Tradition and Innovation as Key Ideas in Muslim Female Literacy
Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam
Dr Mohammad Manzoor AlamTill as late as 1995 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its South Asia Human Development Report used to publish literacy figures among Indian Muslims that were, to say it mildly intriguing.
The Report said Indian Muslims women as a whole were ahead of Hindu women in literacy. The UNDP quoted figures from Delhi-based National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER).
I am referring to those figures advisedly (Muslim women 41 percent versus 40 percent for Hindu women). We are quite clear here that literacy and formal education are two distinctly different categories. Literacy means only 3 Rs–reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic–while formal education is altogether a different ball game.
It is not very different to understand why Muslim women were leading in literacy till as recently as one and a half decade ago. Once we know that strength we can build on that for a greater success in our mission to achieve a hundred percent literacy among Muslim women.
Before going into the why and how of the lead Muslim women had enjoyed for centuries (though they have begun to slip steadily over the last few years), it would be pertinent to note that the Sachar Committee Report pointed out that Muslims (including Muslim women) had begun to falter.
We must begin the reckoning by admitting that for centuries Muslim women kept their edge in literacy through community-based initiatives. In virtually every village, town and city of India informal maktabs were part of mosques and homes of the well-to-do Muslims. These maktabs, which are still functional in most areas, had no formal class rooms, blackboards, structured syllabi or examination system. There were no summer or winter vacations and no certification or formal teaching. In the mosques the maulvis used the prayer space in the period between five prayers and taught the pre-pubiscent boys and girls. That gave a sizeable number of young people a sound grounding in the 3Rs. And that continues to be a sustainable community-based initiative. In the meanwhile, let us place it in the larger national context for some clarity.
Today the country’s female literacy situation remains as dire as ever despite our best intentions as a nation. We are still falling behind in our commitment to female literacy under the Millennium Development Goals. That is a matter of serious concern, not only for the wellbeing of our people, but also for India’s aspirations as a super power of 2020 (that, by the way, is former President Shri APJ Abdul Kalam’s deadline).
The Muslim female literacy has faltered over the last 15 years. So, where do we as Indians stand on this count? That we stand far below South-East Asians and most Central Asians (and way too far behind even people like Palestinian refugees) made the Union government to launch Sakshar Bharat (Literate India) Mission last year.
At the launch ceremony the Prime Minister disclosed that one-third of Indians could not read or write and half of Indian women were illiterate. Coming from the Prime Minister as it does, it should be a wake-up call for all of us. And yes, the Prime Minister added to good effect: “India has the highest number of illiterate people”. The South Asia Human Development Report (2007) puts this figure at 35 percent.
He emphasized the cooperative efforts of the community Panchayati Raj Institutions and women’s self help groups in promotion of literacy. The prime minister’s remarks at the launch ceremony regarding involvement of the community and civil society organisations in literacy confirm our own community’s experience of centuries.
Over the years, Muslims began to augment the literacy tradition of non-formal institutions like maktabs with innovative intervention. Today, we see Muslims as individuals and community supporting literacy as well as formal education initiatives in diverse ways.
Muslims across the country, from north to south, east to west, are not only supporting a massive network of maktabs and primary to intermediate madrasahs, but also supporting students by either paying their entire tuition fee, as well as board and lodging, books and stationery of individual students, but helping in other ways as well.
In some cases a single student is supported by three to four individuals (like one paying tuition fees, another paying for board and lodging, and yet another paying for books, stationery and a small amount of extra money).
There are quite a number of individuals that one knows of in Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai who have been doing that silently. This effort is visible in state capitals, district towns and talukas down to villages. And this is generally over and above the sum of money people are spending by way of zakaat or other religiously mandated payments.
