Eminent women have slammed the vicious attempt to make a non-issue an issue by targeting women for their religious identities and dresses in educational institutions. The eight women speakers from diverse backgrounds spoke at a virtual panel discussion on ‘History of Denying Education to Girls and Marginalised Societies in India’ organised by GIO Central Committee. They have noted that acquiring education has been an uphill struggle for girls and marginalised societies in India throughout history. The programme covered various topics in the field of education and the long history of exclusion within it.

Delivering presidential address, national secretary of JIH Women’s Wing, Mrs. Rahamathunnisa has condemned the denial of education to selected groups by purposely creating a radicalised atmosphere in the country, even in the presence of the Right to Education Act and the promise of ‘Sab ka Vikas’.

Commenting on the Hijab issue in schools and colleges, she said, “Fully denial of religious or community identities is against the very idea of India. The beauty of Indian society is unity in diversity. If you cannot accept a community with their identities during everyday life then the country cannot progress. A progressive society should accommodate all differences. So everyone should be accepted with their identities and they should be given equal rights.

“Despite all progress, women and girls continue to face multiple problems and barriers such as they are bullied, lack of money or schools in villages or localities, rapes are going on in the country, particularly Dalit women are facing more abuses and harassments. Despite all these, women are slowly but steadily getting education. If you are troubling them and stifling their progress through all such issues then once again the country is going backward not forward. This is also a strong attempt to ghettoise the society.”

Dr Aamna Khanam, the convener, in her introductory address, traced the history of how in the name of ritual and culture many communities were denied education and deliberately kept under a cloud of ignorance. She added that the idea of education itself was misinterpreted and narrowed while slogans such as ‘Beti Padhao’ abound, there was little done on the ground to accompany it and made it a reality.

Ms. Zainab Rashid, a research assistant and moderator of the discussion, contextualised the current furore over hijab in the longer history of denial of education to marginalised groups. She said it was important to understand history in order to tackle the present situation, as well as the need to theorise the double deterrent or double burden that women of marginalised communities face, of being both marginalised by gender as well as by caste/tribe/religious identities. She also highlighted the need to recognise women’s intellectual capabilities rather than only to see women for reproductive purposes, which often leads families not to invest in developing the minds of girls.

As a media person, Ms. Chandrani Banerjee expressed her disappointment over the sensationalised debates in the media over hijab while ignoring questions of unemployment, primary education or the status of the health system in India. Ms Banerjee urged all people and groups to stand up for their fellow citizens irrespective of their own identity.

Dr Sowjanya Tamalapakula, an academic and researcher from EFLU, focused on Dalit women and their access to education, arguing that education is firmly embedded within the caste system. Citing Dr Ambedkar and the casteist glorification of Eklavaya’s sacrifice, she clarified the misconceptions around caste and how, if education continues on caste-lines, marginalised communities were not allowed to escape dehumanising professions and were forced to continue in caste-based occupations, generation after generation. She traced the exclusion of Dalit women in scriptures and the later colonial and social reformist developments in the 20th century where Dalit women fought to get access to education, leading up to the incidents of institutional harassment of Dalit and Adivasi women like the death of Dr Payal Tadvi.

Ms. Sheeba Ramachandran, State Secretary, Kerala Pradesh Mahila Congress, spoke about the moral responsibility to invoke and learn about women’s histories when grasping the present. She spoke about the history of erstwhile lower-caste women who resisted patriarchal and caste-based violence when they sought to study, linking it to how the current dispensation is pushing minority communities out of the public sphere despite the insistence on education by various committees’ reports like the Sachar Committee report.

Ms. Muhi Nishath, from Gulbarga spoke about the immense speed with which girls are entering into higher education and contributing to society. Highlighting the increasing awareness around rights, she discussed the real issue in Karnataka and how educational institutions have become battlefields where education itself is being actively denied.

Dr Aishwarya Rajalakshmi, a disability rights activist, responded to the earlier discourse of double disability by arguing that as a Dalit, Christian woman with a disability, there can be quadruple discrimination. ‘Lack of education is darkness’ for a child or an adult alike, she added.

The idea of ‘purdah’ in education was also examined historically, with one speaker arguing how rather than the restrictive conception of purdah which focuses on seclusion, hijab or modesty allowed many women like the past Begums of Bhopal not only to pursue education but also open educational institutions.

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