Wednesday, February 24, 2010


This post has been submitted to the International Women's Day Contest under the category Women’s Education. Click here for details on the contest.

I am tagging Saadia, Andaleeb and Ravia.

“You’re Muslim?” enquired a fellow hostellite, eyeing my head scarf.

“Yes, I am,” I replied smiling at the incredulity in her voice.

It was my first day at the hostel. I had travelled miles away from home to be here—for an education.

My teenage head was filled with the thrill of freedom and living away from home. Freedom to do as you please. Well, almost. Living in a girls’ hostel came with strict boundaries. But it was freedom all the same.

I was also thrilled to be back in India, my motherland. These thrills blinded me to a fact that became clearer over time, much later. I was living a dream.

A few months later...

“So, how did you convince your parents about your studies?” My friend who lived four rooms away was full of questions as she battled with a stubborn needle and a thread that chose to magically knot itself after every attempted stitch.

We were swapping stories about our families while attempting a needlework assignment. Textiles and Clothing was a mandatory subject in our Home Science college and one that our Communications batch despised and sucked at.

I looked at her blankly.

“I mean, being a Muslim. How did your parents allow you to study further?”

My blank look continued for another five seconds before I understood what she meant.

“What do you mean ‘allow me to study’? They sent me here to get an education. Actually, I did have to convince them about this particular college but once they realised how much I wanted to be part of the communication course, they were happy for me.”

Now it was her turn to stare blankly.

I went on. “I come from a family that values education. There was never any doubt that I would go on to get a degree. Any parents would want their children to do something with their lives, right? Why would it be different for Muslims?”

“But you’re a Muslim girl. And you come from a religious household, don’t you? I thought those kinds get their daughters married right after school.” She was struggling to understand when and how the stereotype had changed.

And I was beginning to get annoyed.

“I don’t know where you get your information from but that’s not true.”

Our conversation was interrupted by a sudden corridor brawl over someone stealing someone’s snacks. My friend never brought it up again and I never got to tell her that she was partly right.

I thought about it later that night. As much as I would have liked to ignore it, I knew her stereotyping was not far from the truth. I knew of talented girls who had immense potential to soar in their academics but had had their wings clipped and were home bound. They were then married off young while their classmates from more ‘broad-minded’ households pursued fancy degrees. I tossed and turned that night wishing this wasn’t true. But it was.

I remembered a Muslim friend of mine from school who was brilliant in studies and had topped her class each year. An all-rounder, she was often seen participating in extra-curricular activities as well. I remembered her contagious laughter, her witty conversation and her ready smile.

“I’m going to be a doctor.” I had heard her say this a couple of times. I remember imagining her in a doctor’s coat, laughing her infectious laugh as she diagnosed her patients with an assortment of illnesses.

I had no doubt in my mind that she would achieve her dream.

We lost touch after school but I heard through others that she did not make it to medical college. In fact, her parents did not send her to any college. She spent a year at home and was then married off to the first suitable boy.

Call me crazy, but this seemed completely bizarre to me. I mean, why would her parents not allow her to pursue her aspirations, despite knowing how far their daughter was capable of going? Now, unlike what some people like my hostel friend believe, this has nothing to do with Islam or being a ‘religious type’. It had more to do with family customs and traditions existing in certain societies, which did not allow people to reap the benefits of education. I was fortunate enough to grow up among people who realised that when you educate a woman, you educate a family. But not everyone had that perspective.

Yes, the situation was changing.

I recall reading a newspaper story about Irfaana Mujawar and Gazala Mughal who belong to families that were deeply affected by the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. The riots served as a wake-up call to them. They realised they needed an education to get back on their feet. While one studied MA in sociology, the other got a diploma in crafts. They then pooled their savings and started a school for girls in the slums of Jogeshwari. The school employed five other Muslim teachers – all women – and together they began to help little girls from poor Muslim families become literate.

