Katihar (Bihar)/Azamgarh/New Delhi, Nov 12 : For Ghazala Tasneem, October 31 was not a normal day. It was the day her dream came true and she was rewarded for her hard struggle of three years. She was selected for the Bihar Judicial Services Competitive Examination with 65th rank and can soon aspire to be a judge.
"Indeed, it was difficult, but thanks to Allah, due to the continuous support and motivation from my husband and other family members, I have achieved what I deserved," says Tasneem, a housewife from Katihar district of Bihar with two sons.
There is a general perception that Muslim women rarely pursue higher education, or go for competitive exams, and the social odds are stacked even higher once they get married and have kids. But women like Tasneem challenge such stereotypes.
India has the largest Muslim population after Indonesia, which is about 14.2 percent of its 1.34 billion population, and the 2011 census says that about half of the population of Muslim women is illiterate. But women like Tasneem think that the situation is changing fast.
"Though in areas like law and judiciary, still the number of Muslim girls is very less. But in general, the situation is changing now and there are many more Muslim girls going to school," Tasneem said.
Zebun Nisa Khan, associate professor at the Department of Education in Aligarh Muslim University, says that situation has already changed. "The trend is not changing, but it has already changed. For the last few years, the number of Muslim girls in schools has increased massively," Khan said.
Muslim women's literacy rate is on the increase in Uttar Pradesh, but the situation in states like Bihar and West Bengal needs to further improve.
Moonisa Bushra Abidi teaches Physics at Maharashtra College of Arts, Science and Commerce in Mumbai. She also thinks that educating the girl child is an increasing trend among Muslims and an increasing number of Muslims girls -- encouraged by their parents, particularly mothers -- are going for higher education.
"One can see a larger number of girls with hijab in many institutions now. In the early 1990s, when I was pursuing my M.Sc. from the University of Mumbai, I was the only girl in the entire university with a hijab," Abidi explains.
She says that during her days in the same college, at the intermediate level, there used to be one division of girls against four of boys, but now there are four divisions of girls against one for boys. At UG and PG levels, there are hardly 8 to 10 boys in each class against 80 to 90 girls.
The college is being run under the presidentship of a woman, Fatima Zakaria, a Padma Shri awardee, journalist and academician, and mother of veteran journalist Fareed Zakaria.
"The situation is not good because the number of boys is decreasing and now our college is becoming a girls' college," Abidi said.
But what had been the major issues for educating Muslim girl child in India? Khan lists poverty and lack of awareness as some of the major problems in the path of girl child education.
"The major obstacles are poverty and lack of awareness. Many Muslim families are below the poverty line and they are unable to educate girls," she explained.
Sadia Rahman, PhD scholar of international relations at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, thinks that widespread poverty and financial constraints are the major causes that prevent Muslim girls from accessing modern education. "Also, the poor quality schools in Muslim populated areas is also responsible for it," says Rahman who hails from Kolkata and completed MA from Presidency University.
According to Islamic teaching arrangements of classes, male and female students should be separated and many people believe that it is also one of the important reasons for the low literacy rate of Muslim women in various places.
"I think the biggest obstacle for girls' education was co-education and less availability of Muslim-management colleges. Sometimes a girl with a hijab becomes the butt of jokes, because of which religious-minded girls are hesitant to go to colleges run by non-Muslim managements," Abidi added.
Abidi believes that Muslim girls from conservative families don't feel comfortable in the co-education system and the community should think about opening more separate colleges for them.
"In rural areas, even Hindu girls prefer girls-only colleges and avoid co-education," Khan pointed out.
Neyaz Ahmad Daudi, who runs Fatima Girls Inter College in Daudpur village in Azamgarh district of eastern Uttar Pradesh, has another story to tell. Daudi, who has doctorate in Psychology from Banaras Hindu University and served at Shibli National Intermediate College as principal for over a decade, says that he chose to start a girls' college because boys can go far and there were not enough girls' colleges at nearby villages and towns.
Non-availability of schools and colleges nearby is also one of the major obstacles and a major issue in many areas.
Daudi says that in places like Azamgarh, where most of the guardians away in the Gulf countries or in metro cities earning a livelihood, people are cautious about the security of girls and don't allow them to be sent too far; they also seek a safe and secure transportation system from home to school.
At 73.01 percent, Azamgarh has the highest Muslim female literacy rate in Uttar Pradesh. But being a small place, it is still difficult to gain higher education here.
"Now girls are educated but they have less opportunity for higher studies and competitive exams because usually it is available only in bigger cities," Daudi explained.
There is another misconception that some people think that educating a girl child -- especially modern education -- is against the religion, but Khan believes that getting an education is a religious duty.
"The very first revelation on Prophet Mohammed was the word 'Iqra' which means 'you read' and such words are mentioned in many places in the Holy Quran. It is general guidance for both males and females," Khan says.
"Islam and Muslims are not against education. Islam teaches one to gain knowledge from cradle to grave, but some people misinterpret Islam," says Tasneem.
"All educational goals can be achieved being in veil. There are a number of examples in the early Islamic period where women were very much involved in education and nursing sectors," Tasneem added.
(This feature is part of a special series that seeks to bring unique and extraordinary stories of ordinary people, groups and communities from across a diverse, plural and inclusive India, and has been made possible by a collaboration between IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Abu Zafar can be contacted at email@example.com)