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Education and autonomy: Muslim women as effective role models in a Calcutta basti (1).

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. Anyway, financial investment in a girl's education is seen to be pointless in view of her inevitable marriage and the high dowry that must be paid. (4) An intensely crowded basti environment, where a 'community" is made up of immigrant strangers, not kin, makes the issue of women's chastity and reputation even more urgent for poor families. Where marriage is the end-goal for the "honorable" woman, as well as for her family's standing in the community, and where dowry must be paid, even minimal expenditure on educating a daughter is of lesser priority for a basti family. And if the daughter is "old" because she has a higher level of education, or if her reputation is besmirched by her presence in public, her marriageability is in question.

Should a groom be willing to marry such a girl, his demands for dowry will be higher. Because of these problems, in the developmental agenda of the FAB, adolescent girls are seen as the locus of social change, where educating them is believed to have an immediate impact and influence on the younger siblings they are usually responsible for, as well as a longterm impact on the children they will bear--a change that affects, then, future generations, and one that will work in the interests of long-term community development.

However, some young women from the basti, as I have said earlier, do achieve higher educational degrees. What are the factors, I ask in this paper, that make such achievement possible, given that so many of their peers are either not allowed to go to school, or pulled out of school at puberty? Why does one sister, of several in a family, attain some degree of success? How do some women, living in such an environment, counter traditional cultural norms? And do they see themselves as important factors for effective change among poor Muslim women, as exemplars of modernity?

My paper complements several existing works on Muslim women in India. (5) Specifically it attempts to address the call made by some authors which point to the need for in-depth studies especially of Muslim women in the lower socioeconomic strata. Some of these studies also place the specially disadvantaged position of Muslim women in the context of the history of the Muslim community in a secular and democratic India, where, on the one hand, a religious minority retains its Personal Law (Sharia) at Independence, but on the other loses from potentially beneficial legislation at the level of the Indian State. This is a minority described as one which feels this disadvantaged status with relation to a Hindu majority, and perceives itself as being discriminated against. The poor performance of general developmental agendas for impoverished Muslims in India, and efforts on behalf of Muslim women need to be seen in the light of the minority status, both real and perceived, for this large population of some 120 million in the country.

At least one general consequence of a Muslim minority (and other minorities in general) that perceives itself to be threatened, both economically and culturally, is to close ranks. Traditionally this is often first and best achieved within the household--with particular effect on controls placed on women. (6) Issues of a woman's honor and chastity are crucial to both her family's reputation, as well as, in this context, to the religious and cultural identity of her community. Educating women in institutions of formal learning, in the interests of developing such a community becomes, then, especially problematic.

While several formal Government (municipality or State-subsidized) schools, at both the primary as well as at the secondary level, serve the bastis of Southwest Calcutta, not only are they not "free" as promised by the Indian Constitution (taking bribes, even from very poor students, and corruption generally are common,), but they are frequently staffed by ill-trained and poorly-paid teachers. Given the large Muslim community in this area of the city, there are also only two primary schools and one secondary level school teaching in Urdu, the language spoken by most of this community. There are also five private Urdu schools, but these cost more than the municipality-run institutions. Other schools, I was told, especially the ones that teach in Bengali (and have Hindu students), openly discriminate against admitting Muslim students. In other words, the implementation of State and municipal educational policies for the bastis, while a difficult undertaking, have fallen markedly short of their goals. (7) However, while corruption and gross inefficiency at the level of local government are certainly to blame, this author also notes the lack of motivation in basti populations to get a formal education, as a significant factor that exacerbates the issue of educating these communities. It is, as many social workers at the FAB told me, and I observed for myself, an uphill struggle for a developmental agency that is attempting to do the same thing.

It is in this context that I explore, in the stories of the young women who are the topic of this paper, their emphasis on the role of 'personal motivation' or 'wish' (Bengali iccha or icche) to be educated, a powerful theme that emerges repeatedly in their conversations with me. How may we understand such personal self-motivation in the face of considerable financial hardship and cultural constraints, especially for women? The girls' stories suggest that their motivation to get an education, to be someone other than their mothers, to be respected, needs to be understood in the light of changing definitions of self, and of gender roles today. They suggest too that such change is a matter of necessity--in the context of poverty--as well as choice, or both. These young women step outside traditional gender roles within the household as well as in the community, yet work within some boundaries, such as maintaining modesty in dress and behavior, and wanting to be married to a "good" man. They protest the custom of dowry that, in their view, lessens a woman's worth. Yet, despite their protest, they themselves are caught in a system where dowry is rampant in their community. They defy, on the one hand, a community's criticism of women moving about alone and working or studying outside the home, yet aspire to community respect (samman) for an educated woman who can stand as role model for the other young women of the community.

The second, and more abstract, issue that I explore is how such respect is related to the question of "autonomy" for these young women, who, explicitly or implicitly, are 'motivated' to achieve some degree of self-sufficiency, in their words, "to stand on their own feet." That an education is seen as a means to such autonomy emerges in all three stories. What does "autonomy" mean for a woman in these circumstances and in this cultural context? We must, I propose, understand the concept not in absolute terms, but relative to the social and cultural context in which the women live, relate, and operate. To be effective community leaders, as my three informants are, they must attain their family's, as well as their community's respect. This is possible when boundaries are pushed so far--but not, in a conservative community, radically so. Modernity, as I understand it in the lives of Samiya, Nayla and Shahnaz, involves a push for greater freedom, an expansion of boundaries--by way of mobility in actual space, as well as "mobility" defined as the power to make some decisions about her own life and choices--in pursuing an education, to work, in dress, to "have her word count" in family decisions, to choose a husband herself, and to protest the widely prevalent custom of dowry. As the stories will reveal, where patriarchal institutions (such as dowry) delineate boundaries in these women's lives, a combination of financial need, but also family support and strong self-motivation to redefine those boundaries, and themselves-as women in their society--inspires them to negotiate those institutions to achieve their "autonomous" ends.

