Following the violent gang rape of a young medical student on a Delhi bus last month, some top Muslim clerics say ending co-ed schools would prevent rapes. But the suggestion has found few takers: Even among Muslims, many are opposing it fiercely.
Soon after the Delhi rape, a government committee sought suggestions from different quarters on how to improve safety for women in India. The committee received 11 lists of suggestions, including one from Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), one of the country's largest Muslim organizations. Among a set of suggestions ranging from a ban on sex outside marriage to public execution of convicted rapists, JIH highlighted that co-education leads to many social evils.
"Co-education should be abolished and proper education facilities meant exclusively for women should be made available at all level of education," the JIH statement, issued by Secretary General of JIH Nusrat Ali said.
But many Muslim educators, female students, and working women across the country have opposed this suggestion, charging that it would be detrimental to the development of the Muslim community in India. The public resistance highlights the growing appetite among Muslim parents to improve their minority community's trailing status through education, including that of girls.
Indian Muslims have lagged behind in education, which has set back the community's development, says Samsul Alam, the vice chancellor of Kolkata's Aliah University.
"But, in a changed positive trend, all across the country in increased number Muslims are sending their children to study in schools, colleges, and universities. In droves the Muslim girls are also pursuing studies and they are set to upgrade the socioeconomic status Muslims in the society," says Professor Alam. "If now we stop sending our girls to co-ed institutions, they would be deprived of advanced education and it would be disastrous for the community."
According to data provided by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration that specializes in research of planning and management of education in India, between 2007-08 and 2010-11, enrollment of Muslim children in the elementary school level increased by 25 percent and for the children between the sixth and eighth grades by 50 percent.
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The JIH is a hardline Islamic organization and movement among Sunni Muslims in India. Founded in India in 1948 after Partition, the organization claims to have 50,000 party workers and 300,000 other associate members. According to its website, the group says it is drawing in members with the purpose of developing a cadre of righteous Muslims who might then, through God, bring about the establishment of "the Islamic Order" by the state.
Islamic scholar and JIH spokesman Abdul Hameed Nomani says Islam favors education for all men and women, but asks its followers to avoid mixing with anyone besides close male relatives.
"In Islam pardah [veil] is very important, but co-education promotes bepardaghi [going without veil] which is against the Shariat. It is giving rise to a number of evils, therefore we are against co-education," Mr. Nomani says.
At lower levels of the Indian education system, separate institutions for girls are available, but for higher professional studies, no such system exists in the country, explains Tanweer Fazal, a professor of sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.
"We should not restrict the girls from seeking education in co-ed institutions. By all accounts, it is not segregation but healthy interaction that goes a long way in ensuring mutual respect," he says.
A government committee set up to review the state of Indian Muslims reported in 2006 that Muslims in India were poorer, less educated, and suffered from higher unemployment. Although Muslims constitute at least 15 percent of the population, only 4 percent of the graduates were Muslim, the committee reported.
Experts in the committee recommended wider participation by Muslims in mainstream education as a specific measure to improve the socioeconomic condition of the community.
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Since the committee report was published Muslim leaders have been urging the community members to send more of their sons and daughters for higher studies.
Many girl students and young professionals described the anti-co-ed order and the related 2007 fatwa as moves to destroy the spirit of education among Muslim girls today.
Dr. Yasmin Fathima, a 25-year-old medical doctor in Bangalore says that among her educated Muslim friends there was none who was against the co-ed system.
"If the girls go only to girls-only places for study, they cannot choose many of the professional careers. I would have never been able to study medicine in a top college if I stayed away from co-ed institutions," she says.
Esha Meher, a student in Gujarat National Law University in Gandhinagar says that if a girl was from a co-ed background she could adapt herself more easily to conditions in most of today's workplaces where men and women work shoulder to shoulder.
"I find the suggestion of banning the co-ed system ridiculous," Ms. Meher says. "Right from the early stages of a child's life he or she has to know that girls and boys are equal and compete for the same goals. Only in a co-educational setup can a young boy or girl learn that the female gender is not in need of protection, but in fact is one among the others who can laugh, cry, celebrate, protest, and strike back, if wronged."