children is the key to the community's progress. A special focus was placed on the girls from this community because they formed a large segment of out-of-schoolers.
Besides attempting to integrate Muslim children in the primary education system, the government also hoped to build on children who were already enrolled in the makhtabs. An additional two to three hours of extended teaching time by a Maulvi or a lady teacher at the makhtab was provided to these children.
"It was thought that since the teacher was a Muslim, it would help in increasing the enrolment of children," says Salauddin Ansari, the Coordinator for Madanpur village.
In another attempt to increase the scope of the education provided at the makhtabs, in addition to conventional Islamic teachings, the students are also taught from formal school text books, for which the Muslim teachers undergo special training.
While this sounds very impressive, in practice there have been countless problems. "It was very hard convincing my own community when the scheme started in Barabanki district, even though I am a Muslim and a woman," says the makhtab teacher. "I had to go from door to door convincing parents to send their grown up girls to school so that they too could benefit from mainstream texts," she says.
For instance, though Sabina's mother was keen, her father, a daily wage earner, was particularly resistant to her studying. She was needed for sibling care at home and was in any case too old to study, her father believed. "He also seemed suspicious about integrating makhtab children with mainstream textbooks," says the teacher. Somehow he was persuaded.
But convincing parents and getting girls like Sabina admitted to the makhtabs is just one part of the problem. Retaining them in school is now proving to be a bigger problem because it is a common practice for girls to drop out of school. So attention has perforce shifted to retention because girls drop out of schools, particularly during the harvest season and also during festival time.
For instance, over the last 10 months, Sabina has dropped out four times - for the festival of Id, when her baby brother was born, at harvest time and once when her mother fell sick. Each time she did not return to school on her own, but she and her parents had to be cajoled and persuaded by the makhtab teacher.
Given such a scenario, the teachers spend a lot of their time tracking down reluctant girls, keeping a record of their attendance in school and persuading them to rejoin when they drop out. If a girl does not attend school for three days in a row, the teacher first sends messages through other students, then visits her home to ascertain the reason for the girl not attending school. Obviously, all this goes beyond the call of duty and requires a deep commitment to the work that these teachers are doing.
At the same time, these children also have to be prepared to join mainstream primary schools once their makhtab studies are over. Besides ensuring that the girls are taught appropriately, this also involves convincing their parents that there is no harm if the girls study with Hindu students.
Providing inspiration to these teachers is an earlier pilot project in the other Muslim majority district of Hardoi. Under this project community teachers played a key role in getting girls to schools. Maulana Mohamed Idris Warsi, who teaches at the Begumganj village makhtab, was appalled at his community's resistance to educating girls in mainstream schools. He objected a few years ago when the parents of a 12-year-old girl discontinued her studies to get her married. He couldn't prevent the marriage, but his stand served to generate a heated debate in the tiny hamlet about the inadvisability of marrying girls so young. Because objections came from him, other Muslims in the village sat up and listened. Such small, enlightened community interventions are the material on which major attitudinal changes can be built.