I present below the stories of Samiya, Nayla, and Shahnaz. The accounts are edited and paraphrased, to fulfill space requirements of this journal, but also to facilitate their presentation within certain themes and parameters which reflect both my questions, as well as what the women felt to be important in answer to my basic question: "What problems didyouJace in your l!['e in getting an education?"

Samiya's story

Samiya, 24 (in 1999), has been with the FAB since 1996, and works in the Sponsor Relations department of the FAB. She is the youngest of four siblings, with two older sisters, 32 and 28, and a brother, 26, all of whom are married. Samiya herself, at the time, was engaged to be married to a man (of her choosing) then in Bahrein, and expected back soon in India.

Samiya's desire (iccha), she told me, was to be educated, to fulfill her father's dream for her. She has studied at great cost and now must work, because her father had left the family with nothing when he died in 1986. Her eldest sister (Bardi) (8) dropped out of school by Class 8, when she was given in marriage. Samiya's second oldest sister, Mejdi, studied till Class 4--and then had married, by choice, a young man who worked for her father.

Samiya's father had worked in camera repair and sales, while her mother used to cook on contract for the German Consulate but is no longer able to work since she has diabetes. The major setback to her life, Samiya said, was the abandonment of the family by her father. She attributed this to his severe disapproval of her Mejdi's choice of husband. Her father left for Nepal, from where he had returned only sporadically. This was a period of great turmoil for the family. Her mother was broken in spirit, they lost their home and moved in with their maternal grandmother. Her brother too, then in Class 4, dropped out of school, and presently makes a living driving a taxi. Another critical setback about this time was Samiya's eldest sister's daughter getting polio, and the family's having to spend much time in the hospital with her.

After initially dropping out of Class 4 when her father abandoned the family, Samiya returned to school, telling me proudly that she received a scholarship every year for doing well, which paid for her textbooks. Her brother asked her to drop out of school when she was in Class 9 so that the family could find her a bridegroom. However, her mother intervened, on the grounds that they could not afford a dowry, and, with her Bardi, encouraged Samiya to continue with her studies. She shifted homes many times, sometimes living with her Bardi, and at other times living with her mother and grandmother, especially when her Bardi's husband would return from his stints at sea aboard a ship in the Merchant Marine. Samiya went on to college, graduating in 1996 in a Pass program (9) in Economics, Political science and Geography. She wanted to do an Honors program in Geography at some point in the future.

Samiya specially emphasized her brother-in-law's support for her, particularly since her own brother offered little by way of financial or moral support for her and their ailing mother. Her niece and nephews, also had to struggle, "without tuition," (10) to be educated, but all had the support of their father. All three of them are known for their achievements, and Samiya herself, she told me with pride, was specially respected for her education. Her regret was that she could not afford to learn English, which would have got her further, since she paid $7 of her $22 (11) monthly salary to her mother.

The rest of the family's support had worked for her when she faced community criticism as she went about alone, to school and later to work. This was especially the case when her brother-in-law was out at sea, and she had to do "outside work," without an authoritative male figure to advise or escort her (such as, getting an ID card at the hospital for her handicapped niece).

At the FAB Samiya had been promoted, in less than three years, from pre-school teacher, to assistant social worker, and then to the Sponsor Relations Department. She also knows how to type, and has a diploma in using computers. She tells me with pride that the AAES sent her to New Delhi, a thousand miles away, for Sponsor Relations training and to learn to use the computer for her work.

I met Samiya again in the summer of 2000, and asked about the status of her engagement. She had not been able to pursue her academic goal of studying Geography. Her fiance was still in Bahrein, and she did not know if the marriage would take place. The real problem lay with his family, who had raised objections to her working with the AAES and preferred that she not work at all. Their specific objection, however, had to do with the fact that such a family as Samiya's, without a father, would not be able to meet their dowry demands. Her fiance too would not stand up to his family's demands for dowry.

Samiya observed emphatically that she had studied hard, and would not give up her job, where she had recently been promoted to her present position, with a 50% salary raise. Nor would she be happy to give up working after she was married, since she saw her co-workers as her family, and did not want to leave them. Besides, she asked me, what was wrong with working in a public place? She told me that she has stood on her own feet with difficulty, after a struggle, and would not easily give up what she has fought for. She is supported in her views by her "older sister" and friend Shahnaz (whose story follows later). And if, for all of the above reasons, she cannot get married, so be it, she declared. She is "standing on her own feet." She also asked rhetorically, what happens if a man decides to take another wife? Where would she be then? Muslim law allows this, and divorce can be a simple matter in Muslim personal law. I asked if the present prevalence of dowry in the Muslim community contributes to easy divorce. Samiya replied that it is a good reason for a man to marry more than once.

Samiya, as of the summer of 2001 when I met her again, continues to live with her mother, in her older sister's home. She expressed her sense of being overworked and underpaid at FAB. As women, she commented, she and Shahnaz were not adequately outspoken to demand better pay. But they are both also the proteges of the much older man, also from the community, who heads AAES, and to whom they both feel obliged to be deferential--and grateful for work. However, on certain issues, such as office space, Samiya told me, she has protested, and her demands have been met. She commented that she served as a role model for the basti children, who came to her to compose their letters to their American sponsors. They would say to her that they too wanted to work with computers, like her, when they grew up.

