Examining the politics of producing ideal educated Muslim girl

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Muslim women and girls are usually viewed as oppressed victims of their families, communities, and religion. Prominent feminist scholars like Lila Abu-Lughod, Joan Scott, Saba Mahmood, and others have shown how the concept of Muslim women as victims of their own culture have long been the primary lens for the global western media, policymakers, and public to understand and engage with Muslim societies. Especially, in the aftermath of 9/11, the images of burqa-clad Muslim women / girls are increasingly used by the western media to project the problems of the “Muslim community”. Hence, feared as a future threat to global security, international investments in Muslim girls have noticeably increased. For example, currently USAID is providing $70 million to empower adolescent girls in Pakistan.

Discourses on women’s and girls’ education are often deeply entan¬gled in class, familial, nationalist, and hetero-patriarchal interests. Be it the British colonizers and Muslim social reformers at the turn of the 20th century, the Pakistani state during the 1950s, or transnational corporations and nongovern¬mental entities today, a broad range of social actors have participated in articu¬lating ideal performances for educated women and girls. These articulations often indicate anxieties about, and hope for, distinctive social orders where educated women and girls are expected to play particular roles, ranging from taking charge of domestic happiness, reproducing social-class positioning to labor par¬ticipation or withdrawal. In her book “Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia”, Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji traces the figure of the ‘edu¬cated girl’ to examine the evolving politics of educational reform and development campaigns in colonial India and Pakistan. She challenges the existing common sense associated with calls for women’s and girls’ education and argues that such advocacy is not simply about access to education but, more importantly, concerned with producing ideal Muslim woman-/girl-subjects with specific relationships to the patriar¬chal family, paid work, Islam, and the nation-state. In doing so, Khoja-Moolji examines a wide range of texts, including novels, political pamphlets, government documents, periodicals and television as well as the archives of 19th century journals and post-colonial narratives on education, gender, and religion.

The book contains six chapters, each offering a different but essential point in the author’s genealogy of the ideal educated Muslim girl. They are: 1) Girls’ Education as a Unifying Discourse; 2) Forging Sharif Subjects; 3) Desirable and Failed Citizen-Subjects; 4) The Empowered Girl; 5) Akbari and Asghari Reappear; and 6) Tracing Storylines.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji unwinds early-nineteenth- and twentieth-century narratives of educated womanhood in colonial India. During the early nineteenth century, she observes, Muslims were divided broadly into two social classes: i) the ashraf (distinguished/respectable) and ii) the ajlaf (the low-born or com¬mon). The former often included members of the nobility, aristocracy, scholars, and the landed elites, and the latter, traders and artisans. The author 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, Khoja-Moolji attempts 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. She traces how the institution of the modern school, with its technique of teaching-learning, bureaucratic administration, and examinations, gradually becomes the hegemonic institution for educating young people. The expansion of modern schooling, the authors observes, has displaced the multiple community-centered educative spaces that were prevalent in colonial India during the nineteenth and early twentieth centu¬ries.

Adding layers to her genealogy, Khoja-Moolji then takes her readers through post-Partition archival materials of policy, speeches and advertisements. In the third chapter, the educated girl/woman can be seen as part of nation-building, modernization and the development of the newly independent Pakistan. Interestingly, a series of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) advertisements are visible that make it appearing natural for women to be caregivers of the nation and society. In chapters four & five, the author sketches the outlines of the ‘empowered girl’ through fieldwork in a minority Shia Muslim community in Pakistan as well as through current television serials that revisit 19th century reform-era narratives. In doing so, Khoja-Moolji also investigates how neoliberal tropes of the ‘empowered educated girl’ are contested and appropriated on the ground.

In the final chapter, the author informs us that instead of providing any neat conclusions, her book attempts to trace the outlines of the many images of the ideal educated Muslim girl/woman and their intersections with religion, labour, politics and notions of respectability. Khoja-Moolji rightly draws our attention to her concluding remarks: “These stories are ongoing as gender and education continue to be powerful discursive fields that regulate the lives of both men and women. Our task, therefore, is to constantly subject naturalized catego¬ries and social projects to an interrogation as they crystallize particular power-knowledge relations.”

The author Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji teaches at Bowdoin College, US, and researches and writes extensively about the interplay of gender, race, religion, education and power in transnational contexts, particularly in relation to Muslim populations. A graduate from Harvard and Columbia Universities, Khoja-Moolji also worked with the University of Pennsylvania where she was a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar at the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality and Women. The author deserves appreciation for producing this erudite monograph which underscores the historically, sociologically and politically contingent nature of discourses about women/girls education in contemporary South Asia.

The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail: smrayhanulislam@hotmail.com

  • Examining the politics of producing ideal educated Muslim girl
  • Issue 14
  • S. M. Rayhanul Islam
  • Vol 35

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