EDUCATION MATTERS

In a Meo Muslim village in Rajasthan, education has opened up new possibilities for girls

Breaking long-held taboos and gender biases, girls of conservative Meo Muslim community in Alwar have convinced their parents to put them into school.

Thekra in Rajasthan has a predominance of Meo Muslims who are believed to have settled in the village 240 years ago. Girls of Thekra have broken taboos and gender biases and compelled their illiterate parents to enroll them in school.

Literacy among Meo children, especially girls, has been dismally low. Initiatives by a few villagers and constant awareness drives by the functionaries of a local NGO have helped in creating an enabling environment for the girls to study, curbing dropouts and preventing them from other discriminations. Female literacy of Thekra, which was 39% as per the 2011 Census, has risen to 60%.

The village in the Mewat region of Alwar district has a population of over 2,000, where Meo Muslims live amicably with Dalits, who comprise 10% of the population. Nestled in the semi-arid zone of Rajasthan where groundwater level has dropped down to 1,500 ft, villagers grow onion, bajra, mustard and gram. Apart from farming, the villagers are into cattle-rearing.

According to Fakhruddin, a resident, the majority of the boys in the village were busy grazing cattle or taking care of their siblings, shunning studies. “Till 2003, children of our village had to walk a kilometer and cross the railway track to go to school,” 53-year-old Ali Sher told VillageSquare.in.“Two boys of a family died in an accident while crossing the track. Then boys of our village dropped out of school as their parents were scared to send them to the school.” The literacy status started to change in 2004, when Matsya Mewat Shiksha evam Vikas Sansthan, a local NGO, persuaded the villagers to open a school.

Adaptive education

“The changes that you see today have been possible due to MMSVS [Matsya Mewat Shiksha evam Vikas],” said Fakhruddin. “When they started their work, nobody believed them. Maulana Hanif helped in developing a congenial environment.”

Maulana Hanif, a progressive cleric and president of the NGO, agreed that there was a lot of resistance initially. But he and his functionaries persisted without losing hope. “I told the villagers that along with dini talim (religious education), children need buniyadi talim(basic education) and duniyavi talim (formal education) also,” he said. “It struck a positive chord.”

While villagers like Ali Sher, Fakhruddin and Ali Mohammad supported the initiative, many opposed it. But they too became supportive after seeing the results.

Ali Sher provided a room and a veranda to open the Dr Ved Kumari Smriti Vidyalaya. Illiterate but articulate, he said, “I was convinced as their focus was more on education of girl children. My eldest daughter, Imrana was among the first batch of learners.” When boys started coming to the school, the shift was planned in such a manner that they did not miss the responsibility of grazing their cattle.

The teachers went on a door-to-door campaign. Then girls also started coming. Boys were charged Rs 20 as monthly fee and girls Rs 10. Now girls in the school outnumber boys. The impact of the school being evident, Ali Sher donated 6 biswa (49.17 acre) of land to Matsya Mewat Shiksha evam Vikas in 2006, to construct a building for the school.

Empowering girls

Education has played a big role in the lives of women of Thekra. “The school has changed the lives of many of the girls in our village,” said Ali Sher.

The local school in Thekra village has led to a considerable increase in female literacy. Photo credit: Tarun Kanti Bose.
The local school in Thekra village has led to a considerable increase in female literacy. Photo credit: Tarun Kanti Bose.

“I have always encouraged my daughters to study and build their careers. My husband, a peddler selling clothes, never interfered,” said 55-year-old Mishri. However, her sons objected to schooling the girls. When Mishri failed to convince them, she snapped all ties with her sons. Such is Mishri’s conviction about educating girls. “Not only did I get my daughters educated but I got my granddaughters admitted in the village school,” she told VillageSquare.in with pride.

Acknowledging Mishri’s role, her 22-year-old daughter Alvida said, “My ammi has been a pillar of strength. We are four girls. Ammi has always encouraged us to study and carve a niche for ourselves.”

After completing her graduation, she is doing BEd. Her older sister 24-year-old Akhtari acknowledges that it was her education that came to her help in her hour of desperation. “When my husband deserted me I could be independent,” she told VillageSquare.in. “Since I had completed Class 12, I could get a job in Swachh Bharat Mission and earn my livelihood.”

Vakila was married after she passed the Class 10 board exams, to a boy much younger, who had studied only up to Class 6. She rejected her marriage and refused to go to her parents-in-law’s house. She continued her studies and now she is a teacher who is financially independent.

Giving wing to dreams

The first batch of learners as well as the successive batches has shown their mettle in different fields. Warisha, who was among the first batch of learners, was selected by Terres Des Hommes, a children’s rights organisation, to represent India at the World Social Forum in 2007 at Nairobi. But unfortunately, Warisha could not go since she did not have a passport.

Ali Sher recounts the patience with which the teachers handle children, instilling confidence in them. His eldest daughter, one of the first batch of students of the school, passed Class 8 in the village. When the government school refused to enroll her, she took the exam and cleared the board exam with good marks.

The school has not only helped girl children but even women who had dropped out of school due to early marriage, as in the case of 30-year-old Farmina, who passed Class 8 in 2012 under the bridge course. “Seeing my commitment towards studies, my husband Fakhruddin enrolled me in the center run by MMSVS. My husband, though illiterate has always been supportive,” Farmina told VillageSquare.in.

Undeterred by taunts and derogatory remarks of her extended family, she studied and passed Class 8 board exams and plans to appear for Class 10 board exams too. Besides supporting her, her husband motivates villagers to send their daughters to school. “After passing Class 8, my confidence level has increased. I contested the panchayat elections and I became chairperson of the panchayat samiti,” she informed VillageSquare.in with pride.

Ali Sher’s younger daughter Shabana, studying in Class 11 at SMD Government Girls’ School, Alwar, credits her schooling at Ved Kumar Smriti Vidyalaya for her high marks in Class 10 exams. She stays in a hostel. She has taken science stream as she aspires to be a doctor. “Though it’s difficult to crack the medical entrance exams, if I’m able to, I can serve my community, which has not produced any doctor,” she told VillageSquare.in.

Progressive changes

In a conservative milieu, where girls were confined within the walls of the house, now they move freely and travel to Alwar, Jaipur and other cities for studies. Meo girls have started working in Gurgaon, Delhi and Bangalore. But the most important outcome of educating Meo Muslim children is ending child marriages in the village.

The awakening brought among the Meo Muslims has produced desirable results but to make it sustainable it needs support from the Government too, which seems to be passing on its responsibilities to private players.

Tarun Kanti Bose is a New Delhi-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Village Square.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.