In the summer of 2002 she informed me briefly, and without further explanation, that her marriage plans had been "completely" abandoned.

Nayla's story

Nayla, 18 (in 1999) is a Bengali Muslim originally from near Dacca, Bangladesh. A self-possessed young woman, Nayla is the fifth of six siblings. Two older sisters are married, and live in different areas in Calcutta. Two older brothers are also married. One, Mejda, lives with his wife in the basti in rooms near Nayla's home, and works in the local Bazaar. The eldest, Barda, runs a small business in the Middle East. Nayla's household presently consists of a mentally handicapped younger brother, her mother, her paternal grandmother, her Mejda and his wife.

The event central to her life's circumstances, in Nayla's words, was the recent abandonment, without explanation, of the family by her father, possibly because he was ashamed of having no work. Both her older brothers presently contribute to the expenses of the family. The eldest brother, Barda, in the Middle East, has a Bachelors degree in Commerce, while the second brother, Mejda, has passed his Class 12 exams. The eldest sister studied till Class 8, and the second till Class 12. Nayla herself had just completed her B.A. Finals (12) in History, Political Science, and Education.

Nayla wanted to get her teaching certification, but her Mejda wanted to marry her off. She commented that if a "good" groom was found, her family would pressure her to marry (her older sisters had been similarly pressured into marriage, albeit without dowry). She would also have liked to have studied Law. However, her family did not want her in various courts, or traveling about with individual lawyers. There had been arguments at home about this--from her eldest brother, and her grandmother. The latter, Nayla reassured me, loves her a lot, but scolds her for being argumentative, or refusing to go along with the many marriage proposals that come for her. Her grandmother reminds her that in her time she did not have a choice! However, those days are gone, Nayla declared, she would not be displayed for approval to everyone and anyone at all who brought a proposal of marriage for her to her family. Her mother, she added, supported her in her stand.

I asked her about a marriage proposal she had mentioned to me when I first met her the previous year, where the boy's family had asked for a dowry of $1,100. Nayla's family had refused this, being unable to afford it. Would she agree to dowry for herself, I asked? Nayla noted that her sisters had been given in marriage without dowry, and none had been demanded for her brothers. Her family had given what they could afford for her sisters, in terms of furniture, and jewellery. Her mother was now more amenable to give dowry now, since "everyone today wants dowry." But said Nayla, if dowry demands were made for her, she would oppose it. She thought it objectionable that her husband-to-be would take from her to feed his own. Since she did as much as she did for her family, Nayla noted, they would hear her, because "her word is worth something."

Nayla told me that she had no objection to marriage, but that she would like to be self-sufficient, "to stand on her own feet." This is why, she said, she wanted to do her B.Ed (teacher certification), and then a Masters degree, if possible. Being a teacher in a school was the kind of job (chakri) (13) that she wanted. Teaching is also the kind of work that her society held in esteem, so she would be respected by everyone. So whatever her husband might do, she would be known as a teacher. In response to my questions, Nayla told me that her mother had supported her larger ambitions from the beginning, encouraging her, for example, to learn computers while she waited the six months for the results from her Class 12 examinations, telling her that she would "give her what she needed" to do this. She also learned typing for three months while waiting for her Class 10 exam results. Her Barda has been especially keen that at least one of his three sisters be a graduate, so he was very happy with her achievements.

Nayla had considerable domestic responsibilities, especially since her eldest sister, Bardi, had married and left home. These left her with little time to go anywhere with her college friends. She was afraid her mother would not be able to cope if she was not there, even if she explained things to her. She spent such spare time as she had watching TV, (14) or reading.

Nayla began to teach Home School for the FAB in 1998. (15) Her account to me of how she felt about her work was especially revealing of her motivation and dedication to the young women of her community. Home Schools were started in 1992 by AAES to provide literacy for those more conservative, and generally much poorer Muslim families of the basti who would not send their adolescent girls to formal schools, since this would involve leaving the confines of the neighborhood. A Home School, offering nonformal Class 1-4 schooling, is set up by a young girl who has at least a Class 10 education, lives in the neighborhood herself, and is, therefore, known to the people in it. She gathers together around ten young girls from her immediate neighborhood, and, with a brief three-day training from the FAB, starts a two-year program in non-formal Primary-level education in her own home. The instructor, at a salary of $5 a month, teaches basic literacy, math, and language skills to her students for three hours a day, five days a week, with assignments, monthly reports to the FAB, quizzes, and dramatic performances at AAES' various events.

Nayla motivated her students by telling them that she too is a young girl, that above all, she has the icchha, so she has studied. If her students were being given the opportunities, they needed to make the effort (chesta). Nayla realized, realistically, that for the conservative and poor Home School students, earning money in a 'job', or being self-sufficient were not feasible concepts. So, she told them, an education would get them a good marriage, since men today wanted literate wives. She often got angry with them for slacking off, and told them that in return for her own hard work on their behalf, they owed her! The girls sometimes did not come to school on flimsy excuses, complaining that she was strict. So she arranged meetings with the parents, and demanded to know why the girl was not in school. Sometimes it was because that day a prospective groom had come to "see" the girl. However, the latter might not be interested in marriage but was being pressured to marry. At such times Nayla would speak to the mother, and try to persuade her not to marry off her daughter, to let her study a little more, and explain that she would be able to do better in life with a little education. She had these meetings formally with the mothers every two months or so, at her "school." Some mothers would say, let their daughters go to school for a while, then they would marry them off; or make excuses, such as domestic chores, to keep the girls at home. Nayla noted that it was very difficult to make her students and their parents understand that there is not only respect from others for an education, but also self-respect (atmasamman). However, while obviously "outside factors" do intervene, some students did give importance to their studies, she concluded.

