//Sisters under the Skin

Sisters under the Skin


Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

[Excerpts from the Article Sisters under the skin by Suchitra Seth and Nina Haeems]

Sisters under the Skin’ — Events of 2002 and Girls’ Education in Ahmedabad

The events of 2002 in Gujarat have generally perceived as acts of state-supported violence directed against Muslims which included mass murder, sexual abuse and large-scale destruction of property. Without doubt, this was the principal tragedy that left scars on the entire Muslim community. Yet, if we look beyond, the violence has implications for society in Gujarat as a whole, for both Hindus and Muslims, and in particular, for the girls of these communities.

This paper looks at the adverse impact of the communal violence of 2002 on the education of Hindu and Muslim girls, focusing primarily on students of two municipal primary schools in two conflict-prone, poor areas of Ahmedabad – Shahpur in the walled city and Rajpur, an industrial suburb. This paper is based on data collected as part of an ongoing comparative study of gender-related factors affecting the education of girls at the upper-primary level in municipal schools in Ahmedabad and Mumbai, supported by the Indo-Dutch Programme

Inspired by the professional women depicted in television serials girls now aspire to becoming business women, models, doctors and joining the armed forces. Within this picture of hope and ambition, a striking revelation was that for both Muslims and Hindus, deteriorating intercommunity relationships along with the state’s apathy towards restoring security and promoting goodwill between communities have forced them to not aspire for anything beyond the education offered by the local Urdu or Gujarati medium municipal primary school. In such circumstances, both mothers and daughters are unable to visualise a future beyond marriage and unskilled, primarily home-based work. And the school, which could be a site for secular socialisation for future generations, itself becomes an institution for widening the distance between the communities.

Human Geography of Ahmedabad

A brief overview of the human geography of Ahmedabad is necessary to comprehend better the post-2002 situation. Shahpur, the first area focused upon in this paper is located in the old, walled part of the city established by Sultan Ahmed Shah almost 600 years ago. This walled city is characterised by narrow lanes,

flanked on both sides by closely packed houses grouped into“pols”. The residents of a pol often belong to one caste or community and two adjoining pols usually share a common wall.Thus different castes and communities – Hindus and Muslims, upper and lower castes, live in close proximity in these neighbourhoods. This proximity, however, has also been cause for conflict and it was the walled city where the communal conflicts usually began and escalated, later spreading to the industrial suburbs. The workforce, which migrated from neighbouring districts and from other states, settled in chawls near the mill compounds. Two-thirds of them were dalit

and Muslim and, like in the old walled city, here too they lived in close proximity. These dalit-Muslim neighbourhoods, though separate, shared a common “mill subculture” and their lives were intertwined. Rajpur, the second area selected for the study, is one such former village that was absorbed into Ahmedabad some time in the 1930s.

History of Conflicts

Intense caste violence took place and the clashes between upper caste Hindus and dalits that started in industrial Ahmedabad escalated into a large-scale caste war. On this occasion Muslims supported dalits and protected them when they were attacked. Then came the violence during the second anti-reservation riots of 1985. But this time it deteriorated into communal riots; the traditional Hindu-Muslim animosity became triangular with dalits

forming the third vertex. The 1990 riots precipitated by Advani’s Rath Yatra further weakened the frayed social fabric. In 1985, only one high wall came up between a patidar and a Muslim neighbourhood in the old city of Ahmedabad; by the end of 1990 the residents of almost all dalit chawls in the industrial areas had erected high walls around them. At places where Muslims lived side by side with dalits, the dominant sentiment became one of fear and mistrust. The violence sparked by the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 was followed by sustained Hindutva mobilisation in which the Sangh parivar systematically wooed the dalit communities in Gujarat and thus the communal divide further deepened. It is against this background that we need to look at the impact of the events of 2002. This time the violence was more brutal, widespread and prolonged and it was marked by the overt and covert partisan role of the state – elected representatives, law enforcement agencies and the justice system. As a result hatred, mistrust and fear have intensified between the two communities and the situation appears to have reached a point when relationships cannot be repaired.

Urdu School in Shahpur

Shahpur, in the walled city, is dominated by jains, patels and Muslims. Over the last decade, many Hindu families have moved out and today, with Muslims forming over half the population, one of Shahpur’s three corporators is a Muslim. AMC runs 90 Urdu medium primary schools of which nine are in Shahpur.

