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Behind the veil, on their own terms

Sunday January 23, 2011 05:33:32 PM, Aarefa Johari

PEARL OF MALEGAON: In a textile town 250 km from Mumbai, a madrassa is offering women a degree course in religious studies alongside a modern education, giving them a chance to follow their dreams and serve as religious teachers.

(Photo: Hemant Padalkar/HT)

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Eighteen-year-old Safiya Rahatullah is old for Class 9, but she doesn’t mind. She is glad she spent four years memorising the Quran; she even leads namaz these days at the women’s mosque in the campus of her madrassa, she says.

Rahatullah will take the Class 10 state board exam next year, after which she will enroll in a four-year course in Islamic studies at her madrassa.

“Then I will become a sports journalist and write about cricket,” she says.

The madrassa Rahatullah has attended for 10 years, Kulliah Ayesha Siddiqua, offers a dual syllabus of secular and religious subjects and a course in higher religious studies for women. It is churning out woman doctors, teachers and religious scholars. The waiting list now bears scores of names from across the country; 40% of the 500 students are from Mumbai. Yet this school is nowhere near the commercial capital. It is, in fact, in Malegaon, a Muslim-majority textile town in Nashik district, about 250 km north-east of Mumbai.

Over 32 years, the Urdu-medium Kulliah Ayesha school has been doing what Mumbai’s Islamic English schools began experimenting with only a decade ago — offering devout Muslims an educational institution that helps them balance their faith and their ambitions, integrating a madrassa education with a changing, modernising world. And that is perfect for students like Rahatullah, who feels as strongly about the cricket world cup as she does about her headscarf.

Run by the Jamia Mohammediyah Education Society (JMES) trust, Kulliah Ayesha is part of the sprawling, 56-acre Mansoora Malegaon (Pearl of Malegaon) campus, which also houses a boys’ madrassa run along the same lines. Children here study math, science, English and Marathi based on the state syllabus, along with a parallel syllabus of Islamic subjects such as Sharia law, Hadith and understanding the Quran.

“Instead of focusing only on deeni (religious) studies, my father [JMES founder and Malegaon native Maulana Mukhtar Ahmad Nadvi] designed a curriculum that would help religious graduates find a place in the outside world,” says Zubeida Mukhtar, principal of Kulliah Ayesha. “I also hope to make the school semi-English over the next three years, though teachers already use a lot of English in the secondary classes.”

While some of her students leave after Class 10 to pursue a mainstream education, most prefer to become alemas (female Islamic scholars) through a four year course affiliated with Jamia Millia in Delhi and Maulana Azad Open University in Hyderabad. Next year, students will also be able to study further at Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, which is planning a women’s wing.

After their course, the women head out into either religious or secular fields.Mukhtar, incidentally, is one such crossover student, having got a Master’s degree in clinical psychology from University of Mumbai after completing her graduate religious studies course from Kulliah Ayesha. While there are several madrassas offering such graduate courses for boys in Mumbai, girls have few such options even in the metropolis. Given that this Malegaon madrassa also comes with a sports ground and computer lab, it’s not surprising that it is quite difficult to get into Kulliah Ayesha.

“Applications have been increasing every year, but we have a strict upper limit,” says Mukhtar, who maintains a 20:1 student-teacher ratio in her school. “We conduct multiple interviews to make sure our seats go to the best candidates.”

Still evolving to reach more women in more ways, the madrassa launched a unique outreach programme three years ago to help train senior students to spread their religious knowledge. Unlike alims (male scholars), who can become clerics, alemas can practice only by teaching, formally or informally.

“So now, every Sunday, we go about in Nashik, Dhule or Aurangabad districts and preach Islam to uneducated Muslim women,” says Aasiya Ibrahim, 19, who is working on a dissertation titled ‘Women in Islam’ as part of her graduate religious studies course. “We want them to understand that women can progress behind the veil.”

(Courtesy: Hindustan Times, Mumbai)







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