WOMEN AND EDUCATION IN THE MUSLIM COMMUNITY BY PROF. RYHANA RAHEEM

THIRTY FIRST MARHOOM DR. A.M.A. AZEEZ ORATION – 2004

In December 2002, I was in the United States when a friend of mine called to say that I had been nominated to be a member of the Public Service Commission of Sri Lanka. My first thoughts on hearing this piece of news concerned Dr. A.M.A. Azeez for I could not believe that I was following in the distinguished footsteps of that great gentleman. I felt that I had nothing in common with Dr. Azeez – a civil servant par excellence, a Senator, a leading educationist and a pillar of the Muslim community. That however, was his public persona. To our family he had always been ‘Uncle Azeez’, a tall handsome figure who together with his statuesque wife, Ummu, had been among the closest of friends of my own parents. Dr. Azeez was therefore a figure I had known from childhood, and I feel doubly privileged to have been invited to present this Memorial lecture – because it gives me an opportunity to honour Dr. Azeez personally, and because it permits me to honour the memory of his deep and enduring friendship with my father and my mother.

 
When casting around to find a topic for this lecture, I thought I would read again one of Dr. Azeez’s publication, – “The West Re-Appraised” to see if I could discover some illuminating idea to help me. What I discovered was that the book made no mention of the topic I wanted to speak on; instead I re-discovered anew the personality that was Dr. Azeez. The book, written in 1964, is an exploration of the
 
            “ cultural contact of the East with West, made inevitable by Europe’s
             Expansion into Asia ”.
 
The publication examines, not the contribution of Western thinkers but figures and events of importance to the author. Through this exploration, Dr. Azeez repudiates the idea, often held, that all that comes from the West should be uncritically accepted. He, in fact, upholds the view that
           
“ one culture need not dominate or supersede the other ”
 
and thus neither totally accepted nor rejected in toto, the thinking of the West but sought only to take what was good. He believed that Muslim thought would be able to re-establish its position in this age of technological revolution only when it began to perceive and understand the values latent not only in Western civilization but also in other civilizations. As a Muslim living in Sri Lanka, therefore, he sets out to investigate the values of cultures in our own society – Buddhist, Hindu and Western, and quotes with approval Mahatma Gandhi’s statement –
 
            “ I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely
             as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any “.
 
It is this spirit of synthesis – of the civilizations of the world – that epitomizes what Dr. Azeez stood for. And I believe it was this that made him undertake education as his lifelong passion, for he saw in education the means by which the best of the East and the best of the West could be handed down to the next generation. This is therefore one reason why I chose ‘Education’ as one of the themes of my lecture today.
 
My choice of topic was also prompted by family history, and is reflected in a story I would like to entitle “The Parable of the Two Cousins”. Both these cousins were born into comfortable circumstances in the early years of the last century, in Jaffna. They shared a number of similarities – both had lost their mother at an early age and were brought up by their grandfathers who were brothers. As children, they lived next door to each other, played together and walked together to the same school, a small ‘madrasa’ close to their home. At the age of ten, their paths diverged. One cousin went on to a public school and the University of Cambridge. He achieved the distinction of being the first Muslim to enter the Ceylon Civil Service where he served with distinction until his retirement in 1948 to become the Principal of Zahira College. In 1952, he was appointed to the Senate in the Parliament of Ceylon, and held many other posts of distinction including membership of the Senate and Council of the University of Ceylon, and later as a member of the Public Service Commission. He travelled widely throughout the world – the USA, the Middle East, the Far East and South Africa and became a scholar of repute in both English and Tamil. That cousin was Dr. A.M.A. Azeez.
 
The other – was taken out of school at the age of ten, not because she was a weak student or unwilling to learn but because her aunt had died, and the household needed someone to look after her baby cousin. She was married off at the age of 15, and her most significant journey was to leave Jaffna to come and live in Colombo for the sake of her husband, his career and her nine children. That cousin was my mother.
 