Debate on Medium of Education

A majority of Muslims in Gujarat speak Gujarati at home and the debate on the medium of education for Muslims has been a long-standing one. While one section of Gujarati Muslims favoured education in the Gujarati medium, another equally influential section believed that a Muslim’s education could be considered complete only when imparted in Urdu, the language of Islamic culture. The events of 2002 seem to have sharpened this debate.

 ‘Mahol’ and ‘Moholla’

Mothers reveal two possible reasons for the increasing enrolment of girls in Urdu medium schools. Fatima Bibi, mother of Shahnaz studying in the VIth standard revealed one of the reasons: “The tense ‘mahol’ or environment has now become an everyday affair. It is not just restricted to riot times. Hindu boys tease the girls or harass them on the road. I do not want to send Shahnaz far away.” The Urdu medium school is usually located in Muslim

dominated ‘mohollas’ or neighbourhoods and mothers prefer to send their girls there. We also found that good-looking girls were confined to the home more than others. The second reason for preferring the Urdu medium for girls is related to the perception that it strengthens their Muslim identity. Raziya Begum, whose daughter Rubina is in the VIIth standard, felt that, “people prefer the Urdu medium school for their girls because education in the

language of Islam would make their daughter a better Muslim and therefore improve her chances of getting a groom from a ‘good family’”. When asked why they would not choose the trustrun religious schools as they do for the boys, the reply is that these schools charge fees and while they are prepared to pay for the boys, they are not ready to pay for the girls who are, in any case, not expected to work in the future. Thus, the calculation

that investment in boys’ education reaps greater economic returns becomes the deciding factor in education matters for girls and boys. The Urdu medium municipal schools of Shahpur are only till the VIIth standard. There is only one municipal Urdu high school in far away Asarwa and going there would mean that Parvin has

to travel through Hindu localities. Her mother Hamida Begum admits that learning widens t
he intellect but it is unlikely that she will educate her daughter Parvin (who is now in the Vth standard) beyond the VIIth standard. “I do not want to take the chance when she has ‘become older’; ‘something’ may happen and her name will get spoilt”. The high schools that are nearer are privately managed and unaffordable. And in any case reaching

these too involves going through “unsafe” Hindu areas. It is well known that it is the poorest communities that opt for municipal schooling and they can scarcely afford private schools for higher education. Many mothers reported that the prolonged curfew in 2002 meant lost wages, living on borrowed money and higher prices for food. Many are in debt and cannot afford education beyond the upper primary subsidised education available near their mohollas. A more critical deterrent is that the nearby private schools are in the Gujarati medium. As there are very few Urdu medium secondary and high schools, education beyond upper primary would involve making a successful transition into the Gujarati medium. This is something few can cope with. The state education system has no support mechanisms for Urdu medium children interested in pursuing studies beyond the VIIth standard and poor families cannot afford private tuitions.
Being Muslim in Ahmedabad

The study revealed that the Muslim community in general sees education as a futile exercise because in the vitiated atmosphere of today’s Ahmedabad, most people are unwilling to give a Muslim a job. Hamida Begum confesses, “I would have liked to educate Parvin; if this Urdu school was upgraded to the Xth standard

I would send her. She could become a teacher”. She corrected herself, “But in any case, there is no point in thinking like that because who will give a job to a Muslim? What’s the use of studying then?”

Finally, the Urdu medium schools, where girls outnumber the boys, have become a mirror of the ghetto the girls live in. The increasing ghettoisation of residential spaces has meant that the girls live only among people of their own community. The school is a place which could ideally become a site for secular socialization of children. But in the context of Gujarat, Urdu is a language used only by Muslims and it is impossible that children in this school will meet children from other communities. Significantly, a Gujarati medium school is run on the same premises as the Urdu school – on two different floors of the same building, with some classes even having the same timings. Despite this, there is no interaction between the girls of these two schools. Thus, the girls of the Shahpur school live among their ‘jamaat’ or caste members at home and at school their fellow students and teachers are other Muslims. The school offers no possibility of exposure to a world beyond their ghetto.

In contrast to the situation for girls, Muslim boys do have the option of going to schools, Urdu or Gujarati, which are further away from their mohollas. The mahol also does not pose a threat for them as it does for girls, whose gender makes them vulnerable.

