Since my childhood I witnessed prejudice even in modern progressive families, particularly on educating the girl child. I was born in such an atmosphere, and through my interactions during my work in different villages, my observation was further strengthened: girls are excluded from schools.
I was born into a moderate Muslim family in a place called Bijnore, India, an area with a high Muslim population. This is a place where young girls were not allowed to go to school – not even primary school. I was privileged though that my parents moved to Delhi, India’s capital, when I was just an infant. This meant that I was able to attend school and get an education, something I may not have been able to do in my parent’s town.
We went back to Bijnore every summer to visit friends and family. And soon the realization that my female cousins were not serious about their studies dawned upon me. In fact, they had been told they had to learn and do household chores instead of focusing on their studies, as it would not help them get married. They were not allowed to go outside, work and become economically independent. On the other hand, my male cousins were going to college and getting an education.
I was too young to understand the discrimination in modern progressive families regarding a girl child’s education. Gradually, however, I realized that most of the girls in nearby communities and villages did not even go to school – not even primary school. They knew how to cook food for their siblings but not how to write their names.
As we grew older, the visits to the villages reduced. The summer vacations were for us to catch up on our studies. I started taking up internships and volunteering in organizations as my mother wanted me to learn and do things she could not. My mom was a teacher then. But she had to withdraw from teaching as she had to take care of us, her children, and wasn’t encouraged to do both jobs at the same time.
When I was 22 years old I heard about CRY (Child Rights and You). CRY provides research fellowships for studies on children’s rights. I wrote my proposal and submitted it to the CRY research team to examine the ‘Exclusion of Muslim Girls from School’. Fortunately, my proposal was selected and I was awarded a research fellowship to go to remote villages and examine the situation and reasons for the exclusion of Muslim girls from school. As it was an independent research study, I conducted it in three very remote and poor villages in the Rampur district of the western part of Uttar Pradesh, one of the biggest and the most densely populated states of India. The Rampur district also has a very high percentage of Muslims.
I had been to villages like this before. I had an idea of what to expect, as I had studied Social Work and had been on visits to similar areas before. But this was my first independent visit to a village, and working on such a sensitive issue. On the one hand, I had the privilege of being a Muslim so I could understand their local customs and culture, but on the other, it was shocking to the local villagers for a young girl to be able to come alone from Delhi.
I was very young but I stayed there for a few months and explored the possibilities of helping those girls to go to school. I had access to data of nearby villages where girls were not going to school and the many stigmas attached to girls’ education. They believed that girls should not get education because once they get educated no one would marry them; that if any boy saw the girls on their way to school, no one would accept them; or even that hindu teachers would teach their daughters bad things about Muslims and force them to get converted to Hinduism.
These were some of the reasons I encountered during my interactions in the village. But I couldn’t react to the bizarre explanations as these were thoughts that had become part of a collective belief imposed by the revered religious leaders.
As a young peacebuilder I realized it was up to me to support these young girls in going to school. I realized that religion could be a barrier. Talking against religion could make one a social outcast. I personally would consider myself religious. But if religion means depriving people of their rights then I don’t think I am religious. And because of this stand people in the villages were becoming hostile towards me. Some said that they would not allow their daughters to meet me, others said that I was not a true Muslim since I did not use the hijab or the burqa. It was quite frustrating.
As a young peacebuilder, however, I took it up as a challenge. Despite the barbs, I was confident in my identity of being a true Muslim. I was, after all, brought up with the idea that our religion teaches us to always help others.
I stayed there for two months to understand the situation, map the resources available, talk with schools and Madrasas (religious institutions) and contact NGOs. Then I developed an interview schedule and kept going there to collect data based on one-on-one interviews and focused group discussions. I read up on books on the status of Muslim people’s education in India. After a year, I completed my study, developed my report, submitted it to CRY and initiated a discussion with local NGOs to ensure that young girls went to school.
After a long struggle of meeting with schools, local NGOs and parents, I finally succeeded!
Local NGOs helped me meet with the religious leaders. I told them that I was also a Muslim girl who lived in Delhi and was keen on getting my sisters to go to school. Initially, it was quite tough. I was shunned by many religious leaders who thought I was not a true Muslim just because I did not cover my head and face. However, after a lot of perseverance, I was allowed to talk to the parents of girls. The local leaders there introduced me to the them These were some of the initial hurdles that I had to overcome to beat the longstanding stigmas associated to girl child education. This was the first step to bringing a positive change in the society.
My mother has been my biggest influence and support. She was the youngest of eight siblings. Her eldest sister, who was like a mother to her, helped her get an education. But she still had not realized her potential. She was great at sports and could have been a state level long jumper but she was not allowed. And that is when, perhaps, she decided that her daughters would have all the opportunities in the world. it is thanks to her that I am a peacebuilder today.
Story: Iram Parveen is a 26 year old Peacebuilder who works for Oxfam India. She is currently promoting active citizenship by teaching leadership skills in schools, colleges, rural communities and areas of high deprivation. She is also a member of the Global Youth Advocacy Team which was formed to work on the themes of youth, security and peace, which consists of a group of 8 young people globally.
Artist: Justine Chen – The girl in the picture is locked behind the restrictions of her society. The spikes pointing at her, represent the dangers of Trying to leave this situation behind. However, because of the author’s efforts to convince these Muslim families to educate their kids, the spikes have been slightly dented to represent progress. The swirl like pattern represents clouds that fog the outside world’s understanding of this problem. Around them there is stitching that represents how this situation was fabricated, but like stitches, this problem can be taken apart. The random, rigid shapes are pieces of the solution that need to be put together. The diamonds in between are cracked like this norm the author is breaking to create a better world for future Muslim girls. The circular shapes are targets on them because of the criticism they may suffer. Finally, coming out of the piece, there are rays of sun, suggesting that if the author keeps doing what she is doing, better days are here to come.