This story of ‘The Two Cousins’ seems to encapsulate for me the fate and educational careers of men and women in the Muslim community, particularly in the last century. One – a male – was given all encouragement to further his studies and pursue a career, the other – a female – made to stay at home. This is the reason why I chose to examine the topic of Women of the Muslim community in the context of Education.
 
The story of ‘The Two Cousins’ is probably a very familiar one for it reflects common practice in societies such as ours. Like oil and water, in Islamic societies, ‘women’ and ‘education’ seem two incompatible concepts. However, rather than accepting this as a truism, that Muslim women are under-privileged when it comes to education, it seemed appropriate to honour the memory of Dr. Azeez by investigating the phenomenon in greater detail. The story of “The Two Cousins” after all, took place during the last century, and it seemed reasonable to expect that things had changed within our community.  Hence, I decided to examine the status of Muslims in education, paying particular attention to women, and to the aspect of education which forms my own sphere of work, i.e. University education. My methodology was based on a study of available statistics published by the University Grants Commission, and literature relevant to University admissions with special reference to Muslim women. The handbook on University Statistics currently available refers to admissions in 2001, and though not the latest set of statistics does reflect a fair picture of the extent of the participation of Muslims in university education. This picture is set out in the discussion of the Tables given below.
 
Table 1 refers to the total intake into all universities in Sri Lanka, by race.
 
Table 1 : Total intake to Universities by Race
Sinhala

9,460 (79.3%)

Tamil

1,909 (16.0%)

Moor

559 (4.6%)
This Table in fact, seems to support M.N. Junaid’s assertion that
 
            “ That Sri Lankan Muslims have been identified as backward uneducated and illiterate compared to the other communities.”
[Junaid : 1985]
 
The statistics given indicate that where intake into the universities from the other major communities is proportionate to their distribution vis-à-vis national population, the intake of the Muslim community is only approximately half that of their percentage of the population (8%). This ‘under-education’ of the Muslim community as reflected at university level seems to occur also in other educational contexts. Chandra Gunawardena (1985) for instance discovered that in relation to school education, except in the case of Year 12 and 13, the percentage of children who repeat classes is higher in the Muslim community than in the other communities. At Years 1 – 5, 7.9% of Sinhala children and 10.2% of Tamil children repeat classes, but in the case of Muslim children, 12.7% are repeaters. At Years 6 – 8, the situation is more serious – only 5.3% Sinhala and 6.4% Tamil children repeat classes; for Muslims, the figure is almost double at 10.9%.
 
If we now turn back to University education, and note where the entrants (in 2001) are located, the picture seems slightly more encouraging, for as Table 2 indicates, Muslim students seem to be spread through the 12 conventional universities.
 
Table 2 : Intake per University
South Eastern

155

Colombo

116

Peradeniya

100

Eastern

39

Sabaragamuwa

39

Wayamba

30

Sri Jayawardenepura

30

Kelaniya

21

Moratuwa

12

Ruhuna

09

Rajarata

05

Jaffna

03

 

It is perhaps not surprising that largest number of Muslim students entered the South Eastern University located in Oluvil., a facility established to cater to large Muslim population in the East. What seems more encouraging are the statistics given for universities such as Sabaragamuwa, Wayamba and Sri Jayawardenepura, which cater to a non Muslim population; the figure also seems to reflect the fact that Muslim students are beginning to take advantage of higher education facility in a variety of localities.

 
If we now look at the intake not in terms of entering to the current university systems, but as a measure of progress over the years, we find certain interesting features. Given below is a comparison of intake between the years 1985 and 2001, a period of c.15 years. As Table 3 indicates, there have been dramatic increases and equally dramatic decreases in entry to the various faculties. The Arts intake, for example, has decreased as has the intake for Commerce, Law and Medicine. The intake for Management and Science however has increased significantly. Table 3 represents figures for all Muslim students, i.e. men as well as women.
 
If this phenomenon is examined more closely in terms of the topic of my lecture, via: Women, we note (in Table 4) that here too, entry has fallen in the faculties of Arts, Law and particularly, Medicine. Intake for the faculties of Science and Management tends to follow the general pattern of intake exhibited in Table 3, and there is an increase although in the case of Science, this is very modest. For Management however the increase of entry of the females is very marked (2.0% to 6.5%). A novel feature here is the dramatic increase also in entry to the Faculty of Commerce (from 2.8% in 1985 to 6.3% in 2001). Muslim female students therefore seem to be shifting their focus with respect to the type of qualification they wish to acquire at university level, and opting for degrees which promise employment.
 
