Education and Autonomy: Muslim Women as Effective Role Models in a Calcutta Basti (1)

By Samanta, Suchitra | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview
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Education and Autonomy: Muslim Women as Effective Role Models in a Calcutta Basti (1)


Samanta, Suchitra, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Both culture and poverty work against the education of girls in a largely Muslim slum community (basti) (2) in Calcutta. At puberty girls are taken out of school and secluded at home in the interests of family honor, then quickly married off, customarily with a sizeable dowry that leaves an already poor family even more destitute. However, a few young basti women have acquired college degrees, work as salaried social workers with a non-government organization for their community, and serve as effective role models for other women. Their narratives reveal a powerful self-motivation to get an education in the face of difficult circumstances, and suggest that their achievements have afforded them a certain, and desired, autonomy. This is defined, in their own words, as some freedom of mobility, their ability to counter marriage while very young, and dowry pressures, and in having decision-making powers, both within the family and the community. For conservative, educationally backward poor Muslim women, they offer new possibilities, other ways of being. What accounts for their special effectiveness as role models?

My paper explores the connection between gender, minority status, and poverty on the one hand, and self-motivation to get an education, concepts of autonomy, and effective leadership roles on the other, based on the life-stories of three young basti women who are seen as role models for other young women in their community. I propose that while poverty might demand that a woman confront patriarchal and traditional institutions to get an education, to find work, and to contribute financially to her family, her self-motivation to do so needs to be also understood within changing definitions of the gendered self for poor Muslim women in contemporary India. However, such change, and "autonomy" as defined, is culturally bounded by retaining certain notions of the "respectable" Muslim woman. It is this careful renegotiation of traditional norms that allows for some women to be effective leaders, to impel change in the lives of other Muslim women.

In this paper I present the lives and circumstances of three young Muslim women, Samiya, Nayla and Shahnaz, all in their mid to late 20's, living in the bastis of Southwest Calcutta, who have attained degrees at the Bachelor's or Master's level from Calcutta University. During the time period (1998-2002) that I interviewed these young women, and who I eventually came to call my friends, they were all employed at the Family Assistance Branch (FAB) of a community-based non-governmental organization, Anwar Ali Education Society (AAES), which has been working since 1986 to assist this impoverished and largely Muslim community. (3) These accounts, paraphrased from my interviews and conversations with the young women, speak of their personal 'motivation' or 'wish' (iccha) for an education in the face of economic hardship and cultural obstacles, and what it means to them. They are, relatively, the "success stories" for women from the basti, and this paper is an exploration of the factors which make such success possible.

The FAB, has been, since 1986, funded by a private Christian sponsorship organization based in the USA. The FAB has placed special emphasis on its various agendas for the education of adolescent girls of the basti community, both in terms of literacy and health-related issues. A girl at around puberty in the Muslim community is seen to be particularly vulnerable to being deprived of a formal education. She is taken out of school at this age and restricted in her mobility, and from appearing in public, since these may be detrimental to both her own and her family's honor (so she is not allowed to go to a school even a halfa mile away). She is then married off at the early age of fifteen or so (illegally, by Indian law) to preserve her family's reputation and her own--with severe consequences for her health, since she may have children in quick succession at a very young age.

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