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Islamic Education for Girls

Muslim community identity in post-1947 Islamic Education for Girls India. These include the fear of cultural From Behind the Curtain: A Study of a Girls

factors relating to changing notions of Muslim community identity in post-1947

Islamic Education for Girls

India. These include the fear of cultural

From Behind the Curtain: A Study of a Girls’ Madrasa in India

by Mareike Jule Winkelmann; University of Amsterdam Press, Amsterdam, 2005; pp 175, price not stated


hile considerable literature exists on boys’ madrasas in south Asia, almost nothing has been written about madrasas for girls, a relatively new but expanding phenomenon. This book, a revised version of the author’s doctoral thesis submitted to the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden, The Netherlands, is probably the first published work on girls’ madrasas in India. In contrast to most other writings on madrasa education, the book is a detailed, empirically grounded study of a single madrasa, providing interesting ethnographic details and insights that are often missing in generalised accounts of madrasas.

The focus of the study is on the role of girls’ madrasas in fashioning notions of what the author terms as “Islamic womanhood”. For this purpose, the author takes as her case study one such madrasa, which she refers to as the Madrasat ul-Niswan (not its real name). The madrasa, founded in 1996, is located in the Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, a largely Muslim and relatively impoverished locality in New Delhi. She relates this madrasa and the form of “Islamic womanhood” that it aims at promoting to discourses, emerging from the late 19th century onwards, among Indian Muslim reformers concerned about the educational “backwardness” of Muslim women. These reformers, for the most part males, insisted that Islam ordained education as much for males as for females, although the sort of education that they envisaged for females was often quite different from what they felt Muslim men should acquire. In the face of the colonial challenge, they believed that Muslim women needed to be educated in order to enable the community to resist the challenge of western culture, protect and promote Islamic “authenticity” and prove to be ideal wives and mothers in order to groom ideal Muslim families. The Muslim woman came to be seen as the first school of her children, and hence as key to the development and future of the Muslim community as a whole. The “backward”, “superstitious” and “illiterate” Muslim woman was depicted as a major hurdle in the progress of the community, being seen as the repository of a range of “un-Islamic” beliefs and customs. Only by “reforming” her through proper education, it was stressed, could the community as a whole prosper. Proponents of education for Muslim women put forward different understandings of Islamically appropriate education, but they all evoked images of noted Muslim women of the early Islamic past who were said to be learned authorities in their own right, receiving sanction for this from the commandments of the Qur’an and statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The “reformed” Muslim woman thus came to be seen as a crucial marker of Muslim community identity, a repository of the community’s values, moral standing and heritage and hence a major issue of public concern. Similar processes were at work in the Hindu case, too.

First Girls’ Madrasas

In line with these views, Muslim reformers set up institutions for girls’ education that existed alongside earlier forms of provision for education for girls, mainly from elite families, such as private tutors and ‘zenana’ schools. While most of these schools also taught Islam and Arabic as subjects, the first girls’ madrasas, in the sense the term is generally understood in south Asia, were established only in the 1950s. These were public, full-time, often residential institutions geared to training girls in Islamic theology and jurisprudence, for which there was no historical precedent in south Asia. They employed variants of a syllabus based on the ‘dars-e-nizami’, the curriculum used in most boys’ madrasas in south Asia, although departing from it in significant respects.

The author argues that the establishment and expansion of girls’ madrasas in India must be seen in a wider context, reflecting the influence of earlier Muslim reformist discourses as well as other complex absorption or Hinduisation, advocated in different ways by the state as well as right-wing Hindu groups, processes of upward social mobility expressed in the form of efforts of “low” caste Muslim groups seeking to emulate the norms associated traditionally with the ‘ashraf’, Muslims who claim foreign origin, as well as efforts to promote alternate and, in some senses, more culturally appropriate forms of “modernity”. Besides, because most of these madrasas provide free education, they are a particularly attractive option for the largely poor and lowermiddle class Muslim families whose children study in them.

Girls’ madrasas of the sort the book looks at also reflect a certain form of “Islamic womanhood” that is crucial to a particular form of Muslim identity that their founders and managers wish to promote. They are seen by those who control them as an appropriate form of education for Muslim girls, being routinely contrasted with “regular” schools that are often seen in negative terms: as promoting licentiousness, worldliness, immorality, competition, irreligiousness and “Hindu” values. The author relates this to the worldview of the traditionalist “ulama”, to the Indian Muslim minority predicament and to fears of Muslim identity being under threat from a host of quarters.