Nayla commented on the contrast that many parents had about their daughters' education in Home Schools, with her own attitude. "If we are alright in ourselves," she said, "then I can go far to college, there is no problem. It depends on how I think, it is upon me." She echoed here a sentiment I heard several times from other young girls, that modesty was a state of mind, and that "purdah" or the veiling of women, was, first, an inner state. Nevertheless, such a far-thinking attitude was not commonplace, and obviously, for many, restricting their daughters' mobility ensured that the society would not speak ill of the girls. A consequence of such seclusion, Nayla noted, was that since these girls had "not been given their freedom" they also may not know what to do with it. She herself had a "different mentality," but even so, there were areas in the basti that she was afraid to go to, from the viewpoint of her own self-respect, something she felt especially sensitive about in view of the level of her education and her work in the community. She already faced criticism--some of the girls' mothers criticized her for being indulged, saying that she could go about freely, study, and work only because she was (relatively) more comfortably off than many. And that if they had similar advantages they too would educate their girls. The assumption here (accurately so, I found) is that a girl with a higher level of education is generally past puberty, and requires more dowry for her marriage. For this reason, in a poorer family, educating a daughter beyond puberty is not an option. But is the fact that she has a house, or "facilities" [sic] enough, asks Nayla. There are many facilities in the basti, like inexpensive municipal schools. Her own mother studied in such a school. And despite the death of her maternal grandfather, her mother studied till Class 8, in spite of the hardship that her grandmother had to endure. Effort and interest are important, said Nayla. It is with her own effort (chesta) that she has gathered so many girls, and managed to hold onto them in her school. She has a sense of achievement, not only for herself, but in what she achieves in her community. She knows that she is respected for her work.

In the summer of 2000 Samiya informed me that Nayla's family had negotiated a marriage for her, and that she had been formally engaged to a man who lived in Bombay, on the west coast of India. When I talked with Nayla again that summer, she was teaching both Home School, as well as the Condensed School (non-formal schooling for Classes 5 through 10). Her fiance works for a pager and cell-phone company. The family did not want dowry, Nayla told me. Neither had yet seen the other.

Nayla expected the wedding to take place in around a year or more--the later the better, she admitted to me, because she was afraid of what the future held for her. She reflected upon the necessary "adjustments" in a new home--and then admitted that her in-laws want women to veil, to wear the burkha, which Nayla presently does not wear. Her girlfriends tease her and ask what she is going to do, since she will have to wear a burkha in Bombay whenever she goes out from her in-laws' place. What does this involve, I ask. Full body covering, she told me, a scarf over the head--the face can be left open, according to the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), or covered, if the woman so chooses. Nayla was concerned with leaving her mother, and the household she has seen to over the years.

Nayla noted the success of the Condensed Course and the Home School. In the former, four girls were preparing for the State-wide Class 10 exams, while five were ready for Class 9, and that girls were increasingly coming for the courses. Four girls from her Home school were also enrolled for the Condensed Course. Nayla concluded that fathers often keep their daughters from going outside the home, but mothers were crucial because they could save their daughters from domestic work at home and encourage them to study.

In the summer of 2002 I learned that Nayla had been married in December of the previous year, and had moved to Bombay. I was told that she was not allowed to work by her in-laws.

Shahnaz's story

I first met Shahnaz (then 29) in December of 1997 when I started research on this topic. I was struck by her intelligence and quiet confidence, but mostly by her detailed knowledge of family life in the basti, and her insights into the life of the community. Mentor to both Samiya and Nayla, she is a senior social worker at the FAB, with special responsibility for programs for adolescent girls and women, and a person most efficiently in charge.

Shahnaz, a Bengali Muslim, is the fifth of six siblings. She has three older brothers and an older sister, all married, and a younger, unmarried sister, 24. Presently her household consists of her parents, the third brother (Chorda), his wife and three children, Shahnaz and her younger sister, who all live in a small 3-room house in the basti.

Shahnaz wove her story around a theme of financial hardship. Her father, long retired from his job as a draftsman with the Survey of India, earns a pension of $17 per month. Shahnaz herself earns $37 per month at AAES, and gives it to her family. She offers tuitions to students, and spends the $ 10 per month earnings on her personal necessities. Her younger sister takes typing classes, and pays for these by tutoring two children, earning $3 per month. The third brother, Chorda, works in a private firm, while his wife works in a jeans-making factory, but both are there more in spirit for the family than in material terms.

The major financial setbacks to the family, Shahnaz tells me, were her Barda's marriage, his move out of the household--and distancing himself from it, both emotionally and financially, and, two years later, her father's retirement (she was then in Class 7). Her second brother, Mejda, who looked after land belonging to their father, and would give him the income from it, has stopped doing so. Though Shahnaz's father has the deeds to this land, he is in such poor health (bedridden when I first talked to Shahnaz in 1998) that no one is going to fight their brother over the matter.