Last month we were amazed to see a massive Muslim community effort underway in Chennai where individuals and groups have been sustaining a huge programme of enlightenment and empowerment by funding the education of individuals. Some have gone beyond that and formed groups that coach students for entrance exams of engineering, medicine and assorted professional courses. Individuals forming such groups of trainers are highly successful professionals who spare some time for community service at the cost of their family time. This is yet another augmenting strategy being deployed in the cause of education.
Such innovation is increasingly visible across the board. Then there is a huge effort being exerted in the form of scholarship to Muslim students pursuing specialised or higher education. There are quite a few Muslim organisations in India that are doing it, one of them being the Institute of Objective Studies that I head.
I am afraid I am talking here of the larger context, instead of confining myself to Muslim literacy, particularly female literacy. This larger context is however essential to see the extent of Muslim society’s effort at augmenting the enlightenment and empowerment project.
It is interesting to note that very senior educationists like Saiyid Hamid have been emphasising the strengthening and expansion of our “feeder institutions”, for higher and specialised education to be of some consequence.
This makes sense and points to the urgent need for strengthening the base, beginning from literacy. To build this social capital some awareness-creation programmes have been launched in the past by community leaders and organisations. Some have tried to work at the interface of government’s special programmes and community initiatives, taking advantage of the synergy thus created. Already a well-recognised and rather smoothly functioning nexus between madrasah education and modern liberal education exists. The idea is to expand them further. That needs some planning and strategising by community leaders, especially those active in the field of education.
There is already some awareness of the value of learning in the unlettered Muslim groups. One community initiative could be the inclusion of regular input on the Islamic need for getting literate in the Friday sermons. Thankfully, the target groups still take the maulanas’ words very seriously.
However, the whole thing goes beyond just awareness. When people see that some of the children of their neighbours have grown up to be educated and prosperous young adults, they know that they have a role model before them to be emulated.
Educationists working in Muslim communities have often raised the question of “opportunity cost”. Most of the time, if not always, poor parents withdraw their children from maktabs and other primary institutions to make them work as domestic help in well-off families, errand boys at local workshops and auto-repair garages, apprentices to motorcycle mechanics or workers at dhabas.
The poor see their children not only as months that have to be fed, but also as hands that can earn. They often take the education of their children as lost opportunity of earning. Government schemes like mid-day meal and Anganwadi succeed in persuading poor parents to send their children to school largely because they get their mid-day meal at school.
However, this falls short of the standard that could be achieved through payment of opportunity cost to poor parents. The logic of this is like, “Ok, so you lose Rs 500 a month in your child’s lost opportunity to earn as he/she is going to school. So, please take this monthly payment of such and such amount in lieu of your child going to school instead of workshop”.
There are quite a few difficulties ahead of us. However, one must remember that the country has made considerable progress over the last decade in expanding literacy. As usual, instead of looking at the undifferentiated picture one has to look at segments to know who has fared the most and who the least.
The educational level has been distinctly low among India’s women and disadvantaged groups like SCs, STs and Muslims. In the case SCs and STs the literacy level grew remarkably between 1991 and 2001 by 18 percent. Muslims did not grow that well, yet the literacy level of SCs and STs was 64 percent in 2001 compared to Muslims’ 68 percent. However, they were far behind “All Others”, who stood at 81 percent (the national average is still in the low 70s).
That shows both India and its Muslim community have to work harder to improve literacy. Among Muslims there is a need to expand community-based initiatives and make innovative interventions of the kind mentioned earlier. Addition of small libraries of children’s books, other learning tools and educational toys to mosques which run maktabs will go a long way. Muslim girl children have to be specially taken care of.
Even small, seemingly insignificant interventions matter. Prof. Akhtar Siddiqui, former head of Jamia Millia’s education department, often narrates how he established a reading room-library in Old Delhi and how it helped young Muslims in getting prepared for government jobs. He was amazed to see boys from the Old Delhi library in government jobs as far away as in Jharkhand.
Meaningful intervention has helped in the past, will help in future. Such intervention would be the right kind of augmentation of the ongoing project of enlightenment. g