Stories like this made me jump for joy and I pictured myself being part of such noble efforts. College was when I was high on idealism and optimism. I felt strongly about the need to do something for my community. Our assignments often sent us to work with NGOs and each experience at a slum made me feel I could do something. I didn’t know what but my mind often drifted back to my friend who would have made a wonderful doctor, if only she had been given a choice.

Five years later...

“I hope you don’t mind me asking. Why do you wear a head scarf?”

The question came from a particularly talkative colleague at the publication where I worked as a journalist.

I resisted the urge to scare him off with a, “Coz I’m bald!” response.

“It is part of my religion. I am a practising Muslim,” I replied coolly, instead.

I was used to being asked about my attire and I usually got into lengthy conversations about it. But today had been a really tough day and I wasn’t feeling very chatty.

“Oh okay.” He shrugged and turned away. The response seemed to make sense to him.

He was about to walk back to his desk when he decided to stick around for further conversation.

“We don’t see many Muslim girls in our line of work. I know Islam promotes education. I remember reading a book about it. So it’s weird why so many Muslim youth don’t pursue further education. And the girls aren’t encouraged at all. But of course this happens in all communities, among the poorer or narrow-minded sections of society. I think educated individuals don’t really pay much attention to this issue. I mean, so much can be done to help in terms of awareness creation, right?”

This was not a question. It was déjà vu. This ordinary statement sparked off a chain of memories. My mind raced back to the hostel room. Needle and thread. Family rules. Stereotypes. My friend who could have been a doctor. My education. Girls with dreams in their eyes. A long forgotten desire to make a change. Idealism lost in the daily grind of earning a living.

He wasn’t done.

“You are one lucky girl. I have seen so many girls from your community who can only dream of what you’ve achieved. You should be really proud of yourself,” he smiled.

“I am.” I squeaked with my best impersonation of a proud smile.

Yes, I should be proud of myself. I had successfully completed my post-graduation in Human Rights; I worked for a leading newspaper; I had a lucrative career ahead of me; and with the internet making the world a global village, I had a string of profitable options to choose from.

However, what I felt right now did not feel like pride.

He was exaggerating, I said to myself. Things had changed drastically. Today, there were many Muslim girls from practising Muslim families who were highly educated. Today, girls belonging to any community were confident and independent individuals who did not depend on someone else to make their decisions or how they should lead their lives. Right?

Who was I kidding? One girl denied an education is still one too many. Why was I trying to ignore them? Girls for whom life would have been different had they been born in a more understanding environment... I felt ashamed.

What had become of those promises and desires to make a difference? Waking up to the ways of the world had killed my idealism. But what about my dreams for my community? Why had I never given this issue any thought? I had thought about it. But the guilt of not having done anything had impelled me to push such thoughts to the farthest corners of my mind. My busy life, revolving around my family and work, made me believe that I didn’t have time for any more commitments.

I could go “tch tch” about the issue all I wanted but that wasn’t going to change a thing. It wouldn’t help a single one of those girls. They didn’t need pity. They needed the freedom to make their own choices.

I felt an old idealistic ember ignite somewhere inside. I didn’t need to feel guilty. I needed to do something.

Facing the issue through this post is my first miniscule attempt at doing something for those girls. Best Blogger Tips

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  1. wow....absolutely wonderful.....well done .....

  2. Awesome post! I must say that through this, you have been the voice of many of your Muslim sisters. Keep up the good work and all the best for the contest.

  3. Good one! I could empathise with what you were saying. I don't want to sound like I'm plugging my book here also but Kite Strings does have an element of what you've written. The focus in our communities is still marriage although I am seeing that nowadays since everyone is asking for an educated bride, the focus has shifted to education and then marriage again. No chance to break out and do what you really want to do in life.

  4. Sumira, very well written and absolutely true!!
    Loved the bits about textile & clothing...yes the whole communication batch hated it!!

