By Yoginder Sikand
[Yoginder Singh Sikand, 36, is emerging as one of the best known experts on Islam and Muslim societies in the sub-continent. A prolific writer, Sikand has been contributing to a whole range of publications ranging from learned journals to popular periodicals. His PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London on Tablighi Jama'at has been published by Orient Longman. He also edits a webzine, Qalandar, available online at. www.islaminterfaith.org . His E-Mail Address is ysikand@hotmail.com ]

Widespread poverty, deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes and the indifference of the State as well as Muslim leaders to the issue of Muslim educational marginalization have all combined to make Muslim women one of the least educated sections of Indian society. Yet, as numerous recent surveys have noticed, there is today a distinctly visible enthusiasm among many Muslims for educating their daughters. Interestingly, sections of the ulama or Muslim clerics are today playing an important role in responding to this growing demand for girls’ education.

Recent years have witnessed the setting up of a small, yet growing, number of specifically girls’ higher-level madrasas in different parts of the country by different ulama groups. While the institution of Muslim girls’ schools dates back to colonial times, the concept of separate higher-level madrasas for girls, as distinct from the mosque-school or maktab, is a relatively recent one. In the past it appears that few girls, if any, actually went on to train to become religious specialists. They were provided with only a modicum of Islamic knowledge that was considered to be adequate for them to perform the basic Islamic rituals. Today, however, a number of girls’ madrasas in various parts of India are engaged in training girls as alimas, specialists in Islamic studies like their male ulama counterparts. The increasing awareness of the importance of girls’ education, and a feeling that government schools, with their ‘Hinduistic’ syllabus and their co-educational system, are no t suitable for their children, have combined to impress among growing numbers of Muslims the need for separate girls’ madrasas. By combining Islamic education with modern subjects to varying degrees, these schools are playing a major role in promoting literacy among Muslim girls.

In the writings of Muslim advocates of special madrasas for girls, girls’ education is seen as an essential Islamic duty, for the Qur’an insists on the need for Muslims, men as well as women, to acquire knowledge. Girls’ education is thus seen not as a novel development, but, instead, as a revival of a lost Prophetic tradition. An educated Muslim girl is said to be following in the footsteps of such role models as Ayesha, the youngest wife of the Prophet, who is said to have been a great scholar. Educated Muslim girls are, therefore, seen as figures to be admired and respected, with their own important functions to play in the preservation and promotion of the Islamic tradition.

The new agency that is provided to girls through girls’ madrasas is generally circumscribed within the limits of the family. These madrasas see the sort of education that they provide as training girls to perform their domestic tasks in what they regard as a genuinely ‘Islamic’ manner. The language of rights is often used in arguing the case for girls’ madrasas—it is claimed that if girls are taught what rights Islam has granted them they will no longer be exploited by Muslim males. An educated Muslim woman who knows the various rights that Islam provides women, such as in matters of inheritance and divorce, would, it is argued, be able to challenge her husband if he acts in violation of the shari‘ah in these matters. As educated mothers and wives, Muslim women might be able to play new roles and earn added respect within the household.

The setting up of girls’ madrasas has crucial implications for traditional understandings of gender relations. Arguments stressing the ‘Islamicity’ of girls’ education that hark back to tradition and ‘authenticity’ might actually help pave the way for an inadvertent modernization, at least in some cases. An Muslim girl educated in a girls’ madrasa as a religious specialists is thus accorded with a new agency as an active subject with an important role to play in social reform and in improving the conditions of her family.

Empowered with the written word and access to classical Islamic texts, girls educated in madrasas come to gain added respect in a society where patriarchal biases are still often very acute. They can now function, at least in theory, as religious authorities in their own right. They might even be able to go on to contest patriarchal biases in the interpretation of the Islamic tradition, although this has not happened as yet on any significant scale. In actual fact, there seems to be no evidence of any major challenge emerging from these schools to patriarchal understandings of Islam, other than through highlighting some of the rights accorded to women in the Qur’an.

Overall, the rationale for special girls’ madrasas is generally presented in conservative terms. Pious Muslim girls well-educated in the Islamic tradition are depicted as symbols of Muslim community identity and as guardians of the purity of the faith in a world that is seen as corrupt and licentious. In fact, it is often stressed by managers of these schools that separate girls’ madrasas are necessary in order to ‘protect’ Muslim women from the growing temptation to defy male authority, which they present as integral to their vision of Islam. It is argued that in the absence of ‘proper’ Islamic education, Muslim girls might be swayed by demands for women’s liberation, consumerism and un-Islamic ways of life that would threaten the integrity of the community itself. The ideal Muslim woman is thus regarded as one who has a deep knowledge of her faith and uses that knowledge to help raise a truly Muslim family and fortify its commitment to the faith. In the writings of ‘ulama advocates of Muslim girls’ education, the sphere of the educated Muslim woman is generally seen as restricted to her home. Only a very small minority among the ‘ulama consider it permissible for Muslim women to work outside the domestic sphere.

Interestingly, despite their image as die-hard conservatives, the Deobandis have, in recent years, been among the more active in establishing girls’ higher-level madrasas. One of the largest girls’ madrasas in India, the Jami‘at us-Salihat at the town of Malegaon, in Maharashtra, is linked to the Deoband tradition. It has a large hostel, where girls from various parts of India as well as abroad live together. The madrasa provides education till the higher religious degree or fazila level. The syllabus is broadly similar to that employed in general Deobandi madrasas, with additional books on issues of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence that are related specifically to women. Over the years, the Jami‘at has produced a large number of graduates, many of whom are now teaching in girls’ madrasas in other parts of India as well as abroad. Several others have set up girls’ madrasas of their own.

