About a decade ago, when Latika Gupta began her teaching career at a reputed Delhi University college, she became curious about “the interplay of religion and gender in the lives of girls” and thus set out on a journey to explore this rather untouched facet. The result? Her just-released book, “Education, Poverty and Gender: Schooling Muslim Girls in India”, focuses on how the academic life of its students is affected by their religion and culture by examining the interplay between “home” and “school”.
Gupta, now an Assistant Professor at the University’s Central Institute of Education, was then teaching a course which offered opportunities to young girls to reflect on their own socialisation. Barring one or two of her students, she noticed among the rest an attitude of indifference towards their individual development and determination to adhere to the cultural norms.
“I often wondered why my students did not feel embarrassed when they missed classes on account of their participation in religious rituals at home or for household chores. What stopped them from developing a sense of stake in themselves and investing more energy in their education? It became my personal agenda to locate the forces which shape girls’ life and self-identity,” Gupta told IANS in an interview.
Her book attempts to explore the intertwining between the religio-cultural framework of a community and life at school. The study also serves as a means of grasping the complex phenomenology of the educational experience of Muslim girls growing up in a lower socio-economic setting. It identifies the milieux which are formed when religion and gender combine to make a social force in a specific socio-economic context.
Gupta studied the identity of girls enrolled at a minority school, which is governed by the provisions of Articles 29 and 30 of the constitution that allow religious minorities to run their own educational institutions to preserve and promote their culture, language and faith.
She said that she gathered the life experiences of girls studying at the school with the help of free-hand narratives they wrote about their life and aspirations and their responses to items about different dimensions of identity. She then hermeneutically situated their narratives and responses in their everyday ethos which she accessed by experiencing it consistently over a period of one year and by interviewing their parents.
“The school does not interfere in their gendering and thus does not break the sharp binary of home-outside in the life of girls. It does not enable its learners to develop their potential to avail opportunities for economic and intellectual growth in later life. In fact, it certifies the community’s model by not serving as an intellectual space and encouragement for rational inquiry on what one sees around and for critical reflection on one’s own life experiences,” she maintained.
Gupta’s book is based on a study carried out in a school in Daryaganj. However, throughout the book, the school is referred to simply as MGS (Muslim Girls School) in order to maintain its privacy.
“For Muslim girls, there is continuity between home and school in appreciable values and behaviour. There is no alternative frame of conduct available to Muslim girls of Daryaganj. What they learn at home is consistent with what they learn at school as far as personal conduct is concerned. In a matter of immediate and intimate significance, the teacher and the mother provide similar values even though the former is educated and professionally qualified.
“In the life of MGS girls, the school figures in the middle of well-established traits of gender socialisation and a pre-destined as well as explicitly articulated purpose of female life. The cushioning from both sides leaves a very narrow space for the school to allow and encourage any critical engagement with the various fields of knowledge and their own life experiences. Nevertheless, most of the girls have an informed and tolerant outlook towards Hindus, and a few of them have the potential of evolving into a tolerant individual. By asserting their aspiration to study beyond school and thereby becoming teachers, some of them have stretched the discourse of the community slightly which otherwise maintains a predetermined purpose for the life of girls. However, the number of such girls is very limited,” she contended.
Gupta also mentioned that the girls of the given school consider it “important for a wife” to serve her in-laws, husband and children; and from the husband they expect a smooth financial provision and fulfillment of needs. No girl, she said, considers it viable for a woman to be a good wife to contribute financially to the family’s maintenance. “Apparently, they have internalised the gendered male-female division in all spheres of activities. My respondents have accepted and internalised the model of dependence on the man for fulfilling all kinds of needs. The girls thought that motherhood is the aim of a woman’s life,” she recalled.