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Road to empowerment for muslim girls and women

The hunger to learn and have an education is a dream most Kashmiri girls aspire and want. © Murali Krishnan

Empowerment for Muslim women in India is still some distance away. Many are denied an education and forced into early marriages. But a recent Supreme Court ruling banning unilateral divorce could be the harbinger of better things to come.

Yukaya Chaudhry, 19, the daughter of a carpenter, is ecstatic with her board results. She topped her class, and believes this is the first step towards achieving her ambition to become either a social activist or lawyer.

“I have seen just too many girls denied an education, subjugated and forced to marry early. The end result is that they suffer,” says Yukaya.

Her peer, Hanifa Rahil, exhibits the same drive and fervor. Rahil had to fight – even her parents – to get an education, and is keen to achieve her ambition.

“I realized how liberating an education can be. It opens up our eyes, and we know what reality is. I consider myself lucky but that is not the case with thousands of other Muslim girls and that is why I want to be a teacher,” Hanifa declares proudly.

Hanifa, Yukaya and their friends have been given the opportunity to pursue their ambitions largely through the efforts of Pehchan, a non-government organization that encourages girls to pursue schooling. This year, 5 students passed the higher secondary exams and are hoping to join a Bachelor’s program in college.

Educational deprivation through early marriage

Yukaya Chaudhry, who topped her class this year is keen on pursuing a higher education and wants to be a social activist. © Murali Krishnan

According to a 2011 census, nearly 14% of all married Muslim women were married before the age of 15, while 49% were married between the ages of 14 and 19. It was found in most cases that early marriage decreased their chances of acquiring an education or being financially sound. Studies also show that about 59% of all Muslim women never get into school, and less than 10% complete it.

The facts only get bleaker: Muslim women have the lowest literacy rates, live in slums more than any other group, and less than 1% hold public sector and government jobs.

“Overall the Muslim girl child does face educational deprivation. The constitutional goal of eight years of schooling remains a dream, with a Muslim girl getting barely 2.7 years of schooling compared to 3.8 years of a Hindu girl,” says academic Zoya Hasan, who studies Muslim women issues.

Whether regarding marriage, autonomy or mobility, Muslim women are subjected to patriarchal control that limits their choices and movement. A 2006 ground breaking government report documented the extreme discrimination and deprivation faced by Muslims, and especially women, across all socio-economic scales.

Hanifa Rahil, is lucky to finish her 12th grade and has worked hard to get a distinction. She wants to be a teacher to give back to society and empower Muslim girls. © Murali Krishnan

In the conflict-ridden northern state of Kashmir, the dropout rate of girls at primary, secondary and higher secondary levels remains a challenge for the government, coupled with the lack of awareness in rural areas regarding the benefits of educating the girl child. “I aspire to qualify for the prestigious Indian civil services examination to become an officer,” says Abida, a 17-year-old girl at an orphanage in Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar.

What’s more, the state government’s failure to construct new girls’ schools and improve the infrastructure in the existing ones is an important factor affecting enrolments and dropout rates.

Legal triumph over repressive practice

The winds of change have however begun blowing.

Tucked in a far corner of the predominantly Muslim locality of Jama Masjid in New Delhi, Najma, 35, is busy educating three teens in her nondescript two-room shanty. She tells the girls about the pitfalls of marrying early, and how an education is important.

A mother of six, Najma was divorced four years back after 19 years of marriage, but she is now happy. One senses even a new purpose.

“My husband harbored ill feelings towards me before the divorce. Then one fine day he uttered talaq thrice and that too on the mobile. He told my father about it and that was it,” says Najma.The “triple talaq” once allowed Muslim men to dissolve marriages by pronouncing the word (which means “divorce”) three times. However in a landmark decision in August this year, the Indian Supreme Court declared this practice unconstitutional, despite widespread opposition from traditionalists.


Periodic shutdowns in the Kashmir Valley because of separatists or militant violence, schooling has taken a backseat. © Murali Krishnan


India is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, which is governed by Sharia or Islamic jurisprudence, and this has been so since British colonial rule. According to various government and independent studies, up until the court judgment, most of India’s 90 million Muslim women were subjugated to the threat of a sudden, verbal, out-of-court divorce.

Though Najma has had to raise her children alone and provide them with an education and food, she feels Muslim women have a voice now.

“My kids will get an education and they will live with their heads held high,” she adds confidently.

Farida Khan, 48, who hails from the city of Kanpur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, speaks of a similar fate that befell her 30 years ago when she had a two-year old child and was pregnant with her second.

“My husband at that time was not happy with the dowry that was given to him during our marriage. It was my in-laws who put pressure on him and he uttered those words,” says Khan.

She has now taken on a new role in educating women from her community of the ills of the triple talaq.


Muslim girls head to school in Kashmir, India. They are dressed in salwar-kameez suits. The proportion of Muslim women who are illiterate is substantially higher for rural north India than for the entire country — more than 85 per cent reported themselves to be illiterate.


Incremental yet resolute will to change

Despite the victory of this Supreme Court decision, many women know that they still face deep-rooted discrimination and prejudice when it comes to getting jobs, an education or finding homes. And their fears are not exaggerated or unfounded

“This repressive practice (talaq) has finally ended, and now begins our next battle for social reform within the community. Change is not going to come overnight. Now we have to look at areas of education, empowerment, and ensure that girls are not forced to marry early,” says Zakia Soman founding member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA).

It was the BMMA, a network of Muslim women activists and organizations, which led the nationwide campaign against triple talaq.

, “Many girls have been forced to drop out of school due to poverty or the social conditions they lived in. But there are initiatives to get them back (into school) and not confine them to the four walls of a house,” says Shabnam Hashmi, the founder of ANHAD, a NGO based in New Delhi.

Convincing parents to send their daughters to coaching centers or schools to restart their education, sit for the necessary exams, and perhaps study further and get a job are some of the projects being undertaken by either members of the community or NGOs.

“Issues of identity and economic survival have put the basic rights of women on the backburner. Definitely there is politics and there are vested patriarchal interests that want this to continue. But there are now girls and women who want to make a difference,” says Maimoona Mollah of the All Indian Democratic Women’s Association.

The changes are incremental but nevertheless welcome. For far too long, poverty, communalism, and segregation have hindered the educational trajectory of Indian-Muslim women.This could be a new beginning, and many Muslim girls and women are looking to turn the corner.


Author: Murali Krishnan

Editor: Brenda Haas



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28.10.2017 | 15:45