Latika Gupta. Education, Poverty and Gender: Schooling Muslim Girls in India. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015. 206 pp. $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-90084-4.
Reviewed by Usha Sanyal (Queens University of Charlotte)
Published on H-Asia (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Schooling Muslim Girls
Latika Gupta's Education, Poverty and Gender is a theoretically grounded ethnography of a Muslim girls' school in Daryaganj, Old Delhi, conducted in 2006. Drawing on the literature in social anthropology, gender studies, and the sociology of education, among others, Gupta gives the reader a vivid account of the daily life of the adolescent students in grades 11 and 12—the former being her object of study, the latter students to whom she taught history—of a private government-aided girls' school she calls the Muslim Girls' School (MGS). The school follows the NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training) curriculum and prepares students for the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) examinations at the end of the academic year. Gupta's signal contribution to the field in this book, in my view, is her recognition of the importance of studying the students' home environment in addition to the academic one in order to fully understand the students' worldview. As a result, she is able to show the continuities between home and school in the lives of the students.
Chapter 3, "Ethos as a Gendering Device," is the central chapter of the book in more ways than one, as it is preceded by a review of the theoretical literature (in chapters 1 and 2) and followed by interesting analytical insights into the data (in chapters 4, 5, and the conclusion). As Gupta describes it, the school consists of 650 students and is located in a relatively prosperous part of Daryaganj, while most of the students live in a poorer part behind the Jama Masjid. The physical distance they travel to and from the school—by foot, in groups—every day acquires great psychological importance for both them and their parents. The parents see the journey as one fraught with danger, exposing the girls not only to heavy traffic but also to the corrupting influences of the outside world of media advertising, films, and the bazaar. In a sense, it epitomizes for them the potential dangers of the very fact that their daughters are studying beyond the 8th grade, the traditional limit of a lower-class Muslim girl's education, after which she would be pulled out of school to prepare for her future life of matrimony and domesticity. Parents find themselves defending the choice to continue their daughters' education beyond this point to members of the extended family, in alliance with their daughters for whom the continuation of their education is a strategic device to delay an early marriage.
In chapter 4, "Articulated Discourses," Gupta explores issues of identity by analyzing twenty-five students' Urdu-language essays on topics of her choosing. Gupta's analysis of the use of "stock phrases"—defined as "routine expressions which follow a well-trodden path of ideas and can therefore be used rapidly and smoothly without forcing the user to think about details" (p. 77)—in the essays is particularly interesting. Thus, students' use of phrases such as "I love my parents," "I want to study," or "I am a good girl" reveals the conflicts they negotiate on a daily basis. When they express the love they feel toward their parents, Gupta writes, we see two distinct things going on: first, their sense of indebtedness toward their parents for the latter's ability to provide for them and their siblings despite a severe shortage of material resources, and second, the guilt they feel for being "disobedient" toward family elders by wanting to continue their studies, thereby putting their parents—and particularly their mothers, their primary allies—in a difficult position vis-a-vis the extended family network. Likewise, the phrase "I am a good girl" expresses the students' desire to reassure their parents that they do not intend to "take any liberty which fell in the category of prohibited interaction" with unrelated men (p. 83). Given their families' acute shortage of money, their desire to continue to study up to the 12th grade imposes a double burden on their parents, who incur extra expenses to educate their (often youngest) daughter and consequently have less money on hand to pay for the marriage of their older daughters.
For the girls, going to school also represents a precious source of exposure to the wider world and a brief period of freedom from family responsibilities and surveillance which they would otherwise not have. Muslim girls have fewer opportunities for socialization outside the home, Gupta writes, because unlike Hindu girls they do not leave home for worship (the mosque being an exclusively male space), and have limited exposure to markets, parks, and even the neighborhoods in which they live. Although they do not watch films or much television, being at school allows the girls to talk to one another about such things and to make friends with peers who are not kin.
If going to school is thus a potential source for the broadening and widening of students' horizons, Gupta concludes, however, that for a variety of reasons the school fails to live up to its promise of promoting citizenship and political participation in its students as envisaged by the constitution of India and required by the democratic process. First, she finds that the school exemplifies what she calls "disengaged pedagogy" (p. 69); that is, the curriculum fails to connect with the lives of the students and is thus meaningless. (It must be said that Gupta does not take us into the classroom at any time, so we do not get a sense of the academic life of the students.) Second, the teachers—who, like the parents, are important role models in the lives of the students—share the worldview and ethos of the students and their parents, and thus offer no conceptual break between home and school. To quote Gupta, "What [the students] learnt at home was consistent with what they learn at school as far as personal conduct was concerned.... the teacher and the mother provided similar values even though the former was educated and professionally qualified [and the latter was not]" (pp. 135-136). From this, it follows that the girls fail to develop personal goals (other than wanting to become a teacher, a career choice that can be easily "accommodated in the larger design of a predestined life" [p. 94] characterized by domesticity and marriage).
The third significant explanation Gupta offers is that the ideal of a "good girl" upheld by students, teachers, and parents alike draws on religious ethics and role models, which play a major role in the girls' identity. To understand the role of Islam in students' lives, Gupta compared the MGS with a Hindu school (identified as the Hindu Girls' School, or HGS) in Daryaganj with a similar though somewhat higher socioeconomic profile. MGS students' responses, while in some respects similar to those of HGS students, emphasized the virtues of "sacrifice, self-effaciveness, submission to the authority of parents and the husband and piety" (p. 36). Gupta was struck by their use of adjectives like beautiful, shy, obedient, and submissive to describe the ideal wife (p. 136), ideals based in large part, she writes, from hadith (prophetic traditions) about the Prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha. They also wrote about the importance of charity toward the needy, an ideal that reflects the Islamic pillar of zakat (alms giving). Gupta concludes on the basis of her observations and analysis that the school, though government aided, does not disturb the students' cultural and religious ethos: "The official curriculum coexists with the cultural curriculum, deriving from the community's religious faith and the practices associated with it" (p. 69). The school thus "fails to create the discontinuities in the life of young adolescent girls, which might offer them an opportunity to engage with the value framework of the Constitution that the official curriculum and textbooks embody" (p. 147).
Gupta seems to imply that the girls cannot be good Indian citizens because they continue to be rooted in the Islamic tradition despite exposure to the official secular school curriculum. If only the school had better teachers and more resources (particularly newspapers, to which the HGS students were exposed while the MGS students were not), the students would be less wedded to the traditions they had grown up with and more individualistic and thus more "modern" Indian citizens, the author seems to suggest. However, it is more fruitful, in my view, to see how the MGS students are already forging a "modern" self and expressing agency by standing up to their parents and extended family by continuing their studies to the end of 12th grade, while simultaneously affirming Islamic ideals of femininity and community. The two go together, sometimes in tension with one another, sometimes in harmony, rather than being in an antagonistic either/or relationship. At a quotidian, everyday level, we can see the MGS girls negotiating a new role for themselves in the context of growing up in poor Muslim families with low literacy rates and lack of steady income or decent health care. This in itself points to a source of potentially tremendous social change in contemporary India. Perhaps some of them will enter the workforce as teachers in a few years, thereby supplementing the family's income. Even if most do not, they will be educated mothers, unlike their own, and will encourage their daughters to be educated and aware of the world around them in new ways. Social change takes time, and it often begins with the kinds of small steps described in this book.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
Usha Sanyal. Review of Gupta, Latika, Education, Poverty and Gender: Schooling Muslim Girls in India.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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