Table 3 : Comparison of Intake over past 15 years
 

1985*

2001

Arts

10.6%

8.0%

Management

6.6%

9.9%

Commerce

6.1%

5.5%

Law

5.6%

4.5%

Science

4.3%

8.0%

Medicine

4.5%

3.3%
Table 4 : Female Intake over past 15 years
 

1985*

2001

Arts

12.2%

4.5%

Management

2.0%

6.5%

Commerce

2.8%

6.3%

Law

3.8%

1.9%

Science

2.7%

3.2%

Medicine

2.9%

0.5%
 
We therefore get a picture of lower participation in university education, but the picture is not static. Instead we find that there seems to be a perception of a change of role where the females are concerned for they are opting for degrees which are not associated with careers traditionally accepted for women such as teaching.
 
Given this scenario, I thought it would be interesting to find what kind of support is provided for these female students by recognized agencies that assist Muslim students. I took as an example the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship fund (CMSF) not only because it was the brainchild of Dr. Azeez, but also because it is a highly reputed source of financial aid to our students. This investigation too threw up some fascinating insights. According to the latest report published by the CMSF, in 2004, a total of 194 students were given assistance. Of these 47 were females. Interestingly the report indicates that a larger number of females (65) received assistance from other donor agencies managed by the CMSF. These donors helped a total of 148 students. Thus of a sum total of 342 students who received help through the CMSF (including other donors), roughly one-third (112) were females.
 
Once again, I examined the figures more closely, and investigated which type of student received this assistance. Here I chose the University of Colombo as an example in view of the varied programmes of study this university offered. The study drew attention to facts not revealed in the earlier analyses. For instance, I discovered that the great majority of CMSF scholarships for students at the University of Colombo, both by the CMSF itself and by other donors, were awarded to those studying Indigenous Medicine. This institute strangely had not even been mentioned in the list of faculties described in the University Grants Commission report. With regard to the CMSF scholarships, however, the females seemed to be at a great disadvantage. Only 7 female students received these scholarships in comparison to 38 males. In the case of scholarships by other donors managed by CMSF, the females fared much better. 10 female students in Indigenous Medicine received such scholarships, a figure very comparable to the 15 given by other donor agencies to males in this Institute. Similarly while there were 12 scholarships by these donors for male Muslim medical students, there was a fair number of 5 for female medical students. Far more promising was the fact that there were 6 scholarships for the Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. All six were awarded to females as was the only scholarship awarded to an Arts student (see Table 5 for details).
 
Table 5 : Types of Assistance to University of Colombo Scholars (2004)
 
                                                                                 Total                Females
a)     CMSF
                        Indigenous Medicine                              24                        02
                        Science                                                11                        03
                        Management                                         02                        01
                        Arts                                                      01                        01
 
b)    Other Donors
                        Indigenous Medicine                              15                        10
                        Science                                                06 (BSc. IT)          06
                        Medicine                                               12                        05
                        Arts                                                      01                        01
 
The position of Muslim women in Higher education as reflected in the university system of Sri Lanka thus reflects certain complex aspects. Overall, it is not very encouraging for the proportion of Muslims (both males and females ) as new entrants is not commensurate with general population statistics. Furthermore, there also seems a drop in entry to a number of academic fields. One bright note however is the shift in choice of academic pursuit, and areas relevant to contemporary employment such as Management and commerce seem to be coming into vogue among female undergraduates. This shift however may also signal a continued commitment to the traditional areas of Muslim prosperity, i.e. trade and commerce, and may perhaps be a reminder that the community remains essentially rooted in these fields.
 