Another example of a Deobandi girls’ madrasa that has also incorporated a basic level of modern subjects in its curriculum is the Madrasa Jami‘at ul-Banat, located in a poverty-stricken Muslim ghetto in New Delhi. The madrasa sees the education that it imparts as helping to train a class of Muslim girls who are committed to its understanding of Islam, and who can later go on to play a key role in the reform of Muslim society on ‘Islamic’ lines and combat what are seen as ‘un-Islamic’ ways of life. Thus, its official brochure stresses that one of its major purposes is to impress upon its students the ‘dangers’ of ‘Western’ culture, which is described as being ‘in total opposition’ to Islam. ‘Western’ culture is said to be wholly decadent, and is seen as being in complete contrast to an idealized, indeed romanticized, understanding of the Islamic tradition, defending which the madrasa sees among its principal tasks. Students are taught, the brochure proudly announces, that the ‘only reason for the rapid degeneration of the world’ is because human beings have ‘moved far from Islamic culture’. Thus, the only solution to the manifold problems of the world, the students must learn, is for people to strictly follow the path of the Prophet. The students of the madrasa are seen as ‘practical models’ for women in the rest of the world to emulate.

In addition to religious subjects, the madrasas’ six-year course also includes some modern subjects, although the standard of teaching is poor because the madrasa cannot afford the high salaries that qualified teachers of these subjects generally demand. Students are taught basic English, although their level of comprehension of the subject leaves much to be desired. They are also taught stitching, knitting and embroidery. Great stress is paid to regular observance of prayers, and students are expected to pray together five times a day.

A major focus of the teaching imparted at the madrasa has to do with the internalization of appropriate gender norms as defined in the Deobandi vision. Thus, strict purdah is rigidly enforced. Girls are not allowed to step outside the madrasa, not even for a walk or to make purchases in the local market. The only occasions when they can leave the madrasa are when their male guardians come to pick them up before the annual holidays, or in case of a medical emergency, when they must be accompanied by a close male relative. All their teachers, with one exception, are females, most of them graduates of the madrasa itself. The only male teacher is not allowed to see the students. He delivers his lecture into a microphone while seated in a room on the ground floor, and the girls sit in rooms on the first floor and listen to his discourse. If they have any questions they relay them to him through a microphone. While recognizing that in the Prophet’s time Muslim women could appear in public, the manager of the madrasa justifies the strict purdah that is followed in his school on the grounds that ‘today circumstances have changed and people are no longer as pious as they were in the past’. Hence, he insists, women need to be ‘protected’ from the ever-present threat of fitna or ‘strife’.

While the Deobandi girls’ madrasas reflect one form of Muslim girls’ religious education, other, somewhat less conservative, forms of the girls’ madrasa exist that have arrangements for Islamic as well as modern education. A good example is the girls’ wing of the Jami‘at ul-Falah in Azamgarh, eastern Uttar Pradesh, which now has some 2700 girls on its rolls. Students here train to become ‘alimas and fazilas, religious authorities in their own right. Besides Islamic subjects, they also study various modern disciplines till the high school level. Their course of studies is largely similar to that of the boys, except in matters of Islamic jurisprudence, where greater attention is paid to matters particular to women. Home science is also taught as a regular discipline. While many female students of the madrasa marry soon after graduation, several have taken up independent occupations, such as teaching in girls’ madrasas or setting up such madrasas on their own. Some have even gone on to enroll in courses to train as doctors of Unani medicine.

Another similar experiment is the Jami‘at us-Salihat in Rampur in northern Uttar Pradesh. Some 4000 girls, mostly from middle-class families, study in the school. Around a fourth of the students come from outside the town and live in hostels located in the campus. It provides religious education along with regular subjects, for which it follows the syllabus of the National Council for Educational Research and Training. All subjects are taught through the medium of Urdu, although English is a compulsory subject throughout. From the fifth grade onwards, students are taught to handle computers.

Yet another such modern girls’ madrasa is the Siraj ul-Uloom girls’ madrasa at Aligarh. It provides a general education till the fifth grade, following the government-prescribed syllabus, along with basic Islamic studies. For higher Islamic studies it offers a six-year ‘alima course, which includes the standard religious subjects, mathematics, the natural and social sciences and home science. ‘Alimas can go on to do a two-year fazila course, which consists of various standard traditional Islamic subjects, along with Islamic history and English. Among the school’s various future plans are a course in Unani medicine, a girls’ medical college and hospital and a computer-training centre. The school is affiliated to the government-run Arabic and Persian Education Board, Allahabad, which conducts examinations for the ‘alim, Maulvi and munshi degrees.

Madrasas such as these are seen as providing Muslim girls with a more culturally relevant and appropriate form of education, and hence their growing attraction among many Muslim families, especially among the poor and the lower-middle classes. Given the perceived insensitivity of the state educational system to Muslim cultural norms as well as the widespread opposition among many Muslims (as well as others) to co-education, the attraction of these schools is understandable. If those complaining about the alleged ‘mushrooming’ of madrasas at all care for the pathetic condition of Muslim education, they would do well to explore ways of dialoguing with such institutions to help them promote a more inclusive and less restrictive ethos and at the same time enable them to enhance their role in promoting Muslim girls’ education