A Muslim girl in Srinagar working in her school’s laboratory (Photo: Getty Images)
A POLARISING DEBATE on wearing the hijab to school and whether the piece of clothing is essential to Islamic practice has obscured steady and significant gains made by Muslim girls and women in accessing school and college education, skill development and other welfare benefits, helped by the Narendra Modi Government’s massive minority outreach which has seen it spend more than ₹ 21,500 crore on such schemes and projects since 2014.
At first glance, the progress may appear less than spectacular as a 62 per cent Muslim female literacy lags Muslim males (74.7 per cent) and compares poorly with women from other minorities. The Hindu female literacy rate of 64.3 per cent seems only a shade better, but the results need to be seen keeping in mind a relatively smaller Muslim population. Data presented to Parliament by the Centre in August 2021 also reveals an overall literacy rate of 68.5 per cent for Muslims, several percentage points behind all other religious groups.
But while the advance in educational and social development of Muslim women may look modest, there is an encouraging uptick considering a historical backlog—enhanced by what researchers and social activists describe as conservative attitudes—in terms of increasing enrolment and reduced dropout rates at the school and college level. A high dropout rate of 73 per cent at primary and secondary levels has fallen to 32 per cent (Ministry of Minority Affairs data) and the share of college-going Muslim women among the total number of women in the 18-23 age group has risen from 6.7 per cent in 2007-08 to 13.5 per cent in 2017-18. Karnataka, where the hijab row surfaced, has seen the gross attendance ratio improve from a poor 1.1 per cent in 2007-08 to 15.8 per cent in 2017-18, above the national average. There has been an increase in enrolment of Muslim girls as a percentage of total enrolment of girls in upper primary, secondary and higher secondary levels as well from 2015-16 to 2019-20.
As part of efforts to provide better facilities to areas with minority concentration, the Government has in the last eight years developed social and economic infrastructure worth ₹ 11,000 crore. This includes close to 25,000 additional class rooms, 35 degree colleges, 97 ITIs, 174 residential schools, more than 18,000 drinking water facilities, 75 sport facilities and 23 working women’s hostels. On the whole, more than 55 per cent of beneficiaries are women, and many among them from the Muslim community. Hunar hubs or skill centres in particular have benefitted women craftpersons who are half the beneficiaries while camps have been set up in states like Jammu and Kashmir to educate young people for scholarships and fellowships offered by the Government. “Many of the families benefitted would not have been able to send girls to school but for the support of various schemes. Muslim girls have to overcome lack of means as well as a mindset that does not prioritise modern education for them,” says Minister of Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (see interview). He stresses that far from discriminating against minorities, the Government has expanded the reach of support programmes much beyond the 90 ‘minority’ districts identified by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The UPA initiative definitely marked an effort to focus on areas with higher minority populations but the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has moved to enhance the scope of schemes both in terms of budgets and coverage.
If the state is enlarging minority welfare, with Muslims likely to be ‘natural’ beneficiaries of targeted as well as general interventions, given the community’s social and economic disadvantages as compared to other minorities like Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Parsis, what prevents faster empowerment of Muslim girls? Is the state’s insistence that rules on issues like dress codes or uniforms—where they have been set out by institutions—must be respected retarding women’s education? Or are conservative beliefs and religious dogma a bigger hurdle to female participation in mainstream education? “The state has no role in setting the rules of various education institutions that are under discussion in the context of the hijab debate. The Indian Constitution sets out secular principles. Even in religious terms, there is no particular prescription or core principle in the Holy Quran or the Hadid (a chapter of the holy book) as regards the hijab. The current controversy is politicised and intended to create trouble during ongoing elections,” says well-known educationist and social worker Firoz Bhakt Ahmed. He argues that the hijab controversy does more harm than good to the cause of educating Muslim girls as they are pushed into a straitjacket shaped by regressive views while public discourse is defined by political binaries. “Suddenly, everyone is talking in terms of BJP or anti-BJP and the interests of the affected party—girls from the Muslim community—are lost sight of,” says Ahmed.
