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Battling the triple burden of poverty, religion and gender

By Anosh Malekar

Barely 40 km from Gurgaon in Mewat district lives the impoverished Muslim community, the Meos. The Islamic way of life is strictly followed here, and women's education frowned upon, resulting in a dismal 2.13% literacy status for Meo women -- the lowest in the country. Women here have been considered second-class citizens for centuries. But the exclusion of Meo women is slowly being remedied by Vinodkumar Kanathia, who has managed to open 97 girls' education centres here

Vinod Kumar Kanathia

The girls-only classroom comes alive as one by one the students narrate anecdotes from Abraham Lincoln's childhood. With a little prompting from the teacher, the girls recall the difficulties faced by a young Lincoln -- "the son of a poor farmer" -- in educating himself, his extraordinary love for books and the ultimate triumph over poverty. "It was only due to his pursuit of education that he could become the president of America," they conclude, as if echoing the collective aspiration of the classroom.

"We want to study hard and become somebody big like Abraham Lincoln. But our parents say, what good is education for girls," they gripe after the class. The teacher, Bimla Devi, chips in: "The dropout rate among girls is very high because they are required to work at home, fetch water and firewood, and toil in the fields from a very young age, while the men just sit around smoking and playing cards."

The 20-odd girls in her classroom belong to the Meo tribe that inhabits Mewat, a territorial region falling between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, and administratively divided between the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Meos are about a million-strong Muslim community of peasants-pastoralists that traces its origin to the Rajputs and still follow traditional Hindu marriage rituals and kinship patterns.

The Meo men appear a hardy lot dressed in flowing robes and bulky turbans that enhance their tall, dark personalities. They do not strictly follow the Islamic tradition of secluding their women, but formal education is a strict 'No'. The Meos concede that only one in 10 amongst them is able to read and write. Officially, the literacy rate in Mewat is 33%, way below the national average. Literacy among Meo women is 2.13%, the lowest in the country.

Literacy among Meo women

Meo girls in the 6-14 age-group are getting to see the insides of a classroom in recent years thanks to Vinodkumar Kanathia, who chucked up his job as a bank manager in 2001 and started primary education centres in the area. This is something he wanted to do ever since he first accompanied his academician wife, Abha Chauhan, on one of her research trips to study kinship among the Meos, in the early-1990s.

"I was shocked by the vast disparities between Gurgaon and Mewat, located barely 40 km from each other. If the yuppie crowd inside the plush malls of Gurgaon symbolise the new India, the toiling daughters of the impoverished Meos in Mewat are rude reminders of the uneven growth policies of a booming Indian economy," says Kanathia.

Mewat is a smooth one-and-a-half-hour drive from New Delhi, passing through Gurgaon, but the economic disparity is evident as soon as one enters Mewat, the newly constituted district at Haryana's southernmost tip, comprising 532 villages dominated by the Meos. Kanathia runs 97 girls' education centres in Mewat. He began in 2001 with 25 girls and five teachers. "I did not tell the community leaders or the women that I was here to educate them. But as the teachers slowly introduced lessons in Urdu, Hindi, English and math, the Meo elders started expressing apprehensions, one of which was 'are you converting us to Hindi and Hinduism?'" says Kanathia.

The Meos speak Mewati, a distinct dialect; education for them means 'Deen ki Talim', learning the Islamic way of life. In 1997, a local social activist started a girls' school under the aegis of the Wakf Board but he was forced to shut it down because nobody was ready to pay to educate their daughters.

Maulana Muhammad Shahid Ahmed, a maulvi of the mosque at Hawan Nagar in Firozpur Jhirka sub-division, says: "Education should be according to the Deen. Women should study Urdu and Arabic, and the teachers should be strictly women. Men should not be allowed inside a classroom of girls."

