Jamiat’s call for Muslim girls’ education: Is there more than what meets the eye?

By Yoginder Sikand, TwoCircles.net,

At its recently-held 30th convention held at Deoband, the Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind passed a significant resolution on girls’ education which, surprisingly, received little attention in the media. The original Urdu version of the resolution calls upon Muslims to establish ‘non-residential institutions for providing religious and modern education to girls, for which an appropriate syllabus should be prepared.’ ‘Their education’, it goes on, ‘must be fully in accordance with the limits set by the shariah and the rules of pardah. Co-education must be fully avoided, or else it is feared that more harm than good would result.’ The English version of the resolution reads somewhat differently. It appeals to Muslims to ‘establish non-residential modern educational institutions for girls’ education’ that would be based on a ‘special syllabus for them, which should be completed within six years.’ ‘On completion of 10 years of age,’ it adds, ‘complete shariah norms should be observed while continuing their education.’

Support TwoCircles

The Jamiat’s encouraging, though belated, appeal for modern education for Muslim girls is indeed laudable. However, on critical examination, it might not actually amount to much, and there may be more to it than what actually meets the eye. The actual import of the Jamiat’s endorsement of modern education for Muslim girls appeal hinges crucially on two issues. Firstly, the contents of the ‘special’ syllabus that it recommends for girls, which, it lays down, they should complete within six years, by which they would reach the age of ten (regarded by many as the age of puberty or balaghat). And, secondly, the practical implications, in terms of rules, regulations and restrictions, of the Jamiat’s own understanding of ‘complete shariah norms’ (or, as the Urdu version of the translation puts it, the ‘limits set by the shariah and the rules of pardah’) that it insists Muslim girls must observe if they wish to continue their education after the age of ten.

It is significant to note in this regard that the resolution—probably deliberately—remains silent on what exactly the Jamiat understands as ‘complete shariah norms’ or ‘the limits set by the shariah and the rules of pardah’. These terms are, in fact, vague and deeply contested among Muslims themselves. Some Muslims regard the shariah as sanctioning a whole range of rights for women, and, indeed, as being fundamentally opposed to women’s subordination and patriarchy. In contrast, other Muslims understand the shariah in a contrary, indeed sternly patriarchal, manner. Being a body of leading Deobandi ulema, it is but to be expected that the Jamiat’s understanding of what it calls ‘shariah norms and limits’ and ‘the rules of pardah’ corresponds to the general Deobandi interpretation of these concepts. In practical terms, this might well mean restricting women to domestic roles and spaces (allowing them to step out of their homes only in cases of extreme necessity, provided they cover up entirely); considering not just women’s bodies but even their voices to be ‘awrah’ or to be concealed from ‘strange’ (ghayr) men; prohibiting any sort of interaction between women and ‘strange’ men, even in workplaces and educational institutions; and so on. These rules and restrictions reflect the particular Deobandi understanding of the shariah—one, it is crucial to recognize, that is fiercely contested by other Muslims, who interpret the concept and content of the shariah in a strikingly different manner. It is thus to be expected that when the Jamiat calls for shariah norms to be fully observed while providing education for girls above the age of ten it would want these rules, upheld by the Deobandis as normative and binding, to be strictly imposed on them. Needless to say, this would greatly constrain and limit what, and how, Muslim girls can actually learn. Precisely what the Jamiat would want Muslim girls to learn would be reflected in the ‘special’ syllabus for them that it calls for. Yet, the resolution does not go into the details of what this ‘special’ syllabus should be.

A good illustration of the Deobandi position on girls’ education is provided in a recently-published book by a Deobandi scholar from Bihar, Maulvi Abdul Basit Hamidi Qasmi, a graduate of the Darul Uloom at Deoband. The book, a collection of the author’s speeches delivered at various religious gatherings, boasts the pompous title of Nayab Taqreeren: Asr-e Hazir Ke Taqazon Se Hamahang Sulagte Masail Par Mubni Chand Inami Taqriron Ka Majmua , which translates roughly as ‘Rare Speeches: A Collection of Some Prized Lectures on Burning Contemporary Issues’. The book contains short forewords and notes of appreciation by numerous leading Deobandi ulema, including teachers of the Deoband madrasa and the Jamia Rahmani, Munger, one of the premier Deobandi madrasas in Bihar. Presumably, therefore, the contents of the book reflect a widely-shared shade of opinion among numerous Deobandi ulema.

One speech included in the book, titled Talim ul-Niswan Ka Nizam (‘The System of Girls’ Education’), deals specifically with the issue of what Qasmi believes to be the ‘Islamically’-appropriate form of education for Muslim girls. The author argues that Islam stresses the acquisition of ‘knowledge’ (ilm) for all Muslims, males as well as females. However, in contrast to many other Muslim scholars, who take this to mean sanction for both religious and secular knowledge, Qasmi claims that here ‘knowledge’ refers only to ‘religious knowledge’ (ilm-i din), or, as he puts it, ‘that knowledge through which one’s religious beliefs and prayer are perfected’. He argues, contending with critics who assert the contrary, that when the Prophet insisted that all Muslims should acquire knowledge as a religious duty, what he meant was specifically ‘religious knowledge’. He critiques other Muslims who include ‘worldly’ subjects under the rubric of Islamically-appropriate knowledge, arguing that subjects like ‘English, History and Geography are not ilm, but, rather, skills (hunar)’.