Private as well as government-supported research often identifies poverty and early marriage as reasons for higher dropout rates among Muslim girls. A 240-page report by the National Productivity Council (NPC) on dropout rates of students from minority communities in its analysis of various districts repeatedly concludes that “Poverty, early marriage among Muslim girls and support to their family in earning livelihood were the main reasons for drop-outs.” While the NPC study looked at data for the years 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, the nature of the problem has not changed over the years. “The most common factor for high incidence of non-enrolment, drop outs and low achievement among Muslim girls stated are poverty, lack of women teachers, absence of separate schools for girls, observance of Purdah, opposition to secular education for girls, early marriage and conservative attitudes,” notes a voluminous 2007 report titled ‘An analytical study of education of Muslim women and girls in India’ (commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development) by Usha Nayar, who has written extensively on education and women. “In 2001, 40.5% females were married before the age of eighteen in India; 34.4% among Hindus, 41% Muslims, 38.2% Buddhists, 23.1% Jains, 15.2% Christians, 15.9% Sikhs,” notes the study. It seems clear that social environment, and this includes the role of religion and laws framed by the state, plays a significant role in shaping women’s education and the hijab controversy may well strengthen the hands of conservative elements who, while raising the issue of religious rights, have hardly any sympathy for the cause of educating Muslim girls.
Ahmed points out that attitudes towards educating girls are often driven by unfounded assumptions like fears that women will turn ‘rebels’ and oppose the wishes of their families. “Unfortunately, controversies like the current one only reinforce such viewpoints. It is argued that religious identity is under threat. I am glad that so far the courts have upheld the right of institutions to set their norms. The alleged debate over choice is actually one intended to create more divisiveness,” he says and wonders what the reaction would be if restrictive dress codes were prescribed for men on allegedly religious grounds. The odds are loaded against women in other communities as well as the significant number of below-legal age marriages indicates, but the disadvantages are more challenging for communities already grappling with larger social deficits as Muslims do for being late starters in the adoption of modern education, the reasons for which range from a prevailing suspicion of modernity and also go back to policies framed by colonial administrators after the 1857 first war of independence. In a 2018 study titled ‘Educational Status of Muslim Women in India: Issues and Challenges’, Manzoor Khan, Manzoor Hussain and Farooq Ahmed Khan of the University of Kashmir discuss Islamic perspectives on women’s education, arguing that there is no inherent injunction to discriminate between boys and girls. They argue that any religious commandment, even if the masculine gender is used, applies to women as well and acquisition of knowledge is obligatory. The challenge is to turn opinion towards modern education. “They [Muslims] don’t want to give higher education to their daughters due to many reasons…at present somehow they are now coming up [accessing] education and improving day by day for the last two decades and are learning to stand on their own feet, but this effort is just a drop in the ocean. Muslims have a lower share in professional education…Their madarsas are following traditional and old syllabus in the time of globalization and information technology. Their syllabus is far away from scientific and commercial knowledge,” the study says. A reliance on traditional or madrassa education, which is heavily based on religious teaching, is seen as adequate for a girl to equip her for life in society while modern education may be considered unnecessary or downright undesirable.
AS NOTED EARLIER, Muslims often “self-select” as beneficiaries for welfare schemes. Of more than 2.22 crore poor people provided houses, 31 per cent are from minority communities. A religion-wise break-up is not available but officials estimate many of the beneficiaries in this category are Muslim households. Over 22 per cent beneficiaries of the 11.12 crore toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Mission are from among the minorities. Officials said between 22 and 37 per cent beneficiaries of schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana, Ayushman Bharat, Har Ghar Jal and household electrification programmes are from minority communities and more than 50 per cent are women. Though these schemes are not directly related to education of Muslim women, they do help in creating an enabling environment while scholarships lighten the load on families that might prioritise male children in view of limited resources. There has been a sharp rise in the number of minority students receiving scholarships to 5.1 crore since 2014. Since 2014, the Centre has spent ₹ 14,300 crore on scholarships and educational schemes, ₹ 2,140 crore on employment-oriented skill development, ₹ 4,192 crore on financial assistance under the National Minorities Development Finance Corporation (NMDFC) and ₹ 10,810 crore on 49,400 projects under the PM Jan Vikas Karyakram. A substantial number of beneficiaries of these and other schemes like Ujjwala are Muslim women. Another area of reform not attempted prior to 2014 is geospatial mapping of Waqf properties that are often vulnerable to encroachment or caught in legal tangles. GIS mapping of 2,24,300 properties has been completed and as many as 7,79,750 Waqf properties have been registered online. The Centre is providing 100 per cent funding for the development of schools, colleges, hospitals, community halls, common service centres and other basic infrastructure on Waqf lands under the PM Jan Vikas Karyakram for the weaker sections and the needy, especially girls in backward areas deprived of such basic facilities. The Hajj process has also gone digital with a mobile app as well.
The noisy politics over hijab, and the counter-mobilisation for saffron scarves, should settle once a judicial verdict is delivered by the High Court of Karnataka, even though the matter is almost certain to reach the Supreme Court. But amid the clash of competing claims and visions lies the need to protect the success of Muslim women in achieving gains that are still fragile and prevent them from falling victim to yet more political bloodletting.