x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Girls settle in to first year at Old Delhi’s Anglo-Arabic school

But last year’s decision to admit girls to the Anglo-Arabic Senior Secondary School has brought changes not only to the make-up of the study body but also for the students themselves.

Girls study during a class at the Anglo-Arabic Senior Secondary School in Old Delhi. Front row from left, Namra Alam, Sayed Humera, and Saleha Mazhar. Back row, from left, Alisha Sultana and Sadaf Fatima. Simon de Trey-White
Girls study during a class at the Anglo-Arabic Senior Secondary School in Old Delhi. Front row from left, Namra Alam, Sayed Humera, and Saleha Mazhar. Back row, from left, Alisha Sultana and Sadaf Fatima. Simon de Trey-White

NEW DELHI // Inside the hallowed marble and red sandstone walls of the Anglo-Arabic Senior Secondary School in New Delhi lie verdant gardens, flowering frangipani trees framing the courtyard.

The buildings, an ode to Mughal architecture, form a square around the garden. Kites swoop over sports fields. Mongoose scurry around the gardens. Doorways framed by geometric arches open on to classrooms with vaulted ceilings.

The school, founded in 1696, has produced leaders of Indian and Pakistani politics, art and sciences such as Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister; Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University; and Mirza Masood, the Indian Olympic hockey player. For centuries, little changed – until the school decided to admit girls.

“I had never studied alongside boys before,” said Sheba Khan, 17, who will sit her grade 12 exams in March. At first she had hesitated, though her parents were willing to send her to a coeducational school.

Ms Khan said. “But the school’s reputation, along with the fact that I could study finance, helped my decision,” Sheba said.

The decision to admit girls last year was based on a need to offer schooling to girls from Muslim families.

A government-commissioned report published in 2009 found that only 68 per cent of Muslim girls attended school, compared with 80 per cent of girls from other religious communities. The report also noted that 25 per cent of Muslim children between the ages of six and 14 had never attended school, or had dropped out.

“This created an even more urgent situation to push to get girls into a school,” said Firoz Bakht Ahmed, a member of the Delhi Education Society, which runs the school.

The school management reached out to parents, calling meetings to address their concerns.

“There were concerns that the girls will not be safe. They will become obstinate, hard-headed, will not follow the purdah system. There was a lot of opposition.

“But we managed to convince them that unless a girl is educated, later generations cannot prosper,” Mr Ahmed said.

Of the 1,800 mostly Muslim students, there are now 100 girls in the school, which teaches classes in Urdu.

There are only two other Urdu-language secondary schools for girls in the area, known as the Walled City of Old Delhi. One is private, the other offers courses only in arts.

While there are English-language and Hindi-language schools available, many students who studied in Urdu cannot easily make the jump. Private English-language schools are more expensive. And conservative Muslim parents feel uncomfortable allowing their daughters to study in Hindi or English-medium schools.

Last year, Sayed Humera’s family moved from Mumbai to Delhi and she struggled to find a school that would let her study the sciences in Urdu, so that she could pursue a career as doctor.

Ms Humera, 16, travels two-and-a-half hours each way to get to the Anglo-Arabic school from her home near the border between Delhi and Haryana state, taking a bus, then the metro and finally walking.

“I want to be a gynaecologist, because I want to help women who don’t want to be seen by male doctors,” she said. “Especially women from my community.”

Ghaziuddin Khan, a general in the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s army, founded the school. It was first a madrasa for the children of the Walled City. The general’s tomb stands in the school grounds.

In 1827, Sir Charles Metcalfe, the acting governor-general of India, added English, natural science and mathematics to the syllabus. By 1832, the school was also the seat of the Vernacular Society that translated the classics from English, French and German to Urdu, Farsi and Arabic.

During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when Indian soldiers rebelled against the British, the school’s library was burnt, and handwritten translated works were lost.

Since then the school has undergone a number of name and curriculum changes, before becoming a secondary school in the 1990s. The reputation for academic excellence remains intact, but Mr Ahmed worries about the chaos of Delhi invading the tranquillity of the school.

Outside the walls, lorries and rickshaws jostle for space on the one-lane road. There is an illegal lorry stand and a homeless shelter that has been built between the two main gates of the school. Mohammed Wasim Ahmed, the school principal, worries about the safety of the students, especially the girls. Guards often chase trespassers off the property as night falls. The tomb of the Mughal-era founder and the mosque also attract the faithful, who line up to pray.

“We need a better boundary wall, more fencing, more security,” said Mr Ahmed. “We can’t stop the flow of people that come to pray in the mosque and tombs, but we are trying to find a way to streamline the process so it doesn’t affect the students.”