“Acquisition of knowledge is obligatory upon both Muslim men and women.” – Prophet Mohammad.
Education is often seen as a tool for liberation among the masses. Learning new ideas helps open new perspectives and horizons for people to explore. It is knowledge that helps people understand their material conditions in a historical context, enabling communities to tackle social, political and cultural issues appropriately.
Historically, education has been predominantly more accessible for privileged groups and communities who were able to use it as a springboard to further the class divide. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare before our eyes the severity of this issue.
Marginalised groups such as SC, ST, women and religious minorities have had limited opportunities in education due to social, cultural, religious and political obstacles. As a result, these groups have the lowest literacy rates in the country.
As per UNESCO, women’s literacy rate in India is 62.8%. As a religious group, Muslims in India have one of the lowest literacy rates. According to the 2011 census, the literacy rate for Muslims was a little over 57%. Additionally, the female literacy rate was only about 52% (one of the lowest in the country).
When it comes to higher education, according to the 2011 census, the rate of Muslim enrollment was 13.8% as compared to the national average of 23.6%. Muslims also account for only 4.4% of students enrolled in higher education institutions.
Various factors are responsible for this low participation.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) ‘s global multidimensional poverty index (MPI), 2018, one in three Muslims is multi-dimensionally poor. The term multidimensional involves indicators such as nutrition, health and education along with income.
According to a survey by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), almost 33% of Muslims live below the poverty line.
Thus, financial constraints have led to Muslim participation in education to be low. Access to good quality education also becomes an issue. This disproportionately affects female participation in Muslim households.
While financial issues are a major reason, it should also be noted that some families put restrictions on their women, which also leads to girls missing out on education.
Women, irrespective of religion, are seen as the pride of the family. The perception of higher education institutions among some families is that of “immorality”. With aspects of their lives being controlled, it is difficult for women to have a say about their future.
Religion plays an important role in a households structure and power dynamics. Education is one of the aspects affected by religion. For example, the recent decision of the Assam Government to convert madrassas to regular schools could lead to an increased dropout of female Muslim students.
Madrassas, along with other subjects, provide theological components in their syllabi, which will be removed after they’re turned into regular schools. This decision could lead to parents pulling their daughters out of school.
Being a woman presents many social challenges, but being a woman from a marginalised group presents extra obstacles. For Muslim women, their dual identities make it even more difficult for them to attain an education. If it’s not their families, the constant fear of Islamophobic bullying and violence pushes them out of school.
However, these trends have seen changes over the decades. Muslim enrollment in higher education has been increasing, from 5.3% in 2000 to 13.8% in 2010.
Between the years 2013–18, Muslim enrollment has increased by 37%. In the same period, female Muslim enrollment increased by 46%. According to the report, 49% of Muslims enrolled in higher education are women.
According to data provided in Lok Sabha in 2016, among India’s minorities, the literacy rate of Muslims showed the biggest increase (9.4%).
Affirmative action can be used to increase the participation of Muslim students further. A big divide is seen between North and South Indian Muslims with respect to education. Due to access to various scholarships, Muslim participation in higher education in South India was much higher. The proportion of Muslim students using scholarships in South India was seven times more than in North India.
Across India, half of the Muslim children who complete middle school drop out during secondary school, according to the Sachar Committee. The dropout ratio of Muslims relative to other groups is the highest in rural areas at 2.04. It is even worse in urban areas, with a ratio of 2.49.
A study by two IIT-Kharagpur researchers found that gender disparity in the Muslim community grows narrower with higher levels of education, as Muslim girls are less likely to drop out at the higher secondary level than Muslim boys.
With the shift to online classes, the digital divide has further hampered education for children from marginalised communities. Access to the internet and compatible devices makes it difficult for many to continue their education.
Data from the National Sample Survey (NSS) conducted in 2017-18 on Household Social Consumption on Education in India shows that only 3.58% of Muslims owned a computing device in rural areas. Muslims and SCs, with only 12.7% owning a computing device, are the worst-off groups in urban areas.
According to The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, only half of the women in India use mobile internet compared to men. This disproportionate access will further hit Muslim girls’ education more severely. As has been the trend, it is predominantly girls in underprivileged/marginalised families who have been denied access to online resources.
While there has been a steady improvement in female Muslim participation in education over the years, the pandemic has brought in a period of uncertainty for everyone and has severely hit any progress that was made previously.