The madrasa the author studies is associated with the Deobandi-inspired preaching movement, the Tablighi Jamaat. The Tablighis have a particular understanding of normative Islamic womanhood, which is clearly reflected in the curriculum, educational ideals and mechanisms of control and disciplining employed in the madrasa. The ideal Muslim woman as the Tablighis see her, the author says, must observe strict ‘purdah’ and not appear or even speak before “strange” (‘ghayr’) males. Her primary sphere is her home and her principal role in life is being a good, dutiful mother and wife in conformity with the rules and principles laid down in Tablighi tracts and in the widely-read treatise for women, the Bahishti Zewar, penned by the Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanvi. At the same time, the Tablighis also insist that Muslim women have the same right and obligation to receive education as men do, and they offer the example of certain learned females of

Economic and Political Weekly September 2, 2006

early Islamic history as models for Muslim women to emulate.

Madrasa and Its Students

The author then sets about discussing the madrasa, its managers, teachers and students. The madrasa is housed in a cramped structure, and consists of only a few rooms, which serve as classrooms, dining halls and dormitories.The founder of the madrasa, the manager and several of what the author calls “core families” associated with the madrasa are from the “low” caste Ansari community, whose traditional occupation is weaving. They are all associated with the Tablighi Jamaat, which provides them a unified worldview as well as connections for funds and students for the madrasa. The madrasa’s founder teaches at the Kashf ul-’Ulum madrasa attached to the Tablighi Markaz, the Tablighi Jamaat’s international headquarters, situated in the vicinity of the girls’ madrasa. The female principal of the madrasa is the daughter of its founder and wife of its manager, reflecting the fact that many madrasas are associated with particular families and are, in a sense, family concerns.

The majority of the madrasa’s roughly 200 students and many of its teachers come from lower or lower middle class families. Most of them are also of “low” caste origin. In many cases, their male relatives are involved in the Tablighi Jamaat and it is through them that they first heard of the madrasa. The students range between 12 and 17 years of age. All the students reside inside the madrasa itself, most of them being from outside Delhi. For many of them, education in the madrasa is a socially sanctioned means for postponing an early marriage even as it opens to them prospects of finding a “better” groom, including, some of them hope, a husband who works abroad, preferably in the Gulf.

As in other “traditionalist” madrasas of this sort, the syllabus of the madrasa is based on the dars-e-nizami, the somewhat standardised syllabus used in most Indian madrasas for men. Yet, it departs in some significant respects from the dars-e-nizami, reflecting what the male managers of the madrasa feel Muslim women ought to learn, at the same time as they insist that Islam ordains education as much for females as for males. Thus, the focus of the teaching of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence is on issues specifically related to females, in addition to rules about prayer and other ritual obligations. The madrasa also claims to teach English, Hindi and Science, but the last two subjects, the author says, are actually conspicuous by their absence, as a result, of the inability of the madrasa to acquire the services of good teachers for these subjects.

The teaching of English is poor and inadequate, and even the teacher employed for the purpose is not comfortable in the language. Further, the texts used for the subject do not readily appeal to the students, as they reflect a very different (middle class, western and Hindu) ethos, with which the students are not familiar. Moreover, the author adds, the texts, as well as English as a language, are also somehow associated with what is seen as an “un-Islamic” milieu, which is seen with some degree of suspicion and scorn.

Yet, the author adds, the males in-charge of the madrasa believe that Muslim girls should acquire “modern” education, including knowledge of English, till the age of puberty, after which they should confine themselves to what is seen as Islamic education. However, at the same time, few of the teachers and even fewer of the students have any substantial exposure to and understanding of non-religious subjects and their non-Muslim surroundings, while, being groomed in a particular fashion, they are indeed aware of happenings in the “Muslim world”, including in far-off Iraq and Palestine. This, she suggests, is perhaps a reflection of the world view cultivated by the Tablighi Jamaat, which displays a certain indifference, if not hostility, to things it considers as “un-Islamic”.

Formal and Informal Curriculum

In addition to an interesting discussion of the formal curriculum of the madrasa, the author describes in detail what she labels as the madrasa’s “informal curriculum”. This is the set of codes, values and norms that the madrasa seeks to inculcate in the students through what the author refers to as “disciplinary mechanisms” in order to produce a particular sense of self and morality. These include intricate rules of morality and culture (‘adab’, ‘ikhlaq’) related to Tablighi notions of Islamic womanhood in line with what the madrasa sees as its “civilising mission”. This is contrasted with the education imparted in “regular” schools, which is seen as focusing on this world alone.