Kanathia started by building a rapport with the locals, especially the maulvis of several mosques that dot the rugged terrain, trying to understand their concerns. "Religious and cultural resistance apart, there were practical issues like parents wanting the girls to work at home or in the fields and look after younger children. One of the major decisions I took was to allow younger siblings to accompany their sisters inside our classrooms."

It was not easy, as many friends and acquaintances of Kanathia tried to dissuade him. "The majority of those who knew the ground situation in Mewat felt trying to educate the Meos was a waste of time and energy. But I was careful and sensitive in what I did -- introducing Urdu ahead of Hindi, having only women as teachers; even the school bags we distributed were green instead of the usual khaki," he recalls.

His efforts have paid off, with as many as 2,350 Meo girls now studying at education centres run by Kanathia's Adi Gram Samiti. Around 300 girls have cleared the 5th standard examination conducted by the Haryana Board of School Education, since the first centre began in 2001.

Arshida Khan, 21, who studied up to the 6th standard and recently got married, continues to seek guidance from her former teacher Bimla Devi at the Maroda centre in Nagina sub-division. "I want to continue my education and better my life. Maybe become a teacher myself," she says, adding that her husband, who has studied up to the 12th standard, is supportive of her aspirations.

Sanjida Khan, 13, has cleared the 5th standard examination and is pestering her teacher Pushpa Shimla to continue teaching her so she can appear for the 8th standard board examination. "There are at least half-a-dozen Meo girls at the Hawan Nagar centre who are eager to continue studying," says Shimla.

Mewat has around 600 primary schools, 100-odd middle schools, 70 or so high schools and 30-odd senior secondary schools. But the Meos shun them because they are all co-educational institutions. "Islam does not permit co-education. Hence it is best to send girls to madrassas. However, education centres exclusively for girls are welcome and parents are free to send them there till they become 15 years of age," says Maulana Syed Ahmed of the Jama Masjid in Nuh.

The clerics here believe that the land of Mewat was blessed by the presence of Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, who first tried his experiment with the Tablighi Jamaat in Mewat before replicating it all over the globe. "It was Maulana Ilyas who brought the Meos back to the fold of true Islam. Hence it is said that even Mewat's soil will find a place in jannat (heaven)," says Maulana Syed Ahmed.

The Meos who have lived here for centuries were once proud of their Hindu ancestry and maintained very close intercommunity relationships with other peasant-pastoral castes such as the Jats, the Ahirs and the Gujjars. But things changed post-Partition, recall the local Hindus.

"None of the girls attending our centre have gone to a regular school before. Nor have their parents ever seen the inside of a classroom. It is very difficult to pursue them to keep sending the girls to our centre," says Alka Sharma who runs an education centre at Pinangwan village in Punhana sub-division.

Project Coordinator Nargis Jahan says it's a tightrope walk as the Meos can be very rigid at times. "For example, we do not talk about family planning at all, though it is a major concern across Mewat."

Kanathia adds: "We need to make the Meos understand that the world around them is changing, without hurting their sentiments. If we tell them that their land can be saved from land sharks if the next generation is educated, they understand." The former bank manager dreams that his efforts will one day see the Meos, especially the women, truly empowered.

Having started with personal savings of Rs 50,000, Kanathia has come a long way. His centres are now part of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But Kanathia feels the mere spread of literacy will not serve any purpose. What bothers him is that women are still rated second-grade citizens. "Meo women are kept out of schools and made to toil like animals. Then they are referred to as ganwar (uncivilised) and even subjected to domestic violence, which is justified in the name of religion and patriarchy. That has to change more than anything else," he says.

It has barely been six years, but the changes are there to see. Of all people, Maulana Syed Ahmed of the Jama Masjid wants an education centre to be opened for little girls in his native Mahu in Ferozpur Jhirka sub-division.

Liyaqat Khan wants to know if there is any way his daughter Tamanna, 13, can continue her studies beyond the 5th class. Tamanna herself wants to know if the Adi Gram Samiti can start a library where she can read storybooks.

Signs that things are changing for the Meos in Mewat.

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008