If this is indeed so, then the phenomenon certainly needs further investigation. Educationists such as Professor Chandra Gunawardena have commented that Muslims are educationally disadvantaged because many live in areas where school facilities are minimal. This comment was made in 1985. given the fact that currently c 200,000 Muslims still languish in refugee camps, today this deprivation would have become even more pronounced. Jezima Ismail pinpoints another reason for under-education for she highlights the fact that pre-school education – a factor which contributed positively to the development of the child – is sadly ignored in the Muslim community. This negation of education for the pre-school child often stems from the lack of education of Muslim women, and leads to a vicious cycle. The women being under-educated do not encourage their own children, who in turn become dropouts who cannot see the benefits of education, thus hindering the development of future generations of children. Apart from primary and secondary education, the community also need to focus on Higher Education for as Gunawardena states.
 
      “ Higher Education bestows on an individual much more than as increased earning capacity. It bestows a refinement, a sensitivity, a maturity that may help fashion not only her own future but that of the society of which she is a part.”
 
Apart from its impact on individual development, Higher Education assumes significance also because it is through Higher Education that a nation produces its ‘critical mass’ of leaders – the entrepreneurs, the intellectuals, the professionals, the managers, the political leaders. I do not think I need to spell out at this juncture how important it is that we produce such persons, not only for our own community but for the country at large. Devaluation or denial of education can only lead to intellectual and professional impoverishment, and  through this to a gradual decay of the community.
 
In this context, it seems to me that it also relevant that we inquire into the true nature of education – what does it really mean when we say that a community is ‘educated’.  Does it merely imply a higher incidence of those entering tertiary institutions? Or does it signify ‘empowerment’ – an enhanced capacity to deal with the complexities of contemporary life? The word “education” stems from the Latin ‘e-duco’ – to lead or draw out, and implies a process by which the best in an individual is ‘drawn out’. What has been highlighted above in my lecture are facts pertaining to Muslim participation in higher education. But if we agree that education means more than that, that it implies sensitivity and maturity, then we need to examine the education not only of the women but of the men as well. I would like, at this point, to recount what to me was a horrifying experience, a study presented at a conference held in March this year.   The study was a survey of 357 women in six provinces, and included districts such as Colombo, Kandy, Kalutara, Galle, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Amparai, Badulla and Hambantota. The average age of these women was 35 years. They were not highly educated; only 30% had studied up to the Ordinary Level and/or the Advanced Level. 71% of these women were unemployed. What bound these women – drawn from all parts of this island – was the fact that they had all been subject to abuse and violence, which included physical harm, rape and verbal abuse. The great majority, 62% of these women reported that the violence had begun in the very first year of marriage. As the study says, the Muslim community is not in favour of accepting that such violence exists in our midst especially against our women. We seem to subscribe to the perception that our girls and our women are protected and kept safe. In fact, under-educating the girl-child seems to be considered as one way of protecting her from the harsh realities of working for her own living. Many of us may, in fact, be thus protected but to me, the MWRAF (Muslim Research and Action Front) study revealed harsh truths that we are often not prepared to accept vis-à-vis our community.
 
Our community, in spite of a large population increase, still remains small and scattered. The war that ravaged our country has not resumed but significant numbers of our people live as they have done for a decade, in refugee camps. To our credit, we do have men who are counted among the leaders in professions such as law, medicine and commerce. But the plight of our women leaves much to be desired. In spite of the provisions of free Education, in spite of increased rates of literacy, he have yet to achieve true equality for our women.
 
I began this lecture with a personal reference to Dr. A.M.A. Azeez. At its end too, I would like to acknowledge his influence and impact for I am well aware that I and my sisters were privileged to read for higher degrees because of the influence of Dr. Azeez on my parents. I would therefore like to end my lecture with this image. At the heart of our religion, in the holiest of our shrines, the Haraam Shaarif, men and women pray together,. When the tawaf is performed around the Holy Ka’aba, women do not walk in one circle, and men in another. We are pushed, shoved and jostled equally.  We all walk around in the same spirit of unity and faith. I believe that that was the vision Dr. Azeez aspired to – equality of opportunity, equality of achievement and equality of spirit. I can only hope that someday this will become a reality not only for the privileged few but for all Muslim women in all corners of this small island.

Leave a Reply