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By Adil Bhat

The discourse on religious ‘reform’ in Muslim societies has largely centred on the figure of the Muslim woman. This has been an ongoing process, evolving throughout the periods of colonisation, decolonisation and the making of nation-states in South Asia, in particular Pakistan and India. Tracing these periods of political transition and evolution, Shenila Khoja-Moolji in her book, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia, interrogates the “sedimented knowledges about the girl and her education” and offers convergent and divergent articulations on the subject of the educated Muslim girl.
Unearthing archives of 19th century journals and post-colonial narratives on education, Islam and gender, Khoja-Moolji puts forward the ever-evolving competing voices of both male and female ‘reformers’ that intersect with the making of a nation and the construction of religion and class relations. Through these competing voices, the author makes an attempt to understand their rationale behind encouraging or discouraging girls’ education, their demand for the ideal curriculum for girls and the need for finding the most suitable place to impart education to girls.
In giving this historical account of a multiplicity of views, Khoja-Moolji’s study is embedded in the cultural context of the female Muslim subject and involves a reading of a wide range of texts, including novels, political pamphlets, government documents, periodicals and television among others. Reflecting over the “competing conceptions of feminine subjectivity”, Khoja-Moolji examines these texts that have shaped the discourse on the production of ideal educated girlhood in Muslim societies in British India, the first decade of Pakistan’s genesis and contemporary Pakistan.
In taking up the call for Indian women’s education, the British signalled their superiority “through laws centring on the female body.” These laws included the Sati Abolition Act (1829), the Widows’ Remarriage Act (1856) and the Age of Consent Act (1891). With this interest in female education in India, education became the “technology of colonialist subjectification” for the British who represented the colonised as inferior and, in the process of devising strategies for self-disciplining, sedimented the relations of power and exploitation. It is here that Muslims emerged as one of the key targets of reform in conformity with the British. The policy shifts during British colonial rule led to a transformation in women’s roles that was entwined with religion becoming privatised and the waning of the ulemas’ religious authority.
In this context, a struggle for a new social order began, wherein anxious male social reformers called for reorganising their institutions of learning and set out to professionalise themselves. With women’s emergence as a “key discursive space”, the social reformers directed their focus on education that would help improve women’s religious practices, household, gender relations and strengthening of familial ties. This trend continued in Pakistan where women became the “central discursive site through which social issues were debated.” In this nation-making process, the idea of the ideal educated (female) subjects intersected with debates on national identity, economic development and modernisation.
With the surfacing of multiple articulations on what it means to be an educated woman, Khoja-Moolji argues that “education, girlhood and womanhood are not static, rigid formations” and that social negotiations show that there is an “inherent diversity in what constitutes an ideal educated Muslim girl.” This diversity is visible in the archival information produced by Khoja-Moolji and in the political realities of present-day Pakistan and other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, where the “use of women’s cause is a justification for military intervention.”
In mapping the ongoing debates about women’s education, the author relies on political writings, speeches and didactic novels of prominent Muslim social reformers. Of the several texts examined in the book, the most interesting are women’s writings in the 20th century that appeared in three periodicals — Tehzeeb-i-Niswaan, Ismat and Khatoon — referred to as “the big three.” Ismat is the only magazine that has survived to the present day. The views and counter-views of women writers in these periodicals show that “women were not silent objects of reform projects, but actively engaged with them.” This marks a departure from the common understanding of Muslim women as silent purveyors of reform to active participants in reform projects.
Notably, with the publication of each issue of these journals, the discourse on women’s education also evolved, revolving around intense debates on matters pertaining to “appropriate knowledge, purpose of education and space for education.” However, this does not mean that women differed radically from the view of male counterparts. Women’s writings, Khoja-Moolji argues, were “part of the same knowledge regime.” For instance, in an issue of Ismat, Begum Saheba Rizvi, daughter of MaulviBashiruddin, produced a dichotomy between English versus Islamic knowledge, rejecting English knowledge as “unnecessary” for women.
Arguing in the same breath was prominent Muslim scholar, education reformer and leader of the Aligarh Movement, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who believed that it was not necessary to invest in women’s public education, emphasising boys’ education over girls’ and relying on the trickle-down theory, whereby the men in the family would educate their wives, sisters and daughters, who would in turn transmit education to their children.
Similarly, there were debates on the issue of the content of education for women, varying from religious knowledge to universal knowledge. These differences reflect the nuances of social class and their varying assumptions about women’s social roles. While Mumtaz Ali, an advocate of women’s education, believed that an educated woman would be a better and interesting companion to her husband, the other more liberal voice was that of Agha Khan III, who emphasised that all knowledge in the world should be open to girls, which would empower them to fight for their rights. Thus, Agha Khan called for universal education to increase women’s “independence from patriarchal control” and the views espoused by Ali — for educated women as better companions — “reformulated patriarchal control.”
This dichotomy between religious and English knowledge was seen among women reformers and writers as well. The apprehension over “appropriate knowledge” for women was embedded in fear of Christian proselytisation in English schools as well as in the study of what was considered “irrelevant literary texts written by Western scholars.”
The author notes that this tension around appropriate knowledge continues to persist in post-independence Pakistan, where those who were educated in convent/missionary schools came to be marked as “failed subjects.” With a myriad challenges faced by the newly formed Pakistan, there was extensive discussion on what constituted a “Pakistani” — an ideal Pakistani citizen-subject. In advancing the state’s agenda of development and modernisation, the idea of the ideal educated girl emerged at the “nexus of discourses on nation building, modernisation and religion.” The journey of modernisation undertaken by the nation-in-the-making travelled through political phases — from Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s secularist principles to Liaquat Ali Khan’s support to Islamist elements in passing of the 1949 Objectives Resolution that declared Islam as the religion of the state, and much further in the 1950s and ’60s when undemocratic and conservatives tendencies were entrenched in the centralised polity of the country.