By Frank F. Islam*
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently called for empowerment and education of Muslim women. One would have expected this message to receive widespread acceptance and support. It did not.
There was resistance on several fronts for a variety of reasons. Some saw Modi’s move as a political stunt. Some questioned whether Modi was doing anything meaningful in the education and empowerment area. Others came out against it because of a connection to the triple-talaq controversy.
There is no gainsaying that there is an unequivocal and critical need to empower Muslim women through education in order for India to achieve its full potential. The status of education in general was captured by the 2001 census which revealed that the Muslim literacy rate was only 59 per cent.
In response to these and additional findings regarding Muslims and others in the weaker sections, the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 disclosed a development deficit in a number of areas. The report resulted in the creation of an across-the-board programme for the development of minorities.
This programme and other initiatives have had a beneficial effect. In the 2011 census, the overall literacy rate for Muslims went up substantially to 68.5 per cent against the national literacy rate of 74 per cent.
That was good news. But the numbers within the numbers tell a different story. The worst literacy rate for women in India is among those in the Muslim community at less than 52 percent. That is cause for concern.
Even more worrying is the performance of Muslims in terms of higher education. A US India Policy Institute released in 2013, six years after the Sachar Report, showed that only 11 per cent of Muslims in India pursue higher education compared to a national average of approximately 19 per cent. Most significantly, that study revealed that there has been a decline in the general category of Muslims participating in higher education.
The literacy rate and the higher education statistics represent a double whammy for Muslim women as it relates to empowerment. In education, literacy is the starting line and higher education is the finishing line for becoming fully empowered. These statistics indicate that not enough Muslim women even get to the starting line and very few get to the finishing line.
This must change. Muslim women must be able to participate fully along the entire educational continuum. This participation is pivotal for the future of the individual Muslim woman, the Muslim family and India.
For the individual Muslim woman, education itself is empowering. It removes the shackles of ignorance. It develops the knowledge, skills and attitudes to pursue and create one’s own destiny. It builds self-esteem and confidence. Education is the gift that keeps on giving. It is an opportunity creator and bridge to the future.
For the Muslim family, education prepares the Muslim woman to be a change agent. Too many Muslim families are trapped in poverty because of a lack of education. With her own education, the woman can educate and equip her children to escape that trap. I firmly believe education is a powerful equaliser, opening doors to Muslim women to lift themselves out of poverty.
For India, education delivers on the promise of the largest representative democracy in the world. Central to that promise are equality, opportunity and inclusive economic mobility. Education levels the playing field and makes that promise a reality. Once that reality exists for Muslim women they will be able to deliver on that promise for India by helping others up the ladder of success. They will have the capacity to change the face of India and the landscape of the world.
In the 21st century, higher education is becoming more important for climbing that ladder. By higher education, I don’t just mean four-year colleges or universities. I include technical, vocational and professional education at the secondary levels.
It might seem that I am a little delusional given the current circumstances in talking about Muslim women and higher education. But that is not the case.
On my last visit to India in February this year, I had the good fortune to give addresses and speak with young Muslim women students at Fatima Girls Inter College in Azamgarh and Abdullah Women’s College at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). I was inspired by them and their commitment to making a positive difference in India.
During that visit, my wife Debbie and I also dedicated the new Management Complex that we had financed at AMU. In my comments at the dedication ceremonies, I predicted that from this Complex “will come the future leaders who will make India and the world a better place.”
Many of those leaders will be educated and empowered Muslim women who will be in the forefront of empowering other Muslim women who will then educate and empower other Muslim women — and the cycle will continue.
When that occurs, those Muslim women would have realised their full potential and they will ensure that India and the world do as well. When they succeed, all of us succeed. India succeeds. The world succeeds.
*Frank Islam is an Washington-based entrepreneur, civic leader and thought leader. His website is www.frankislam.com