As part of the “disciplinary mechanisms” deployed by the madrasa, particular attention is paid to certain understandings of modesty, expressed, for instance, in strict rules regarding purdah or gender segregation. The girls are not allowed to step out of the narrow confines of the madrasa at any time, being permitted to do so only during vacations or on emergencies, and that too in the company of mehram males, close relatives whom they are not allowed by Islamic law to marry. Their voices, too, must be kept in purdah from “strange” males.

Evaluating the sense of self and the particular form of Islamic womanhood that the madrasa seeks to promote, the author engages in an interesting discussion of what precisely this means for the questions of autonomy, agency, subordination and the possible public roles for women that the madrasa envisages. She argues that the dominant feminist notion of agency, in the sense of working to promote a certain vision of “progressive” change, is not applicable in this context. While some might remark that the madrasa is geared to promoting a conservative notion of Islamic womanhood, rooted in a patriarchal worldview, the author withholds her judgment. Instead, she says, the madrasa promotes an alternate form of agency and a certain limited public role for its students: the girls are given the opportunity to enter a restricted section of the public domain – that of other Muslim women – by reciting religious poetry, delivering lectures on religious topics (often related particularly to women) and preaching the doctrines of the Tablighi Jamaat to Muslim women at special Thursday meetings organised at the madrasa, which, the author says, also provides them with one of the few socially accepted means of emotional expression in public. Yet, the author emphasises, the primary role of the education that the girls receive is to prepare them, not for participation in the public sphere, but, for domesticity, as good Muslim wives and mothers as the Tablighi Jamaat defines these roles.

At the same time, for these girls, most of whom come from poor, “low” caste Muslim families, the sort of education they receive will perhaps enable them, and, through them, their families, to assert a higher status for themselves within their communities. This is part of the process of what sociologists have termed Ashrafisation – emulation by “lower” status Muslim groups of the norms and cultural

Economic and Political Weekly September 2, 2006 codes traditionally associated with the ashraf, Muslims who claim foreign, and, therefore, “higher”, social status for themselves.

Individuality within Constraints

Although the madrasa aims to be what the author labels as a “total institution”, governing every conceivable aspect of the students’ lives through its various “disciplinary mechanisms”, some students devise their own subtle means to articulate their individuality within the given constraints. Thus, while the madrasa, in line with the Tablighi Jamaat, frowns on all “un-Islamic” customs, some students expressed to the author their delight at the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. In this and several other ways, the author argues, the madrasa’s aim of serving as a “total institution” is only partly successful, being resisted, at certain points, by both teachers and students.

The author recognises that the madrasa she describes is not the only form of Islamic educational form available for Muslim girls in India. In order to present a glimpse of the variety of such forms she contrasts it with another girls’ school, which she describes as a “dual” madrasa, which is run by a committee associated with the Ahl-i Hadith and is also located in New Delhi. In contrast to the madrasa, this school actively engages with the wider, including non-Muslim, society around it and provides its students with a more rounded education. It employs the syllabus prescribed by the Central Board of Secondary Education, supplementing this with Islamic studies and Arabic and a range of extracurricular activities. In several aspects, this school differs considerably from the Madrasat ul-Niswan, reflecting an urge to creatively relate to the wider Indian society while at the same time remaining focused on producing what it sees as both good Muslims and good Indian citizens. Perhaps, the author concludes, this is a more meaningful and relevant way for Muslims in India today to envisage appropriate forms of education for their girl children.

This pioneering work on girls’ madrasas is a welcome addition to the growing literature on madrasas in south Asia. The sense of balance and empathy that is evident throughout the text is remarkable, as the


author seeks to provide an insight into the ways in which those associated with the madrasa themselves imagine their world. That said, some lacunae remain. The author’s discussion of the form of “Islamic womanhood” that the Tablighis seek to promote is interesting, although somewhat inadequate. A close examination of Tablighi texts about the ideal Muslim woman (and the ideal Muslim man) would have made the discussion more grounded and meaningful. In particular, it would have brought to the fore the rigidly patriarchal worldview of the Tablighi Jamaat, a point that the author does not deal with in the detail it deserves although this is crucial in understanding the vision that shapes the madrasa she studies. A discussion of ongoing debates among Muslims in India today on appropriate forms of education for girls would have also added to the value of this work, highlighting the fact that the Tablighi approach that the Madrasat ul-Niswan advocates is just one of many, each of which defines itself as Islamically “authentic”.



Economic and Political Weekly September 2, 2006

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