Gujarati School in Rajpur

The situation in Rajpur has to be seen against its own history of once close-knit and shared dalit-Muslim neighbourhoods now transformed into antagonistic Hindu-Muslim blocks. Rajpur was left with a predominantly

poor dalit and Muslim population. Hindutva mobilisation in the 1990s attracted the dalit who saw in it an opportunity for better  social status. Increasingly, their self-image also involved a “Hindu” identity and the amity between an earlier generation of dalits and Muslims disintegrated. Their chawls were separated by high walls and the communal riots accompanying the Ayodhya-centred agitation of the 1990s added the mutual fear and distrust. Rajpur was also directly affected by the violence in 2002 and camps in the area gave shelter to 6,000 people. Today it is not surprising to hear frequent anti-Muslim comments from dalits in Rajpur.

The AMC runs 346 Gujarati medium schools of which 16 are in Rajpur. We interviewed over a hundred girls in one school which has been sharing the premises with an Urdu medium school for the last four years.

How is this mahol-moholla situation reflected in the schooling of girls? A point that needs to be highlighted here is that there is an adverse impact on girls of both communities. A longstanding fear psychosis prevails among both dalit and Muslim mothers of Rajpur, which has resulted in a reluctance to send girls to schools outside the moholla especially if the route to the school takes them through localities of the “other” community.

Even when the girls go to the nearby municipal school they feel compelled to escort their daughters.

Vimla, Manchhi and Dahi were some of the many dalit women, who with their families left Rajpur at the peak of the violenceof 2002. They could not go to work in the mills and factories nearby and when their meagre savings ran out, they went to eat at the relief camps. Later, a few went to stay with relatives in other parts of Ahmedabad and some went to their village. Muslim mothers too shifted to live with relatives in and outside Ahmedabad.

Schools were closed for four months and the girls who relocated missed further months of school

Like Muslim girls in Shahpur, many dalit girls do craft-based work at home to supplement the family income. A few accompany their mothers to help in work outside the home. On the whole, restrictions on leaving the home are less for dalit girls, but the mahol / moholla factor effectively restricts their access to education beyond primary level. It is not surprising to hear descriptions of feelings of fear and mistrust from Muslim girls and their mothers given the scale of violence on Muslims in 2002. The significant aspect that seems to go unnoticed is that among the Hindus too, i e, girls from the marginalised dalit communities, have been equally affected adversely by the fear psychosis resulting from communal hatred.

Presence of Police

This fear of violence erupting at any time exists not just in the women’s imagination. The area is considered so sensitive by the administration that the Rajpur Gujarati medium school is a police point. The first room of school building has been given over to the police for their use and there is round-the-clock police presence on the school premises. In our day-to-day observations during the study period, children did not appear to pay much attention to the policeman on duty. Yet, significantly, during interviews, more Muslim girls reported their fear of the police in general. Farhin of the Vith standard summed up the sentiments of many Muslim girls when she said that she felt afraid of the policeman. Afsana confessed that after 2002 she was afraid even of female police personnel because they had conducted home searches at that time.


Role of the State

As mentioned earlier, in circumstances of widening distance between the two communities, the school is perhaps the only place where children could come together, transcending their religious differences to build bonds of friendship and understanding. Though the creation of a secular society is one of the declared aims of the state, as is the promotion of fraternity, the state in Gujarat has responded to the sharpening of communal identities in a

dubious way. Within the two years in which we have been involved in this research, four Urdu schools have been closed down. The administration cites declining enrolment in Urdu schools as the reason for this. On its part the Muslim community sees it as a motivated move to deprive them of access to education.

 Another complaint is that the administration is withholding granting formal recognition to some newly established schools run by Musli
m trusts. The deliberate insensitivity of the system to the sensibilities and

priorities of the Muslim community is revealed in a move in 2004 to introduce Sanskrit as an extra language in Urdu medium schools. This again is perceived by the Muslim community as an antagonistic move.

But the most important fact emerging from this study is that the state is unable to provide the sense of security and safety needed for girls of both Muslim and dalit Hindu communities to fully access the school system. Girl children are being kept away from anything beyond the upper primary education offered in their immediate neighbourhoods. As a result the futures of girls from both communities remain circumscribed by the moholla, the mahol, puberty and poverty.

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[This is an expanded version of a paper presented at the Indian Association of Women’s Studies Conference on ‘Sovereignty, Citizenship, and Gender’ at Goa, May 3-6, 2005. Additional inputs for the paper were provided by Parvin and Hansa. The names of girls and their mothers and of the teachers have been changed to protect their identity.]