By Farooq Shah
Haifa, a 10th-grade student, returned to school after a 20-day absence for a family wedding, causing her to miss valuable study time. Throughout her absence, some classmates texted her about falling behind in her studies. Despite her desire to return, Haifa’s father, who holds significant authority in the family, did not prioritize sending her back to school. Her sister, also in the same grade, appears more resigned to their father’s decisions. He has firmly dictated that the sisters are only permitted to attend school until the 10th grade.
Frequently withdrawing into her own thoughts, Haifa’s anxieties are becoming more valid as the 0th-grade board exams are just round the corner—a few months away after the ensuing winter. Despite being a bright student, Haifa is uncertain about what the future holds for her once she completes the 10th-grade exam.
Haifa consistently mentions her aspiration to pursue a career in the medical field whenever I inquire about her future ambitions. However, she worries that her father could potentially disrupt her education before she finishes.
Given the strong religious bent of mind, it’s quite predictable why Haifa’s father strongly opposes conventional schooling. He frequently encourages his daughters to prioritize religious education instead. According to Haifa, he has already arranged for them to pursue religious studies like becoming a Hafiz or a Molvi Fazil, without acknowledging Haifa’s aptitude or preference for formal education.
“Listen closely, my daughters,” Haifa’s stern father tells them. “Earthly knowledge won’t save our souls in the hereafter, but it is through religious teachings that we find our path to everlasting salvation.”
Haifa appears driven because her father’s authority and the prevailing atmosphere within his community and beyond have shaped a mindset that makes it challenging for a young girl to differentiate between right and wrong. Consequently, she feels overwhelmed when trying to assert her right to education.
Haifa’s mother supports her daughter’s uninterrupted pursuit of studies, yet her pleas are overshadowed by the dominant influence her husband holds within the family. With such an extreme mindset, the aspirations of both sisters to create a significant impact in their lives may have already been shattered.
Another factor driving the preference for religious education over formal schooling for Haifa is her belonging to a Gujjar family, well-known for their traditional and stringent customs that often oppose extended education for girls. Typically, men within the tribe resist allowing females to pursue prolonged schooling. They commonly engage in multiple marriages, resulting in families that often have fewer than ten members. Haifa’s father, having married twice, has eight children—four daughters and an equal number of sons. Two of the daughters have already been married off at a young age.
It’s possible that Haifa, upon reaching the minimum age for marriage, could face a fate similar to that of her cousins. Gujjars are also known for practicing child marriages, a custom that often evades the reach of the legal system. Such a situation would serve as the final blow to her aspirations of pursuing a career as a medical professional.
Gujjars, classified as a backward community and safeguarded by reservation rights, put Haifa and similar girls at a disadvantage. They could otherwise pursue education without significant concerns about financial constraints or even academic merit. Haifa, already excelling academically, faces additional hurdles as she could potentially navigate competitive exams more smoothly if given the opportunity for regular uninterrupted study.
Haifa’s potential to become a medical professional might be determined by her father’s rigid beliefs, but the existing educational system also plays a role in compelling bright girls like her to abandon their education prematurely.
Due to the lack of available data on the current operations of religious schools in Jammu and Kashmir, it’s incredibly challenging to estimate the enrollment of boys and girls in these institutions. These schools, operating without oversight from education boards, have never been subject to government inspections to evaluate the quality of education provided by their teachers.
Aside from prominent religious schools like Darul-alooms, there are numerous smaller institutions called Darasgahslacking even the most basic facilities to accommodate as few as fifty students. Housed in cramped, poorly constructed rooms, the primary focus remains on rote memorization of Quranic Surahs, often under the supervision of Molvis who may lack proper qualifications to teach the Quran effectively.
As a result, the operation of these schools by unauthorized individuals remained unchecked. Exploiting this gap, numerous individuals have capitalized on the situation by independently managing such educational institutions. In Kashmir, it’s a frequent occurrence to witness groups of bearded Molvis with receipt books in their hands visiting households, seeking financial support to sustain these schools.
A former official from the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education (JKBOSE) informed me that he had suggested to the government the idea of incorporating all religious schools in the region into the Board’s oversight. In this proposal, these schools would be required to integrate additional subjects such as Science, Mathematics, English, and History & Civics into their curriculum alongside religious teachings.
Students would then have the opportunity to sit for their 10th and 12th examinations through the pre-existing National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) board, obtaining certificates that could encourage them to pursue further education. This approach aimed to instill a sense of responsibility among the teachers and liberate them from narrow educational perspectives.
This would also prompt individuals like Haifa’s father to understand that there aren’t segregated schools solely dedicated to religious teachings, as the boundary between the two types of education would begin to fade.
Given the government of Jammu and Kashmir’s initiative to digitize student records through a unique student permanent education number, it now becomes the government’s exclusive duty to embrace each and every boy and girl into a formal educational system. This system should ensure uninterrupted access to education for every child, aligning with the education rights outlined in the Indian constitution.
Amidst the colorful slogans advocating the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (BBBP) initiative, Haifa’s story unveils a stark reality—its implementation seems fraught with deficiencies. The scheme lacks a robust mechanism that could safeguard the futures of girls like Haifa. As her narrative demonstrates, there exists no assurance or protective measure for girls facing similar challenges.
It’s imperative that the law intervenes decisively. Individuals such as Haifa’s father, who hinder their daughters’ educational paths, must be identified, held accountable under the law, and dissuaded from perpetuating such detrimental practices. The true success of initiatives like BBBP lies not merely in slogans but in the tangible actions that protect and ensure the education and rights of every girl, securing their rightful place in society.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
The girl’s name in the write-up is a pseudonym used to preserve her identity
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