Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Winds of Change?

Hindustan Times is running an interesting series of articles, which shows how Indian Muslims navigate between religion and the modern world to create a better life for themselves. As I glanced through this series, I was especially moved by the story of Samina and Zarina, who had to fight the local maulvi to get an education. Their story brings to mind many others that took place over a hundred years ago in Hindu homes--when girls were told that educated women tended to get widowed young. Thirty years ago, when my mother used to teach a course in Interior Design in a Delhi polytechnic for women, the principal told her of parents who would say that they feared to give their daughters a professional education, because the girls would never marry. My mother, who'd completed a BFA from Kolkata, told her not to worry, because a woman's education would, in the future, be a better investment than a dowry, because she would be able to add to her husband's income. Today, she's been proved right--all her ex-students are working women, who have set up their own businesses and are doing well.

Why is it that men of religion, whether Hindus, Muslims or Christians of all shades, have attempted to prevent women from gaining an education and financial independence? Is it only to keep the power centres of society intact, to prevent women from having any say in their own lives? Samina and Zarina have managed to get an education--luckily, the Prophet (peace be upon him!) said that those who wished to get an education should go wherever they could find it, even if it was as far as China. The nineteenth century scientists who opposed women seeking higher education spoke of how it would damage their health. The first women medical students had to face protests from their male colleagues and had to be chaperoned to classes. None of the men would even speak to them--etiquette ruled that a man and a woman could only converse after a proper introduction! We've come a long way, but we have to go further still--when education and financial independence for women is not something they have to beg for, but something that is their birthright, wherever they live on the face of this earth.

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