Education our tool to empowerment, says Muslim women’s group

By Azera Rahman, IANS

New Delhi : Some were dressed in black burqa, some in shimmering salwar-kameez, still others in crisp cotton saris. They come from different states and are burdened by innumerable problems, but one issue binds the group of Muslim women – literacy.

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The 5,000-odd women of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) work for the uplift of Indian Muslim women across the country and strongly believe that education is the one tool that will empower them. Around 350 of its members were in the capital last week for the first annual convention.

Khatun Sheikh of Mumbai has been a part of BMMA since its inception in January this year. She said that being able to read and write is the greatest tool that a woman can have to fight all odds.

“I had dropped out of school after Class 7. Soon after, I got married, had kids and went on to lead a normal married life. Nearly 20 years after that, this year, I gave my Class 12 exam with my daughter.

“Trust me, I feel overjoyed and empowered. After the long gap, I think my knowledge had started rusting. But now I can go out confidently, read, sign my name and, more importantly, not be taken for a ride,” Sheikh told IANS.

Sheikh, who works with an NGO called Muskan, is now working avidly to encourage parents of the Muslim community to send their daughters to school.

Niyaz Bibi, 50, of Ahmedabad, another member, said after her home was burnt down in the 2002 riots she had spent sleepless nights. But nothing deterred her spirit to continue fighting legal cases to make the culprits pay.

“It has been a long struggle. People threatened me, discouraged me… but I have never given up. I don’t know what fear is and I will continue to fight until the culprits are brought to book,” Bibi said, the grey streaks of her hair shining in the November sun.

“I, however, regret that I am not literate. If I were, I would have achieved much more and probably the case would have met with a successful end a long time back,” she said.

According to her, the condition of Muslim women in her state is pathetic.

“No matter what happens, it’s the women who always suffer. And to top that, they are not even literate. They have no power to voice their thoughts.

“This is why I always encourage people to educate their daughters along with the sons. For my legal matters I have to travel across Gujarat, and no matter where I go, this is what I advocate. No one should be like me,” she said.

Zakia Jowhar, one of the founding members of BMMA, said that although there has been no study on the literacy rate of Muslim women in India till now, the overall literacy rate of the Muslim population in the country is roughly 44 percent.

“According to the Sachar committee report (on the socio-economic status of Muslims) the percentage of graduates among the Muslims in India is a mere 6.1 percent. When the overall literacy rate is so low, you can imagine what must be the state of the women.

“Although there are no concrete numbers, the literacy rate of Muslim women must be easily 10 to 15 percent lower than the overall literacy rate,” Jowhar told IANS.

The issues which the women face in different states are different – but education is their focus.

Rahima Khatoon, who works in Nari aur Shishu Kalyan Kendra, an NGO in West Bengal, said the number of issues she has to deal with in the 37 villages she works in are many.

“Domestic violence, gender discrimination, child marriage… the issues are many. But education, I always say, can change everything.

“That’s why, in order to encourage education, I always carry the Hadith, the collection of words of Prophet Mohammed, with me. Whenever there is any doubt, when people don’t want to believe me, I simply translate what the Hadith says… religion is a very powerful tool,” Khatoon said.

Khatoon said that she also keeps the holy Quran in her office.

“Many times people don’t let their daughters study and get them married early, don’t let them lead an independent life and harbour other such ideas thinking that it’s religion which asks them to do so.

“Clearing their misinterpreted ideas goes a long way in actually initiating social changes,” she added.

Jowhar said that one of the various initiatives that they have taken was requesting schools, especially in riot hit areas of Gujarat, to offer fee waivers.

“Our main aim is to fight on behalf of the Muslim women for their constitutional rights. And we will fight democratically. What is seen in the Muslim communities is that there is generally just one kind of leadership, in the religious context.

“And the leader is always a man. This time, we are letting the women take the lead and work for the overall development of the community. Thankfully, even the men are supporting us,” Jowhar said.

Nearly a year after the formation of the organisation, results have started showing.

“In the SNDT college in Maharashtra, where I gave my exams, the enrolment of Muslim women has risen by 75 percent,” Sheikh said.

The organisation has its presence in 12 states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Delhi and Chhattisgarh. They are next planning to go to Bihar and Assam.