I ask Shahnaz if her family could manage financially if she moves away after marriage since there are other earning members and the family is, as she tells me, doing better than it was when her father retired. This is where Shahnaz answers my question by implying that it is not her money that is at issue should she marry and move out, so much as her intense and close relationship with her ailing father. She suggests that their relationship is, of all her siblings, the most important to him, and one that binds her to him and to the family. The family would manage, she tells me in answer to my question, but her father will not have her with him--she now goes home at lunch, he worries if she is even a little late, and even when she is early! She sits, talks and eats with him; and then spends the whole evening with him after she returns from work. "How many times he inquires about me, how many times he reads his prayers so that his daughter may be fortunate, that she may not suffer in life," she says. When he retired, and the family faced hard times, he was upset because she might not be able to continue with her studies. He was also particular about his younger daughter, when she finished her Class 10 exams, and was "sitting around" the house. Their father declared that she had to do something, or leave the house! He says that when he dies their fate will be better because he will watch from above. He sees daughters as "weaker" than sons, and that parents have a special responsibility to watch over them more closely, to see what they want and need. Her father, says Shahnaz, would bring food home when they were young, and would favor his girls. Their brothers would get angry, and her father would say that the girls would go away to other peoples' homes when they married, and if they wanted to eat something no one would bring it for them at the in-laws--so he would feed his daughters now what they wanted. If a neighbor's daughter is to be married, or if she loses her father, Shahnaz's father "searches the market" for fruits and sweets to feed the girl.

For all of these reasons, says Shahnaz, she loves her father dearly. He is different; he has qualities she does not see in others though not everyone sees these qualities in him. Her oldest sister (Bardi) is like him, she too worked hard and gave to everyone. But her Bardi is critical of their father now, and asks why he should feed other peoples' daughters when he has two girls to marry off? Shahnaz emphasizes her father's dependence on her, telling me that he calls her his "staff," and recounts an incident where a marriage proposal came for her some time ago. Her father grew faint, all but losing consciousness, and remained thus through the night. When he revived, he admitted that he had been badly affected at the thought of losing his favorite daughter, and frightened at the thought that he would have no one to look after him. (While his wife lives in the household, she is not on speaking terms with her husband).

She talks of how close she was to her father from when very young; how stern he was, and how eager he was that his children study; and that none of her siblings liked his sternness. He would keep an eye on how they dressed, whom they spoke with (to this day), and that he does not like the wearing of lipstick or other facial adornment, and how her sisters would dress up secretly and go off without telling him. But she "understood" what her father wanted, despite his sternness. She is the daughter he trusts, she says, "he calls me to him always, I am just what he wants in his heart."

Their father, Shahndz tells me, was never particularly interested in marrying off his daughters, advising them, rather, to study, "to stand on their own feet." Her mother was neutral on the matter of education for the girls, though educated till Class 4 or 5 herself in Urdu medium schools. However, she would not hinder her daughters, or make them do the housework. She would see to all the meals, hence her bad health, from overwork. In spite of this, says Shahnaz, her siblings were never really motivated in the matter of getting an education.

Shahnaz comments that it is the custom that girls must be married, and that men's education is more emphasized than women's, especially in their basti. If girls" education could be given the same importance then they could be independent, before they got married. Most of her girlfriends wanted to study, she tells me, but were often unable to go too far because of lack of money. So some of these girls would have to study "on their own efforts" before they married. Despite her father's support, both financial constraints and family illnesses were obstacles to Shahnaz's own educational hopes. Her father financed her special tutoring needs in Math up to Class 10. She did very well in her exams in Class 10, passing in the First Division. (This was in 1985). She then entered the next two years for pre-college, in Science. Shahnaz asked her Barda to help at this time, with the costs (around $8) for tutorial help in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, and English. But since her Barda was helping out her next brother (Chorda), and anyway, she had to remind him every month for this money, she stopped asking him, paying for herself through tuitions. This left her very tired, and unable to concentrate on her studies, and so she passed her Class 12 exams in the Second Division. After this she paid herself for all of her further studies. She tells me with a laugh that she is now used to this, she even pays for her own transportation, and she also pays for her younger sister.

All this, she replies to my question, has helped with the economic troubles their family has suffered since her father's retirement. Today Shahnaz has an M.A. in Islamic History from Calcutta University, delayed because her young niece died of a brain tumor. Her father had wanted her to get a teaching certification but she cannot take the year off to do this.

I ask why Shahnaz was especially motivated, among all of her siblings, to get an education. She replies that she had wanted to be a doctor, and that if she could have studied more for her Class 12 exams she could have got admission to Medical School. But the family had such financial problems, her father could not afford her education at the time. For this reason she decided to go with the Arts, since this allowed her more time to earn money by tutoring students, and also work at a job.

What caught me by surprise, in the context of what Shahnaz had said to me about her life and her relationship with her father, was her revelation of her secret engagement to a co-worker at the FAB, Alam, a handsome young man with a Master's degree in Sociology. I was surprised that Shahnaz, an otherwise reserved young woman, would suddenly reveal this to me, and later reflected that she desperately needed to unburden herself to a sympathetic outsider (confirmed later by her own admission). She implored me at the same time not to reveal it to anyone at AAES since then she and her fiance would be moved apart or lose their jobs, by organizational rules. However, she had informed her father of the young man's presence in her life, and that they intended to marry. Her father appeared to have accepted Alam, saying that if the young man is a social worker, he must be a good man.

I ask Shahnaz if her brothers had helped out more financially could she have married and not worried about keeping her engagement a secret? Shahnaz replied that their father couldn't afford to pay the dowry for his younger daughters. She feels strongly about this, and tells me that she had especially wanted to help me with my survey on dowry in the basti (1998) because it was an issue close to her heart. Whenever a good proposal had come for her marriage, and "everyone wants that [she] marry into good circumstances," the dowry demands were so high that had her father married her off, he would have had nothing left to marry off his youngest daughter. He had had an income at the time of her Bardi's wedding, as did her Bardi. A lot was spent on this wedding, since her father, like all fathers, wanted to give all he could for his daughter. He also drew on his savings for this wedding, and then used more of his savings to build their house, leaving around $375 as a balance. This is inadequate, today, (Shahnaz tells me, and I know this for a fact) to marry off even one daughter into good circumstances, leave alone two.

