A Study of Ahle-Hadith Girls’ Madrassas in Rural West Bengal
By Seema Ahmed
‘Being Muslim in South Asia’ does not mean belonging to a homogenous category. In South Asia, ‘diversity is undeniable, and it is a diversity that exists under the broad mantle of the Quran’ (Jeffrey and Sen, 2004: XVII). The Muslim community differs also on the basis of language, culture, and region. Muslims in many South Asian countries form the largest minority group, primarily based on religion. In India, for the rights of Muslims and other minority communities, the Constitution has provided many ‘affirmative actions’ and upholds ‘protective discrimination’. In spite of these measures, the dismal condition of Muslims still persists. The Sachar Committee Report in 2006 has highlighted the fact that Muslims are socio-economically and educationally more deprived than other religious communities, along with the Dalits and adivasis. The ‘Muslim question’ in India now rests on their identity as a ‘deprived community’ (Islam, 2012:63-68).
If we concentrate on the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in West Bengal, their abysmal condition reflects the predicament of their Indian counterparts. “Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal: A Report” in 2016 has clearly reinforced this claim. However, we need to understand the Muslim question intersectionally and my focus in this paper is on the ‘Muslim women’s question’, which has hitherto been left unaddressed, unlike the upper caste Hindu women question. The Shah Bano controversy in 1985-86 triggered the ‘Muslim women’s question’ (and the Muslim question in general) in postcolonial India (Islam, 2012:63-68). Under the regime of the current BJP-led NDA government, the Muslim women’s question gets more intense with debates on the validity of triple talaq and the introduction of UCC. Keeping these aspects aside, if we narrow down the focus to the educational performance of the Muslim women, their participation in the educational scenario is striking. The Muslim Women’s Survey (MWS in 2004), conducted by Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon, has drawn attention to the unequal citizenship of Muslim women. Although the Report, “Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal” (2016), shows that Muslims in West Bengal are a highly educationally deprived community, it does not provide any gender segregated data. If this is the general picture, then the educational condition of Muslim women is a matter of much concern. Such a scenario prompted me to think deeply about Muslim women’s education and the role played by community-led educational institutions.
Educational Rights of Muslims
The Constitution of India has clearly safeguarded the educational rights ‘for the proper educational development of the minorities’ in two articles. The Article 29(2) is for the protection of educational interests of minorities; the Article 30(1), which is relevant for this paper, states:
All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.
The role of government-run educational institutions in educating the community has increased in the 21st century. But there still persists traditional institutions fostered by the community itself all over India and other South Asian countries. These traditional institutions are also marked by heterogeneity and are based on different ideological approaches to Islam. In India, Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband is a famous madrasa for boys. Dar-ul- Uloom Mau Nath Bhanjan (MAU) initially catered education to boys exclusively but later on it provided education to girls as well. Apart from UP, West Bengal also has several community-led educational institutions for boys and girls.
Private Muslim girls’ madrasas are popularly known as banat. The term ‘banat’ came from the Arabic word ‘bantun’, which means women. It is believed that the first Muslim girls’ madrasa or banat was established in Nasik, Maharashtra. Then it spread to UP, Bihar, West Bengal, and other states of India. We will concentrate here on girls’ madrasas in West Bengal.
Study of Selected Girls’ Madrassas
For the purpose of study, I have selected two girls’ madrasas from the district of Malda. These are Jamia Fatematuj Jahra and Tauhidnagar Jamia Khadijatul Kubra. The first one is situated in English Bazar block and the other in Chanchal I. I have conducted interviews with madrasa authorities, few teachers, and students.
Moulana Abdul Matin Salafi, an Islamic scholar himself, was the influential figure behind the establishment of both these madrasas. He established the first girls’ madrasa in Kisanganj, Bihar; Malda in West Bengal was the first district to be influenced by his vision. Md. Nurul Islam, the founder of the first girls’ madrasa in Malda, Jamia Fatematuj Jahra (1989), was also an influential personality in this regard. He felt the ardent need of educating Muslim women in religious knowledge and was influenced by the religious fervour of Abdul Matin Salafi. Moulana Abdul Matin was directly associated with the establishment of the second madrasa, Tauhidnagar Jamia Khadijatul Kubra (1992). At present, there are 14 girls’ madrasas (Ahle- Hadith) in Malda district.
