NEW DELHI // Muslim leaders and students across India have criticised a decision banning mixed-sex madrasas in Uttar Pradesh, the state with the largest Muslim population in India. The Uttar Pradesh Board of Madrasa Education, when issuing the ban in February, called the co-ed system un-Islamic for all madrasa pupils beyond primary level. "In Islam, pardah [the veil] is very important, but co-education promotes bepardaghi [going without the veil], which is against the Sharia," said the school board chairman, Haji Rizwan Haque. "Since co-education promotes free interaction between girls and boys, which is not permissible in Islam, we have taken this decision [to ban co-education] from the next academic session."
Although the order would bar female students from about 1,900 government-affiliated madrasas in Uttar Pradesh, where about 700,000 boys and girls are now studying, many educators argue that it will weaken the movement to educate the Muslim community. "Since in the past few years an increasing number Muslim girls are showing interest in higher studies, this UPBME-imposed ban will place a big hurdle for many of them seeking higher education in Uttar Pradesh, and many will remain virtually illiterate," said Samsul Alam, vice chancellor of Calcutta's Aliah University.
Shahnaz Nabi, an Urdu language professor at Calcutta University, said the move to separate girls from boys goes against what the Prophet Mohammed wanted to inculcate among his followers. "When you offer co-education, you want to impart an equal level of education to both sexes, what Prophet Mohammed clearly emphasised. Now by deciding to ban co-ed madrasas, they are giving a signal to close the doors of higher education on Muslim women in the future," Prof Nabi said.
"The girls should not be secluded from childhood. They should rather be taught how to contest and compete with boys from the very beginning. Islam has given so many privileges to women. Who are these clerics and others to take them away?" Hasan Kamaal, a Mumbai-based analyst and activist, said Islam faces the gravest threat from those who would ban co-education. "Is it possible for a madrasa-educated girl to become a doctor, engineer or choose a modern profession of her choice, if co-ed is banned? In a poor country like India it is nearly impossible to get a separate institution for higher studies for minority Muslim girls," Mr Kamaal said.
"Banning co-education is the beginning of Talibanisation, which is more dangerous than the Taliban themselves. It should be fought with the utmost might as it would be a fight for the cause of real Islam." Even some religious leaders have come out against banning co-education. "If we decide to keep girls away from the co-ed schools, we shall not be able to improve the miserable condition of India's Muslims," said Maolana Khalid Rashid, a Lucknow-based member of the All Indian Muslim Personal Law Board.
A government study in 2006 found Muslims in India are "worse off than previously believed". Although Muslims constitute at least 15 per cent of the population, they make up only four per cent of university graduates, the study found. "They live in socioeconomic conditions worse than many so-called backward tribal people," said Rajendra Sachar, the head of the government committee that authorised the study.
Female students and young professionals described the anti-co-ed order as an effort to destroy the spirit of education among Muslim girls. "We don't have 'girls only' management or other higher education institutes in the country. If I was not allowed to go to a co-ed institute, I could have never been able to pursue my career," said Sabina Parveen, a management student in Delhi. "They are robbing the fundamental rights of Muslim women."
Tanuja Khatun, a recent graduate of Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, said that by passing such "senseless and ridiculous" orders a group of Muslim leaders are forcing Muslim women to remain a backward community. "If a girl is not from a mixed-school background, she often feels uncomfortable and nervous in most of today's workplaces where men and women work shoulder to shoulder. In fact, the grooming of a girl in a co-ed system helps her become a smarter professional for today's world," said Dr Khatun.
"If I have a proper education of Islam, despite studying in a co-ed institution, I can confidently keep myself away from those potential evils the anti-co-ed leaders are talking about." firstname.lastname@example.org