Shahnaz comments on the prevalence of dowry in the Muslim community, and that she has not seen even one educated boy who will dispense with dowry when he marries. If a girl's family can't afford it, then it will be informed indirectly that the marriage negotiations will not proceed further, that the household has not met with the boy's family's approval, and that the girl's family does not measure up in "status." And, Shahnaz asks rhetorically, if your father is retired, and the eldest brother lives separately (with separate expenditures) what can the family give as dowry? So if there is no "source" [sic] for giving to the girl--that ends the marriage negotiations.

Shahnaz's younger sister won't agree to dowry. A proposal came from a boy who had passed his Class 12 exams, and was working in a bank. She refused the proposal because he wanted dowry, as furniture, a color TV, fridge, jewellery--everything but cash--"he wanted everything and nothing could be left out." Shahnaz tells me about a proposal for marriage for her that came from a college professor, just as she had finished Class 12. This man wanted her father to spend $2,200 on things for the wedding, with "no other demands." Her father said that he could have sold his property and married his daughter off to this man, but feared that more demands would be made after the marriage, and he would be unable to meet them. (16)

Both directly, and by recounting how she began working with AAES, Shahnaz talks with some pride of her capabilities and accomplishments. She mentions another non-governmental organization who had been impressed by her, and for which she worked for a year in a UNICEF training program for street children. Shahnaz is aware that as a "local girl" she has a special advantage for such programs. A UNICEF worker, who had seen her at work in the training program earlier, told the Secretary of AAES about her abilities. She was offered some more training before she began her present job at AAES/FAB, in 1995, in charge of the programs for adolescent girls. Her abilities were especially recognized by the Secretary in the communal Hindu-Muslim riots in south west Calcutta in the summer of 1996, when she was sent, along with another female social worker, to the riot-affected areas to pacify Hindus whose houses had been destroyed by Muslims.

While unhappy about her low salary, her nearly ten-hour workday, and a heavy workload, Shahnaz comments, in reply to my question, that she finds her work satisfying. She likes the fact that she can help people, and that people listen to her. She tells me that she is respected for her abilities, and her contribution to her community. This I saw for myself, both in the community "awareness programs" that she is especially responsible for, and where I noticed the women sit up and take notice as Shahnaz took the microphone to speak, in different programs, on diverse topics such as women's health, or sanitary living conditions. She likes it that she is in a position now to advise especially other young women, and mentions Samiya, whose life had been very difficult after her father died, and that Samiya is now a college graduate. Shahnaz had talked to the Secretary on Samiya's behalf, and the latter then found work with AAES. She concludes that when she can encourage such girls as Samiya, not only is she herself an example but also "when these girls can do something with their lives, when they can stand on their own, they are examples for other women like them."

Shahnaz and Alam were married on May 7, 2000, and are now living in a rented flat a half hour away from the basti. She sees her father every day, dropping by to talk with him. Shahnaz was subsequently allocated to managing the health-related programs at AAES. In the summer of 2001 Akhtari called to inform me that she was pregnant. Severely anemic, she had taken time off work. In July she had a baby boy, and I didn't get to see her that year.


Given that some young Muslim women, despite "culture" and poverty, do achieve higher educational degrees, my intentions in this paper were to inquire into the factors that made such achievement possible: why some young women were especially motivated, how these women countered traditional cultural norms, and did they see themselves as examples for their peers.

First, in answer to my question, "how may we understand the motivation to get an education among some women in an impoverished Muslim community?" it appears to be difficult to extricate the particular circumstances of the girls' lives from such motivation. All three households, in the accounts above, suffer financial constraints caused, or exacerbated, by the "event" of a father's abandonment or his retirement. The brothers may or may not be forthcoming with assistance, often because they are unwilling to, or unable to, especially if they are married and with children (working in "private firms" or as cab drivers are not particularly remunerative jobs). Also, a considerable amount of the family's limited resources have already been spent on the marriage of older sisters. Even without officially paying "dowry," the bride's family will have spent substantially on the mandatory gold jewellery for the bride, clothes and often gold buttons, or a watch for the groom, some household items like utensils, and the costs of the wedding feast. While assuring the honorable place of the family in the community as one that has seen to its duty with regard to at least some of its daughters this leaves little by way of resources for the younger ones.

More often than not, and certainly in the case of the three young women whose stories I present in this paper, it is the younger sisters who find themselves in specially straitened circumstances. These last are not only those of financial constraint, but also of seeing to an ailing or otherwise incapable parent. If Samiya must work to support herself and her diabetic mother as far as she is able, Shahnaz must offer private tutorials to pay her own personal expenses and those of her younger sister, as well as see to her ailing father, while at least part of her salary from the FHP is likely to be used for household expenses. Only Nayla has the good fortune of having one brother in the Middle East and one at home contributing to the household income. But she must see to both domestic and "outside" needs of the household almost single-handedly, in a way that neither Samiya nor Shahnaz are able to. However, there are other circumstances that make it necessary for these young women to push beyond their traditional boundaries. There is "no one above their heads" as in a brother free to, or willing to, for example, pay the electricity bill, or to make a complaint at the phone company, or get an ID card from the hospital for an ailing child. These young women are compelled to do such "outside work," in lieu of absent men. Both in their capacity to contribute financially to their households, as well as to take charge of some of the operational details, these young women see themselves as stepping outside of limits traditionally constraining their mothers' generation. While criticized by some of their community for "moving about alone," they also find that they are respected, in changed times, for their ability and their contributions to their families. It helps that a parent or an older brother or sister, by inclination (as the stories suggest) but also because of necessity, supports the young woman against community criticism.

