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  • Education as a Path to “Being Someone”Muslim Women’s Narratives of Aspiration, Obstacles, and Achievement in an Impoverished Basti in Kolkata, India
  • Suchitra Samanta (bio)

the status of muslim female literacy globally and in india

In a contemporary context of depressing numbers for especially Muslim female literacy rates overall in India today, I present the voices of young women and girls from an impoverished, Muslim-majority basti community in southwestern Kolkata, India.1 In narratives that speak of aspirations to education as a path to “being someone,” of economic, health, culture, and gender-related obstacles they encounter as well as in the educational achievements of three women from the basti—Nayla, Shahnaz, and Samiya—I explore what they mean by “being someone.” What are the educational goals the women envisage, what gets in their way, what factors contribute to their (relative) success? How do they compare with other Muslim girls in the basti? What kind of exemplars are they to those other girls?

My research is grounded in field research I conducted between 1997–2002 in a majority-Muslim slum (basti) in Kolkata (West Bengal state), observing a community-based organization’s initiatives to promote female literacy at all levels and recording the obstacles faced by girls in getting an education.2 In the women’s narratives I document, I present the complex reality that underlies the path to an education for the basti’s women. Their educational achievements, and what it takes to get there, are, I suggest, more productively understood in comparison with and in relation to (a) those Muslim girls of the basti who were aspiring to simply literacy and a primary school-level education (nonformal education in home school); and (b) those girls in the Roshni tutorial program, from formal schools serving the basti area, who wished to matriculate (class 10), or go on to post-secondary education (classes 11 and 12, and then to three years in college for a bachelor’s degree). But to be effective exemplars—which Nayla, Shahnaz, and Samiya assert they are—it is the path [End Page 151] by which they achieved their goals, their perseverance in the face of considerable odds, that they served as role models for the two cohorts of Muslim girls described in the basti.

Globally the status of Muslim women is mixed and diverse. Conway and Bourque note that educational systems are microcosms of the gender systems of the societies in which they operate, and that access to both formal and nonformal education is linked to a greater sense of self-esteem and empowerment for women.3 In a later collection of essays the cultural bias against female education in India and Pakistan is noted, as is the need for fundamental changes in patriarchal structures of society (which have not caught up to legal changes). Yet in the case of Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation, women share greater similarities with its southeastern neighbors and are active in the market and in public life—even as gender inequities exist.4 John Esposito observes that the general status of Muslim women across the world is varied and is impacted by a nation’s economy, levels of literacy, and economic development as well as by religion.5 However, even as patriarchy and its legitimation by religion prosper in many Muslim nations, there are challenges. Citing the 2007 Gallup World Poll, Esposito observes that in many conservative Muslim nations a majority supports women’s equal rights, citing 61% of Saudis, 85% of Iranians, and 90% of Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Turks who do so. A woman’s right to vote without interference by family is supported by 80% in Indonesia, 89% in Iran, 67% in Pakistan, and 56% in Saudi Arabia. But, Esposito notes, contradictions abound. For example, even though Saudi women own 70% of savings in banks, and 61% of private firms, they do not vote, are segregated, are restricted to “appropriate” professions, and are not allowed to drive.6 In Morocco 20% of judges are women, yet post-secondary education in this nation falls to 8%. Iranian women, while compelled to veil, attend university in larger numbers than men, at 52%.7 Nussbaum, referring to the Education...


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pp. 151-174
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