Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Education of Muslim Girls along the Grand Trunk Road

Philip Reeves at NPR is doing a series on the Grand Trunk Road, the majestic highway that links cities in India and Pakistan. As I listened to his description of the brightly painted trucks that traverse the highway, it took me back to the fall of 1969 when I took that same road for the first time from Delhi to Calcutta. It was barely a two-lane highway at that time and traveling it took a certain amount of skill. You would barrel down the center of the highway, with a bus or truck coming directly at you from the opposite direction. At the very last second you would lean to the left (they drive on the left side of the highway, thanks to the British Empire) with the passenger wheel on the shoulder of the road. The vehicle approaching you would do the same, and you would fly pass each other with inches to spare before again taking your positions in the middle of the highway to continue down the road.

What really caught my attention, however, was not Philip's description of the Grand Trunk Road, but the Pardada Pardadi School for Girls. Sam Singh is an American citizen from India who took his life savings from working at Dupont to return to his country and open the school in northern India for 1200 girls from families who live below the poverty level. Along with their studies, they learn a practical trade they can use to support themselves (inexpensive sanitary napkins for women are one of their many products). The girls receive the equivalent of twenty cents for each day they are in school, and the lump sum is given them if they complete the 10th grade.

People like Sam Singh are heroes to me. In one sense it's not that unusual to find people like him; thousands of American citizens at this very moment scattered around the world have similarly invested their lives in the betterment of others. I have been informed that Sam is a secularist, but his actions exemplify what Jesus told his followers to do. When a wealthy young man asked him how to gain the Kingdom of God, Jesus' simple reply was, "Give your money to the poor." The desire of God's children has always been to hear God tell them at the end of the road, "Well done, and welcome home."  I hope those are the words Sam Singh will someday hear.

But something else attracted my interest. Singh says the only group with which his school has not been successful is Muslim families. Less than ten percent of Muslim girls remain in the school beyond the onset of puberty. Only one Muslim girl has graduated in the ten years of the school's history. When the reporter asked her why she was the only graduate she replied, "With Muslims there is a lot of emphasis on keeping a girl at home behind the curtain, and not allowing her to go outside."

We all know that many young Muslim women in Europe and America attend universities to obtain advanced degrees. But here's my question. If Muhammad was really a Prophet of God and if Islam is true, why is it that Muslim girls who receive higher education are often whose who live in the infidel West and are influenced by its culture and values? Why did Muhammad himself place no priority on the education of his own wives as well as the wives, sisters, and daughters of his followers?

When Muhammad's great-grandfather Abu Hashim had a son to a wife from Medina, he stipulated that son (who was Muhammad's grandfather Abdel Mutalib) should spend his childhood in Medina to learn religion from the Jewish rabbis there. As a result of the education he received from these rabbis, Abdel Mutalib was an educated, literate man. Muhammad could have given his nine-year-old child bride, Aysha, the same opportunity in Medina. Instead he kept her and his other wives behind locked doors and beheaded and expelled the Jewish community who were the only educated people in the entire city.

I noticed something interesting today while re-reading the charter established by Muhammad soon after his migration to Medina from Mecca. He was the new sheriff in town with new rules. One sentence stuck out to me, the only sentence in the entire document that mentions women, "A woman shall only be given protection with the consent of her family."

The message could not be more clear. The woman has no value, few rights and choices, and no protection unless her family chooses to give them to her. She lives under the control of her family, and specifically its male members. Is it any wonder that 1400 years later Sam Singh cannot find Muslim girls whose families value them enough to allow them to graduate from the Pardada Pardadi School for Girls?


observant observer said...

Poor Muslim girls!
But some of the muslim girlfriends I have, who have the privilege of getting education abroad, still insist on wearing veils, jump to hide behind the door if some young men happen to pass by her house..!
This is on the base of thinking that their very own presence would lead men's thought to some lusty imagination...! Believing that holding hands with boys is haram, and getting married would be much better if arranged so they don't have to go through haram/unlawful courtship!

Unknown said...

All men and women deserve equal rights.

sara said...

I read an article the other day about how Saudi Arabia (KSA) wants to streamline a lot of their government bureaucracy to attract foreign investment. Basically they are instituting historic reforms to make it easier for foreign companies to do business in KSA. It made me sad to think that KSA was willing to quickly bend over backwards to appeal to a foreign company but don't seem to consider the potential of empowering half of the countries brain power.

Y? said...

Hi there!Thanks for this. This made for a very interesting read.
I just believe that when we dig into the histories of our religions and cultures, all of us have inherited different degrees of patriarchy - muslim, hindu , christian .

While I think that a historical context is always important, it is very important to recognize that there are many types of islams and many progressive islams which still embrace the most beautiful qualities of the religion and adapt it to the modern world.

While in India where i live , muslims continue to be subjugated by the majority Hindus and right wing groups,many muslim women in india in the lower middle class to upper classes are no different from their female counterparts in the rest of the world , having an education etc. Many of my female muslim friends are doctors, journalists, corporate women and some of them choose to wear the veil even though they don't have to.

From what I know of Sam he doesn't follow any religion nor was he born christian but i might be wrong