To return to my original question, then, should we see self-motivation for education as unique and inherent to an individual, or in relation to her circumstances? Perhaps both. It is not every younger sibling, such as Shahnaz's sister, who claims an interest in higher education. In fact, while protesting dowry, she expresses her eagerness to marry. And yet, some quality of determination, persistence in the face of financial or other obstacles, and not least the desire to define herself in ways different to her mother, grandmother, or even her peers, motivates some young women to pursue their education beyond high school, and aspire to work.

Working for a wage may indeed be a necessity for these women, but it is also a concept. And work (as chakri) thus desired is possible through higher education. Integral to this concept is what such "desire" achieves: an education, and, ultimately, respect--as family pride in young women's achievements, as also respect within their communities. Nayla's work as Home School teacher especially illustrates this--it is not the amount of her meagre salary that earns her neighbor's respect, though the fact that she earns over and above all of her household responsibilities does. It is the fact that she is doing work that is respected, and moreover, is working for her community.

Yet, boundaries may be pushed thus far and no further. The young women must be married, at some point--this part of their lives, to them as well as to others, appears not to be (eventually) negotiable. The lively, educated, and able Nayla, married into a family that requires her to veil, to not work, illustrates the forces confronting women in the basti. Marriage is in fact a state that is desired. Even as they proceed through school marriage proposals come their way, as do demands for dowry, and the pressure on the girls by their families to marry is high, should the boy be a "good" one. So also, their ambitions to work are limited to "respectable" professions like teaching (in this context in girls' schools, since education is segregated in the basti's Muslim community), while being a lawyer, or working in an "office" or mixed-sex environments are not options. Their "moving about alone" too is within the limits of how "work" such as going on errands for the household, or to the job, or to school, is defined. I was told clearly that such restriction or "purdah" (veiling, in its wider connotation) was a matter of inner control and inherent modesty, rather than outer show, and that a woman should have this quality. This fact was strikingly illustrated to me not only in the quiet, graceful, and controlled demeanor of all these young women as I watched them at work or as they went about the narrow and crowded lanes of the basti, but also, especially, in how they wore the scarf or dupatta. They always wore the traditional salwar (loose pants) and kurta (long shirt), with the dupatta (scarf) carefully spread across their chest so as to cover their bosom. (17)

How, finally, can we relate the "'desire" for an education and consequent attainment of respect to a--culturally construed--understanding of "autonomy"? Autonomy, in this context, needs to be understood in the context of patriarchal institutions that restrict a woman's mobility, that mandate her (low) level of schooling, that demand that she be modest in behavior and dress, that she uphold the family honor by her chastity and modesty, and that she be married, to a "good" man preferably of her family's choosing, and with dowry. Yet Samiya, Nayla and Shahnaz, while working within some of these boundaries, also successfully counter them as they either stubbornly pursue a higher education, push their boundaries of allowed mobility, select (or declare that they will have a say in selecting) their marriage partner, and refuse to have dowry paid for their marriage. Nayla and Shahnaz especially assert their role as effective examples for the young women of the basti, while Samiya implies her similar role for younger relatives. All assert their respect, both within the family as well as within the community. Shahnaz's marriage, as I interpret it, strikingly illustrates the perhaps conflicted, yet emergent and new identities being forged by the young women. On the one hand, the pressure a young woman of thirty feels to be married in her community, the lack of money that hinders a conventional alliance and its related demands for dowry, is resolved by her choice of Alam, her secret engagement to him. On the other hand, her own sense of achievement in her high educational level and the respect this affords her inspires what appears to be an ultimately autonomous act-her marriage, by personal not familial choice, without dowry, to an equal, an educated social worker like herself. Patriarchal institutions that restrict these young women are, then, subscribed to up to a point, but also countered, negotiated, (18) or circumvented towards the goal of a redefined self which is educated, respected and autonomous.

The women's success (however relative) must also be understood with relation to those with authority within the patriarchal system--and who support them: a father who encourages his daughter to study, who allows her to leave the confines of the neighborhood despite community criticism, who upholds the value of his daughters; a mother who takes on the burden of domestic chores so that her daughter can study or work; an older brother who helps by way of encouragement as well as financially; even an older and married sister who offers her destitute and homeless younger sister her own home as the latter goes to school; a loving grandmother, a sympathetic brother-in-law, and liberal in-laws. Individual motivation and personal potential work in tandem with families aware of the value of an educated daughter, proud of the respect she affords them, and unafraid of breaking, up to a point, with tradition. Supportive mothers, grandmothers, sisters are important loci of cultural change possible within patriarchal institutions, as vested in women. However, it is a senior male--a father, an older brother, a brother-in-law--where authority is centrally vested in patriarchal societies-whose support for a daughter, a sister, a sister-in-law will matter most effectively for her aspirations. It is his ability to stand against the customs of purdah, early marriage, and dowry--to risk the honor of an older and unmarried girl (and thus of his family) that provides a young woman with the support she needs, in her circumstances, to get an education and the future it entails. In other words, for young women to "stand on their own feet" the institutions of patriarchy must be negotiated, if not directly confronted or countered, variously by men as well as women, across generations, wherever power and authority, in their many forms, lie. (19)




(1) The research for this paper was made possible by Travel and Research Grants for Faculty Development from Hollins University, Roanoke, VA, over 1999-2000. Versions of this paper were presented at the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies (SEC-AAS) Annual Conference at Duke University, January 2000, and at the Biennial Symposium of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in Washington, D.C. in November 2000. The paper is dedicated to the three Muslim women whose stories it presents.

