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Farida’s dream
- Would-be doctors or budding Sanias, women rule Bhopal madarsas
Girls at the Madarsa-e-Niswa in Bhopal

Eight-year-old Farida wants to be Sania Mirza. Yet she may have already overtaken her idol as the latest symbol of rising woman power among India’s Muslims.

In Bhopal, where begums held the whip hand for over 100 years between the 18th and 20th centuries, women have now grabbed the front seat in madarsa education.

Farida is one of the girls who make up over 60 per cent of the 2.8 lakh students in Madhya Pradesh’s 5,300 madarsas. A similar proportion of the teachers are women.

“Ours is a remarkable story at a time when Muslim women have acquired an image of suffering, illiteracy and subjugation,” the state-run Madhya Pradesh Madarsa Board’s chief, S.K. Mohuddin, told The Telegraph.

What are the madarsas teaching' Apart from the usual courses, they have introduced vocational training ranging from computer-based multi-media courses and beauty treatment to stitching and welding.

For a change, the conservative Muslim clergy isn’t objecting. The city’s deputy qazi praised the trend.

“This is the most suitable and Islamic way of contributing to society,” Qazi Ameerullah said. “Our sisters are able to teach and educate young minds inside the protective walls of madarsas. An educated girl becomes an enlightened mother and adds immensely to din (religion) and duniya (the world).”

In the crowded by-lanes of Ibrahimpura in Bhopal, the Madarsa-e-Niswa stands on the footsteps of the Moti Masjid, built by Begum Sultan Jahan.

The madarsa’s warden, Tayyaba Bia, observes strict purdah. She declined to meet this correspondent or get herself photographed but, after much pleading and cajoling, allowed interaction with some of the girl students in the nursery and primary sections.

Most of the girls are doing the various stages of hifz-e-Quran (memorisation of the Quran).

Seven-year-old Saman said she enjoyed reading and writing Urdu, Arabic and English, and sure enough she was easily able to pick the double Arabic constant tashdid (the sign of emphasis). Her ambition is to be a doctor.

“I’ll pass Class VIII from the madarsa and then join (high) school and then medical college,” she said with an air of confidence.

Eight-year-old Farida’s eyes lit up when the question was directed at her and her shy answer, “Sania Mirza”, sent her group into a paroxysm of giggles.

Standing behind a veil, teacher Bushra Khan said the madarsa has over 1,300 girls and 20 instructors. Each teacher is paid between Rs 600 and Rs 1,000 a month and gets a month’s paid holiday during Ramazan. Bushra is a hafiz (master of memorising the Quran) and a former madarsa student.

In the Arif Nagar area, where most gas survivors live, the Dar-ul Ulum madarsa is run by Rana Khan with the aid of government funds.

“When I started it a few years ago, very few girls showed up. But now we have over 500 girls. After completing Class VIII here, many of them sit for the Class X and XII state board exams. Our success rate has been 100 per cent,” she said.

Rana’s madarsa charges students Rs 40 a month and now plans to give them mid-day meals following the BJP government’s grant of Rs 4.5 crore to the state madarsa board.

Begum Suriya, who runs the Madarsa-e-Gulistan, said institutions like hers were helping keep the social fabric intact. “Here we teach moral values, and stitching, too, so that our wards grow up to become good home-makers.”

Political science professor Anjum Ansari would give part of the credit for the women’s success to their peers who once ruled Bhopal state and now serve as an inspiration through the city’s folklore.

After the collapse of the Mughal empire, Bhopal became a major princely state in British India. Almost throughout its turbulent history, the role of its begums remained central.

It began with Mamola Bai (1744-95), the Rajput wife of Yar Mohammed, son of the state’s founder Dost Mohammad Khan. Mamola was never officially recognised as a begum but ruled from “behind the curtain (purdah)” on behalf of Yar’s inept sons for over 30 years.

The rule of the begums officially began when Qudsia Begum (1819-37) seized the reins on behalf of her 15-month-old daughter Sikander, warding off male rivals. She ruled efficiently while preparing Sikander for power and thus laid the foundations for Bhopal’s golden age.

Sikander Begum (1844-68) was a strong woman who evoked fear. She presided over administrative, social and educational reforms to make Bhopal a centre of scholarship and culture.

Shahjehan Begum (1868-1901), in contrast to her powerful mother, struggled in the face of constant opposition from the British and her Indian subjects to the influence of her unpopular husband.

The last begum, Sultan Jahan (1901-26), stamped her reign with her own powerful image despite personal tragedy and long legal wrangling over the succession of her son Hamidullah, whose accession marked the end of begum rule in Bhopal.

Sultan Jahan combined piety with ardent reform. She became the first president of the All India Conference on Education and the first chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. A champion of women’s emancipation and education, she publicly jettisoned the purdah two years before her death.

Mohuddin said he intended to draft over 4,000 madarsas into the government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (education-for-all campaign). That will give the madarsas access to hundreds of crores of rupees to take care of free books and stationery, build classrooms, toilets and girls’ hostels, and provide mid-day meals and sports kit.

Rana, Suriya, Tayyaba and the other women running madarsas say Mohuddin’s offer is tempting, but they would consider it only if there are no strings attached.

WOMAN POWER: ANOTHER FACE

Who:
A batch of young muftias (women muftis) in Hyderabad

What:
They deliver Friday sermon at all-women mosques, settle family or marital disputes, confirm divorces, issue fatwas — such as one against terrorism after Mumbai train blasts

When:
Since a year and a half ago

How:
They graduated from Jamiat-ul-Mominath, deemed university of Islamic theology, with training to interpret the Shariat in personal matters

Why:
Jamiat felt women muftis’ sermons would attract more women, and a muftia’s fatwa on a women’s issue would find greater compliance

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