Restricting compulsory knowledge simply to ‘religious knowledge’ as narrowly defined, Qasmi opposes the teaching of ‘non-religious’ education for Muslim girls. He regards those who advocate this sort of education for girls as ‘blindly imitating Europeans’. He sees ‘non-religious’ knowledge as good only for enabling people to work outside the home, and argues that this is un-necessary for Muslim girls because Islam, as he understands it, is against this practice. Earning a livelihood, he insists, is the duty of men, not women, and it is binding on women to observe pardah or seclusion. ‘Worldly knowledge cannot be had while observing pardah’, he claims, thus ruling out such education for Muslim girls. However, he adds, under conditions of ‘severe necessity’ there is no absolute prohibition on a woman learning modern subjects, but this must be done in pardah and only after completing her religious studies. For this purpose, he lays down, she must study only from another woman, or, if this is not possible, then from a mahram male, that is a male relative whom she is forbidden by Islamic law from marrying. In case a woman has no male relative to support her financially, he grudgingly says, it is permissible for her to learn some ‘worldly crafts’ so that she can earn her livelihood, but still, he warns ‘she should be an expert in religious, not worldly, knowledge’.

Qasmi insists that ‘worldly knowledge is not good for women, and, in fact, can be destructive for them’, adding that ‘all the problems of women can only be solved through ‘Islamic education’, by which, presumably, he means such education as is narrowly interpreted by most Deobandi ulema. He appears to equate modern education with Westernisation, and condemns the latter outright. ‘Western culture is blind’, he says, and so, he asks, ‘how can it provide light to others?’ To bolster this claim he quotes some obscure Western writers, who, he claims, are ‘great intellectuals’, who argue that the right place of women is the home and that women must not be allowed to gain higher education. Interestingly, he does not provide any references for these quotes. Thus, for instance, he refers to a certain ‘Samuel Samails’, whom he describes as ‘the greatest writer in England, and possessor of lofty morals’, who says that ‘a respectable woman is one who stays at home and spins thread’, lamenting that women today refuse to do so. ‘Samails’ is also approvingly quoted as saying that women should learn ‘only that modicum of chemistry that will help them remove the froth from food cooking in vessels, and that amount of geography that will enable them to learn the usefulness of windows and ventilators’. As if this were not enough, Qasmi quotes another Western scholar, a certain ‘Lord Brain’, whom he describes as a ‘Jew’, who reportedly insists that woman’s library should possess no book other than the Torah and the Bible, and who bemoans the fact that today ‘besides their biological differences, all other differences between males and females have been erased’. To further reinforce his argument, Qasmi refers to yet another Western writer, described as an ‘American scholar’, a certain ‘Losan’, who argues that ‘women have no capacity for higher education’, because such education is ‘against their nature’.

Qasmi’s opposition to ‘modern’ education for girls stems essentially from the argument that such education must necessarily be defined as ‘Western’, and, therefore, as immoral and irreligious. Seeing traditional Deobandi-style education as normative, he cannot conceive the possibility of a harmonious combination of Islamic and ‘modern’ ‘worldly’ knowledge. ‘Modern’ education, as Qasmi sees it, is bound to lead Muslim women away from the path of Islam. All ‘modern’ educated Muslim women are painted with the same brush. Thus, Qasmi claims, making no room for any exceptions, that all such women ‘care nothing about religion; do not distinguish between the permissible and the forbidden; know nothing about the angels; and do not know which angels used to deliver the Divine revelations or how many famous angels there are and what their names are, or the details of the life after death, or the number of heavenly books, and which prophet received which book and who the first prophet was, or the reality of faith and disbelief’. ‘Modern’ educated women, he goes on, ‘have no love for Islam’. ‘They use magic and spells to subjugate their husbands; very few of them know the Prophet’s mothers’ name; they are not observant of prayers; and are ignorant of the rules of religious purity’. ‘Women today’, he claims, ‘are interested only in fighting, abusing, lying, backbiting, going to the cinema, watching television, and cooking’. ‘They move around without caring for pardah, and engage in adultery’. He describes Muslim women who study in colleges and universities as doing so simply in order to ‘become European and English’, and accuses their male relatives who arrange for them to take admission in such institutions as ‘sellers of their conscience’. In short, he says, these women have begun to ‘follow Satan’. ‘All this’, he argues, ‘is because they lack religious education’. Due to this, he claims, ‘their actions are not good’.

To remedy this situation, Qasmi says, Muslim girls must be educated only in religious madrasas. This is also crucial, he contends, because if women lack religious education their children and the future generations of Muslims might be tempted to stray in the direction of disbelief and immorality. Ideally, he lays down, Muslim girls should study in their own homes, from older female relatives or, if this is not possible, then from mahram males who have some knowledge of Islam. Brighter girls can be given higher religious education, and for the others it is enough to teach them ‘basic religious rules’ and encourage them to observe these. This, Qasmi argues, approvingly quoting the Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanvi, is the ‘best method’ of girls’ education. If this is not possible, then girls can be allowed to study in all-girls’ religious madrasas in their own locality. They should not be sent to co-educational madrasas under any cost ‘because these are bereft of shame and modesty’. In the madrasas girls should observe strict pardah. They should not study with non-mahram male teachers and must not have any contact with male employees. In addition to religious subjects, Qasmi says, they should also be taught various domestic skills. Significantly, he makes no reference at all to the teaching of non-religious disciplines, thus suggesting that he is opposed to girls learning anything other religious subjects.

Mercifully, Qasmi does not speak for all Muslims or even for all ulema, although his views find a powerful echo among many traditionalist Deobandis. As numerous studies have shown, many Muslim families in India today are increasingly seeking to educate their daughters, providing them with both religious as well as secular education. It remains to be seen if, in the face of this, the conservative Deobandi ulema, including those associated with the Jamiat, are willing to relent or, as seems equally likely, will continue in their obdurate opposition to anything but a very traditional education for Muslim girls, thereby further reinforcing Muslim marginalisation.