Students of these madrasas are from various districts such as North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Murshidabad, and Malda. The most interesting thing is that such institutions flourish in a particular socio-cultural context and attract students from particular sects such as Barelvi and Ahle Hadith. Bangal, badia, and khotta are some of the variations within the Muslim community. Girls from these particular sections show the highest zeal for admission into these institutions. Parents of these students belong mostly to lower class and lower-middle class background. The availability of both dini and dunyavi education attracts them in most cases. Both these madrasas belong to the ideology of Ahle-Hadith, which prioritizes the scriptural version of Islam over popular Islam.
Commonalities between these madrassas
There are certain commonalities between these two madrasas:
- Both these madrasas are managed by a society, which is registered under the Society Act.
- These madrasas have residential facility.
- The ideology behind these two institutions was to give not only religious education but also to offer an Islamic philosophy of life.
- These institutions were invited by the West Bengal Government to come under its banner, after accepting its terms and conditions. But the madrasa authorities refused to do so. According to them, if they accepted the proposal they would have to compromise with the syllabus, which they do not want. They do not want to lose their identity and the ideology with which these institutes were started.
- They refused the proposal of the Government for financial assistance as they prefer to depend on public donations. Fees are collected from its students, through public donations in the form of fitra and zakat, and through collections during Jalsa. Many people anonymously send their help in the form of money and goods. They are also trying to create an account through which foreign donations could be accepted, especially from Arab and other Middle Eastern Muslim countries.
- The entire period of study (up to class XI) is called Fareg. Both the madrasas offer fareg degree. For the last two years, Jamia Fatematuj Jahra is not offering the study of class XI due to some problem.
- In the beginning the authorities of these madrasas followed the syllabus of Dars-e-Nizami. But slowly they realized the changing desires of the community to keep pace with the modern world. So they included ‘modern subjects’ in their syllabus.
- These institutions usually remain affiliated to government-run senior madrasas, which enables them to provide degrees to its students. These degrees help their students while applying for government jobs. They prefer senior madrasas for the similitude of the syllabus.
- Rooms in these institutions serve the purpose of both living and conducting classes. Few sections of the banat management committee justify this phenomenon on the ground of scarcity of rooms and few see this as natural because the philosophy of the institution is to combine living and studying.
- They have libraries but books on religious subjects are the only ones available there.
- These madrasas do not bring out any magazine or prospectus.
- Every Thursday, they arrange a cultural programme which is known as anjuman. Speeches on religious themes, ghazals, hamd, and nyat are performed in this programme. The authorities also arrange an annual jalsa in which some of the students take part.
Differences between these madrassas
Though these madrassas belong to the same ideology, they also have dissimilarity:
- While Jamia Fatematuj Jahra is managed by the family members of the founder, Tauhidnagar Jamia Khadijatul Kubra is governed by both the family members and local authorities like gram pradhan.
- Over time, both these madrasas have developed their own syllabus. While their syllabus contains the same modern subjects, there is a difference in the selection of religious subjects.
- Jamia Fatematuj Jahra uses modern equipments like computer, etc. Though the number of computers is limited at present, the authorities want to increase its number in future for the benefit of its students. This madrasa also arranges activities for the economic development of the community women and the madrasa. After the completion of their work at the madrasa, the teachers offer free education to illiterate female workers.
Madrassa Education: Between Tradition and Modernity
Without the emancipation of its largest minority section, the state can never achieve its desired goal. Women, who are regarded as the ‘second sex’, are still engaged in a struggle for carving out ‘a room of one’s own’.
Muslim girls from rural Malda are mostly first and second generation learners. Education of their parents has a direct correlation with their own educational achievements. While the community is still trapped in orthodoxy with modernity making fleeting presence, the girls from the community show higher aspirations for education and jobs. Most of the girl students are also aware of the importance of economic independence. Autonomy of self (regarding decision-making), rights of women, etc. are some of the issues with which they are very familiar. This becomes evident from their words, when they are asked, ‘Why do you want to pursue education?’