(2) Basti loosely translates to "slum" but more appropriately and less pejoratively means an "unplanned settlement." This basti in Southwest Calcutta grew up in the hinterland of Calcutta Port, and is made up of many migrants from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, as well as from rural Bengal who came to find work as dock laborers. The basti population is comprised of about 85% Muslims, 12% Hindus, and 3% Christians. With the decline of the Port in the 1960's these people were left without employment. Today there is a densely crowded environment spread over many square miles. A maze of brick and plaster rooms with shared walls are home to families who live here, often a single room for a family of ten. Toilets are shared among families, and open drains run through the area.

(3) All names of individuals and of organizations have been changed to protect privacy.

(4) Two authors refer to the wide prevalence of dowry among Muslims in Bengal and Kerala states, up to 94% of their respondents (Jehangir, K. 1991. Muslim Women in West Bengal. Socio-economic and Political Status. Calcutta: Minerva Associates (Publications) Ltd.; Menon, Indu. 1981. Status of Women in India. A Case Study of Kerala. New Delhi: Uppal Publishing House.) In a survey carried out on my request by social workers with FAB in 1998, of 103 families (two Hindu), 15 families acknowledged asking for dowry for their sons, while 51 paid it for their daughters.

(5) Anjum, Mohini, ed. 1992. Muslim Women in India. New Delhi: Radiant Publishers; Siddiqi, Zakia A. & Anwar Jahan Zuberi, eds. 1993. Muslim Women. Problems and Prospects. New Delhi: M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd.

(6) Esposito, John L. 1998. Introduction, in Haddad, Yazbek, John L & Yvonne Esposito, eds. 1998. Islam, Gender, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

(7) Bardhan Roy, M. 1994. Calcutta Slums. Public Policy in Retrospect. Calcuta: Minerva Associates (Publications) Pvt. Ltd.

(8) An older sibling is referred to and addressed in kinship terms that reflect this relationship with the speaker. Thus, Bardi or Barda means 'eldest sister' and 'eldest brother' respectively; Mejdi or Mejda, the next older sibling, and Chordi or Chorda, the third oldest sibling.

(9) A Pass program generally requires less time in college, and is less rigorous than an Hon ors program. The latter is comparable to a "Major" in American academia. Indian students in the state of West Bengal take their state-wide "Madhyamik" examinations in Class 10, and then the "Higher Madhyamik" in Class 12--after which they enter a college for a Pass or Honors program for three years.

(10) Tuition here refers to special private tutorial help with problem subjects. This is expensive, yet seen as necessary (at all social class levels today) to assist a student pass his or her exams.

(11) I have calculated the exchange value at an average of Rupees 45 to $1 (U.S.), though the rate fluctuated between 1999-2002 at Rupees 40 to Rupees 50 to the US Dollar.

(12) The Bachelors program has two State-wide examinations: the First Part exam is held after two years of college, and the Second Part, or Final exams, are held after the third year.

(13) I heard a distinction made by others at the basti between chakri, a salaried job, as op posed to the general category kaj, simply 'work'. Even if the latter paid a wage, the former, as something performed in a context that carried social respect, was seen to have more status.

(14) Televisions are a status item in the basti, where families will share one, rent one (depending on a major event such World Cup Football), or buy one despite their poverty.

(15) The Home School program was started in 1992, and grew from two schools to ten by 1999, and to thirteen by 2002.

(16) This continuing demand on the bride's family even after marriage is seen to be a major cause of the "dowry deaths" of young women in India today, murders which occur when the demands cannot be met, and which occur at all socioeconomic levels today, including in the basti, in accounts given to me by Shahnaz and others.

(17) This is how I took care to wear my own dupatta when I entered the basti myself, also dressed in salwar and kameez. Outside of it, like other Hindu women, I had the option of wearing it fashionably draped over one shoulder, or around my neck.

(18) See Jeffery, Patricia & Roger Jeffery. 1994. "Killing my Heart's Desire: Education and Female Autonomy in Rural North India" in Kumar, Nita, ed. Women As Subjects. South Asian Histories. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. Pages 125-171 ; Raheja, Gloria & Ann Gold, eds. 1994. Listen to the Heron's Words. Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

(19) This paper was written early in 2001. Much was to happen in the basti after the terrorist attacks in the USA on September 11th 2001. The American organization funding AAES over some sixteen years swiftly withdrew its sponsorship (by September 2002). The consequences for the basti community were devastating. While Nayla had left for Bombay after her marriage, Samiya lost her job with AAES/FAB, but found employment as an insurance agent, work she currently does. Shahnaz worked with AAES for another year, but on half-pay, while her husband Alam lost his job with that organization. Angry at regressive trends that she came to see at AAES after American funds were withdrawn (such as workshops she was asked to organize encouraging young girls to veil), she too left the organization, and is currently unemployed. Her father died in the summer of 2003. Alam has since found work with another American Church-based organization. It is a sad irony that American claims to "liberate" Muslim women as part of its agenda in its 'war on terror' should have such repercussions in this Muslim community in Calcutta, and leave courageous, intelligent women like Shahnaz and Samiya in the lurch. I discuss this at greater length in my article "The 'War on Terror' and Withdrawing American Charity: Some Consequences for Poor Muslim Women in Kolkata, India" in Meridians, Vol. 4(2), 2004, Pages 137-167.
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Author:Samanta, Suchitra
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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