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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 49 New Delhi November 24, 2018

Girls’ Madrasas—Countering the Stereotypes

Saturday 24 November 2018, by Humra Quraishi

MUSINGS

Madrasa children are the most vulnerable! The recent lynching of the eight-year-old child, Mohammad Azeem, staying and studying in a madrasa situated in the Begampur locality of South Delhi, should have been highlighted during television discussions and should have also figured high in the political circles but, alas, it did not! Nah, one did not see any of the Union Ministers or even Commission heads rushing to the madrasa site, to grasp the brutalities of the day where even eight-year-olds are not spared of the communal virus and hatred for the other!

In fact, this is not the first time that madrasa children have been targeted in that very locality of South Delhi. Over a year back, madrasa children were brutally thrashed in a park in Begampur by Right-wing goons after forcing them to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai! And to compound the tragedy, there wasn’t a single reaction from any of the concerned Ministries and child rights forums!

The truth is that madrasa children are most vulnerable in today’s India where communalism has been so very systematically unleashed that ‘Muslim-looking’ children, attired in kurta-pyjama with skull caps on, can be targeted by the well- trained Hindutva brigades. In fact, for the last several years I have been visiting madrasas situated in the various locales of the Capital city and what saddens me greatly is that madrasa children feel insecure stepping out to the nearby parks or market places. If they do step out of the madrasa confines then it is only in small groups.

Yes, there is the worry of the political mafia on the prowl to lynch and kill. And also to be questioned is the role of the local cops, who could be more than biased. And to compound the situation the community leaders are not to be seen interacting with the madrasa children. Their presence is greatly needed; at least it would provide for some level of cushioning which is very crucial for the very safety of the young children studying in the madrasas.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that over the years the Right-wing has managed to spread out the most vicious propaganda against madrasas. And none of our politicians or even the community leaders have managed to counter any of this utterly bogus and vicious and third-rate propaganda.

In fact, it’s only now, this summer, that finally a book is out, focusing on the realities, or shall we say positivity, to the madrasas and with that to madrasa education. This is academic Dr Hem Borker’s book, titled Madrasas and the Making of Islamic Womanhood (OUP), where she focuses on madrasas for girls. And in an interview with me, she had detailed the ‘whys’ she was drawn to focus on the madrasas for girls ...drawn to such an extent as to write a full-fledged volume on it. To quote her — “The core idea of my research stems from my past experience of working with the Muslim community in Delhi as a social worker. Observing the daily lives of people, especially the women, hearing them talk about themselves I would often be struck by the manner in which categories such as biradari, religion, class, gender, community fuse to create opportunities and obstacles and shape daily choices. In this work I try to capture the everyday experiences of girls studying in madrasa in their own voice—their views of what they learn in madrasas, how they relate to what they are learning, what they discuss amongst themselves, how they relate what they have learnt to their life at home and in the wider community, how they perceive their own education and its value, how they envision their future...While working in the community I observed that there was a preference for sending boys to low-fee-paying private schools whereas the girls were sent to government schools and/or madrasas. Or they were shifted to madrasas from schools generally after class 8th or 10th. This made me look into the girls’ madrasas and I noticed that in academic literature, policy and also popular imagery madrasas were regarded as almost exclusively male institutions. My main aim was to go beyond and challenge these stereotypical imageries...All these factors led me to opt for girls’ madrasas.”

Her book counters the stereotypes. “My work challenges ideas that regard madrasas as outmoded medieval institutions and assume that such education necessarily inculcates traditional values or produces women whose aspirations conform to normative expectations around homemaking and motherhood...My book highlights the multiple micro processes at play—the competing interests shaping parental demand for madrasa education and the extent to which it is gendered, the discernable trend in madrasas to combine religious (dini talim) with modern (duniyavi talim), role of madrasas in fostering peer networks and linkages which aid student aspirations and enable transition to mainstream education/public spaces in unanti-cipated ways. Rather than bracketing madrasas in terms of tradition versus modern, religious versus sacred, my research highlights it’s not dichotomies but a continuum at work. The madrasas and mainstream educational institutions do not represent mutually insulated spheres; they are characterised by constant to-and-fro movement and continuity. These linkages are often self-consciously contrived, with madrasas actively seeking to get recognition for their qualifications from universities and education boards, or spontaneously generated by parents and students. The girls I researched had studied in so-called secular schools, ranging from government to private schools, before joining the madrasa. Several of them, while in the madrasa, were simultaneously sitting for open school exams through distance learning mode. On completion of their madrasa education many of them opted for higher education in Central universities that recognised madrasa degrees.”

Commenting on her experience whilst visiting the various madrasas she had this to say—“I graduated from being apprehensive, lost and feeling quite unwanted (as a researcher), overwhelmed by the disciplinary regime and everyday rituals to regarding the madrasa a place where I had friends and found great peace (sukoon as they used to call it)...It was a great learning and humbling experience.”

And on the ongoing Right-wing propaganda about the madrasas, she detailed—“The simmering tension between the constitutional morality and popular morality is perhaps most evident in the competing understandings of secular India. Decades of propaganda by the Right-wing has entrenched prejudice against the minorities, especially Muslims. Every motif associated with Muslims is vilified and under attack—madrasas are right there on top of the list. This is compounded by the international Islamophobic narrative—where post-9/11 and the war on terror the genesis of all violence in the name of religion is traced to madrasa... My book builds the narrative from bottom up, looking at the micro context, the everyday lives. I demonstrate how despite constitutional safeguards Muslim communities in India are increasingly having to rely on Muslim networks for basic services—education, health, housing, employment. There is a discernable impulse for change in Muslim communities—for example, for women’s education. But the wider canvas marked by increasing communalisation of social space excludes Muslims and limits choices. Community institutions are seen as safer... All the parents, community members, girls I interviewed wanted education and it was not religious conservatism that led to their opting for madrasa education but a combination of factors— affordability, feeling that community institutions were safe for girls, concerns surrounding marriage and so on.”

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