Some years ago, while working on a history of cricket in India, I was reading issues of a now defunct newspaper called the Bombay Sentinel. It took time to get to the sports pages, for they were at the end, and one was prone to get diverted by the other stories on the way. Searching for the scores of the Bombay Pentangular tournament of 1940, I came across a report on a meeting of the Dehra Dun branch of the All India Women’s Conference. The meeting was attended by no fewer than a thousand women, ‘belonging to all classes, creeds and communities’. In her Presidential address, a certain Begum Hamid Ali said that ‘now the time has come that we, women, should resort to satyagraha for securing our equal rights from our fellow men’. The Begum insisted that ‘we do not demand these rights because we are human beings but because we have equal, if not more, ability, intelligence and moral force. We have had no opportunities for their full play… Opportunities for progress and development should be available not only to our sons but to our daughters also, if the nation, as a whole, is to make solid and abiding progress in all spheres of life’.

I recalled that report last week, when I read, in a Bombay newspaper of our own times, an account of two women resorting to a kind of satyagraha for securing equal rights from their fellow men. Irfaana Mujawar and Gazala Mughal were joined by a burning desire to educate themselves and educate others. One took an M. A. in Sociology; the other, a diploma in crafts. Then, rather than submit to their parents and get married, they pooled their savings and started a school for girls in the slums of Jogeshwari. As the reporter put it, ‘single by choice, each of them wanted to do something for society’. Both were deeply affected by the riots of 1992-3, where the Muslims in particular suffered greatly. After the riots, said Gazala, people of their community ‘realized it is important to be educated and fit into the mainstream’. To further these ambitions, she joined hands with Irfaana to start the Young Indians School. With five other teachers—all women, all Muslim—they were helping 125 little girls become the first generation of literates in their respective families.

Amazingly, these two reports were published on the same day, if sixty-four years apart: the first in the Bombay Sentinel of 12 July 1940, the other in the ‘Mumbai Newsline’ of the Indian Express on 12 July 2004. Begum Hamid, on the one side, and Irfaana and Gazala, on the other, are indeed united by their desire to break free of the chains of a feudal and patriarchal society. But there are also some key differences, pertaining to historical context and, more importantly, to class background.

The ideas and impulses of a Begum Hamid were nurtured in the womb of the Indian national movement. As Madhu Kishwar once pointed out, Mahatma Gandhi brought more women into public life than any other political leader of the twentieth century. More women participated in the Indian freedom struggle than in the movements of Lenin, Mao, Soekarno, Ho Chi Minh and Castro combined.

These were the women who responded to the challenge of colonialism by going to school and college, and then taking up professions previously regarded as a male preserve. The process started first in the three Presidency towns, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, which by the first decade of the twentieth century already had numerous women graduates and postgraduates. But by the last decade of British rule even the most backward parts of India were not immune from its influence. Thus the Bombay Sentinel of 22 July 1940 profiled a certain Mahmooda Ahmed Ali, the first Kashmir girl to be awarded a M. A. and a B. T. Miss Ali had been elected the President of the Freethinkers Society of Srinagar, formed ‘for intellectual and cultural advancement’.

Admittedly, the women influenced by Indian nationalism were mostly from the middle and upper classes. In the countryside things remained much as they had for centuries. In the winter of 1946-7, the civil servant Malcolm Darling took a ride across northern India to gauge the pulse of a people soon to be free. With him was his daughter, April, who had of course gone to school and college herself. In a village in Western Punjab, April asked the peasants: ‘And what about your women? Are they demanding Azaadi too?’ The question met with ‘a blank circle of eyes’. When pressed for an answer, the Punjabi peasants said that women could not, should not have Azaadi, for their place was in the home. As April Darling found out, both Hindu as well as Muslim men felt that way.

After Independence, the education of upper class women proceeded apace. So did the expansion of their opportunities. Decades before such landmarks were achieved in supposedly advanced countries such as the United States, India had women Governors, women Prime Ministers, women judges and women Vice Chancellors. But in the hamlets of rural India, and the slums of urban India, young girls were still encouraged to stay within the home (first their own, then that of their husband’s). Slowly, the demand for education grew among women from poorer families as well. But progress was slow, and uneven. Broadly speaking, the southern states were more supportive of women’s education than the states of the cow-belt. There was also a religious differentiation—thus, Christians were generally the most keen to send their girls to school, followed by Hindus, and only then by Muslims.

In recent years, however, there have been surprising developments among sections of Indian society believed to be hostile to women’s rights. Thus the northern state of Himachal Pradesh has made major strides in primary education. And from the slums of Bombay we have stories such as that of the Young Indians School of Jogeshwari, started by two bold Muslim women, Irfaana Mujawar and Gazala Mughal.

I read about Irfaana and Gazala on the flight into Bombay. The same evening, I was on the pavement in Flora Fountain, searching for treasures in what is now—after the decline of College Street—the best second-hand book bazaar in the country. At one stall I saw two ladies, in burkhas, escorting a little girl, dressed in a skirt. The girl stooped low and selected a book to buy. It was, I noted with interest, a work by the well known American children’s writer Nancy Drew. With a laugh and a smile the ladies took out their purses and granted the child’s wish.

One news report, and a single, isolated incident—but from what I learn from friends in the education movement these instances are rather typical. In the old city of Delhi, as in the bustees of Bombay, there is a hunger for learning among Muslim girls and women. Many of the most energetic volunteers in the best education NGO’s come from the minority community and the suppressed sex. It would be interesting to see how this process pans out over the next few years. Will, for example, the boys be encouraged by the girls to take to modern education, to learn how to write software in a school of information technology rather than learn the Quran by rote in a madrassah?

In the past, Hindus have been far ahead of Muslims in their desire for modern scientific education. But things may be changing. Even as the likes of Irfaana and Gazala teach in English in a slum in Bombay, the Sangh Parivar promotes a curriculum based on less wholesome values. Studying R. S. S. run schools in the tribal villages of Chattisgarh, the anthropologist Nandini Sundar found that they were, as she put it, ‘teaching to hate’. Their schools were adorned with portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses, and of Hindu heroes who were certifiably chauvinistic—V. D. Savarkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, rather than Gandhi or Nehru. The teachers demonized the foreigner and the minorities, with children made to sing songs ‘about the need to fight the neighbouring country and demolish it as brave children of Savarkar’. And a core part of the curriculum was instruction in Vedic mathematics.

It is a curious irony, indeed. As Muslim girls seek to break free of the constraining insularity of their tradition, the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism wish to impose a narrow-minded xenophobia on their professedly liberal faith.

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