    On a serious note, restrictions in education are not religion based its got a lot to do with how broad-minded & supportive the family is. I have a Muslim friend who is a medical doctor, had her own clinic and currently is doing research work for one of the best hospitals here...she & her family are very religious but they are at the very same time well-educated and have encouraged all their children to accomplish their dreams. I believe it works both ways, one should be determined to achieve their aspirations & the support of family members makes the whole process easier. I truly believe we girls are very lucky - our parents educated us & encouraged us to build our careers. I have the same feeling about the kids we used to teach in govt schools & slums...they r so smart but can't afford education. Yes, we are indeed very lucky!!!

  5. you write wonderfully well, sumira :) why didn't high school ever inform us of these hidden talents everyone had? :) or mebbe it did, and i just wasn't listening :p

  6. Sumira its too good hands down!!

  7. excellent sumi!loved every bit of it!

  8. Wonderfully written Sumira...i hope you win the contest...insha allah!!!

  9. Sumira, this is brilliant & im sure u'll do wonders in ur life ahead .. All the Best girl.. Way to go!!
    I sincerely hope & pray u can make a difference & do something for the girls in stereotyped & uneducated families. Remember u can bank on us.

    Farah Maka

  10. Sumira, what a powerful post. I was hurting by the time you spoke about your friend who didn't become a doctor. How many such dreams would she have killed? And other girls in the same situation. Blame it on living in big cities all my life, but I've known Muslim girls do everything they wanted to do. So when you started speaking about your friend I too thought she was sticking to stereotypes.
    More strength to you Samira.
    I also hope your entry wins.

  11. Well written Sumira. Nicely worded. Keep up the good work. May Allah fulfill all ur wishes.

  12. Thanks you all for stopping by and taking time to comment. It really means a lot to me. Your encouragement is what makes me want to keep writing.

    @noor, ravia, vidhya, amara, farah: thank u guys!

    @Smi: Thanks.. it's great to get a comment from someone who writes so well... All the best to you too!

    @Andaleeb: I still haven’t gotten down to reading Kite Strings but now that I’m allowing myself some free time to get back into the reading habit, your book is high on my ‘must read’ list. Will comment on your blog once I read it, which is pretty soon. All the best for your next book. :)

    @Neha: I knew you’d love the textiles and clothing bit! :D brought back memories, didn’t it?
    I agree with this not being religion-specific. But I wanted to write about Muslims girls since too often I’ve heard people blaming Islam for something that is born out of ignorance.

    @Adu: Sadly, we didn’t go to a school that bothered to discover our hidden talents. :( I hope things have changed since then.

    @TRQ: Yes, growing up among like-minded people we’ve had the good fortune of seeing women (Muslim or otherwise) growing up to be well-educated and independent. Yet, I felt the ‘have-nots’ needed a voice. Thanks for your wishes. :)

    @Mom: 'Thank you' will never be enough.

  13. Brilliant stuff Sumi!!

  14. This could go into Chicken Soup too. Very touching and very powerful. And not just that, I loved the way you had crafted it as well. It was just such a delight to read.

    All the best with the contest :)

  15. Thanks Roohi and Judy!

    @Judy: I'm so glad you like it. Your comment just made my day! :) Chicken Soup, huh? That sounds like an idea. I'm thinking of writing short stories anyway... will chat with you soon for details... :)

  16. Brilliant post, Sumira. Extremely relevant and very well written.

    Its my first time here. Will keep visiting.

  17. Very good post. We who are priviledged get caught up in our lives and make ourselves believe that "all is well". It is not, there are more number of women who are denied education rights in all communities than the ones who receive. We should contribute in whatever way we can.

  18. @ masood and SS: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Women's education is a topic very close to my heart and I'm so glad I could voice my views on it through my blog.

  19. I saw the link to this post earlier, but did not get the time to read it. I am so very glad that I remembered to revisit this link.

    This post is so true, informative and inspiring. Very well written.

  20. Wow,mashAllah.Loved what you wrote.may you succeed in your aims.