The role that an academic institution plays in shaping an individual’s life also falls under the purview of critical analysis. Though it originated as a purely traditional domain of education, banat has undergone various changes and included many modern subjects in its syllabus. Banat can be analysed as a ‘total institution’ for the ‘disciplinary mechanisms’ it employs to groom its students in a particular way of living. The ‘habitus’ of banat instructs them a particular kind of socialization and shapes them in the mould of Islamic womanhood. But it can also be viewed as a tool of authority and agency. Religious knowledge not only ascribes to them the ‘ideal virtuous self’, which allows them to enjoy certain kind of authority in society, but also provides agency in certain respect. They can usually opt for the teaching profession either in government educational institutions or in banats. These madrasas can also be viewed as a space, where the tradition and the modernity amalgamate (as suggested by Rudolph and Rudolph) and where the tradition absorbs modernity and vice versa.
Government Incentive for Alternative Education
Though the West Bengal government tries to be inclusive keeping in mind its rich religious diversity – manifested in its educational schemes, which recognise institutions based on religious subjects – it has certain limitations. After the study of selected girls’ madrasas, I was able to make a few observations. First, these madrasas sprout where there is a scarcity of government educational institutions. Second, the government should re-visit its madrasa modernization programme and extend its frontiers. Without being conditional, the government should actually care for the educational emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women and the community in general. It can provide incentives to the community institutions in various ways: by arranging training for the teachers of these institutions at the block/district level; by organizing workshops for the students both on subjects and career options; by supporting of the Minority Department, etc. Third, in rural areas, people do not usually have an encouraging environment for education. Muslim girls become victims of large family size and poverty and embrace early marriage. The loosening of educational structure (ambience) in government schools has devalued the quality of education and has left a direct impact on students. Girls’ madrasas, in such a situation, provide the sense of a safe space (by including both modern and religious education) to the parents. Fourth, although these madrasas do not provide a wide range of opportunities to its students, they still function as an alternative education system by offering agency, mobility, confidence, and empowerment to the girls in rural areas.
After considering all these facets, if we address the philosophical aspect of education, we will immediately confront the much deeper issue of state-citizen relationship. The state always attempts to homogenise everything that comes its way in order to swiftly run its mechanisms. This nature of the state gets aptly manifested in its approach to education. The state always stresses on the instrumental worth of education, which overwhelms other aspects of it. The intrinsic value of education as human ‘flourishing’ is undermined by the blanket expression of the state. The citizens sometimes are caught in a dilemma. They want to seek their own space in the system independent of the state; at the same time, they must be a part of it by entering the labour market for earning a livelihood. Groups of citizens often resist the state’s encroachment into their private sphere. In this context, banat emerges as the epitome of such resistance. Labelling the education system as regressive or progressive actually diminishes the broad mantle of education and it negates the transcendent quality of education. Without attributing a monolithic identity to education, what is needed is diversity. India fosters many such unrecognised educational systems. The state may enlarge its contours and offer space to many such community efforts to spread education. Above all, more discussions about these institutions are needed, so that people can form a clear perception about these alternative educational institutions without prejudice.
 A term, coined by Simone de Beauvoir, suggests the position of women in a patriarchal society.
 The term is taken from Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own, which deals with women’s position in a patriarchal society.
 A term used by Foucault and cited in Winkelmann, 2005.
 Foucault used the term ‘disciplinary’ but the term ‘disciplinary mechanisms’ is cited in Winkelmann, 2005. It may be described as the said and the unsaid rules of Banat like praying five times, strict maintenance of Islamic rituals, and the system of purdah.
 According to Bourdieu, ‘habitus’ refers to the unconscious elements that contribute to the formation of atmosphere in a particular group.
 A term cited in Winkelmann, 2005.
 Rudolph and Rudolph proposed this in The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (1984).
 A term used by Martha Nussbaum.
Photo: Seema Ahmed
Seema Ahmed currently works as assistant teacher at B.S.B. High School in Malda, West Bengal. She has completed M.Phil. at the Institute for Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK) in 2015. Her areas of research include Muslim women’s writings, the condition of Muslim women (and Muslims in general) in India and madrasa education.
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