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India of the late 19th century and early 20th century was not the India of today, it was long before feminist thought became fashionable in the upper echelons of intellectual discourse, it was a time when fight for survival against alien suppression had to be on the forefront of every action that a thinking Indian took. It is in this context that if we analyze Sir Syed Ahmad’s vision and efforts towards education of women, it becomes truly enriching. Sir Syed Ahmad’s contribution towards the advancement of higher education in India is not only monumental but also truly far ahead of his time. Analysis of the work and achievements of men rooted so firmly in history comes with a caveat, while scrutinizing their lives we often make the capital error of letting ourselves enter a time warp, that is to say we forget that the actions of people long gone needs to observed in reference to the various socio economic and structural factors at play during his or her lifetime or at the time when he or she made the decisions under question. Let us first try and put things into perspective by analyzing the background from four directions, first the situation of women in India during the time of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, second the educational framework of the country as a whole during the time, third the positive impact Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s efforts had on the educational status of women in India and finally the organic growth of the ideas and ideals of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and its evolution up to the current times. Status of Women in IndiaIn the early part of the nineteenth century when Sir Syed Ahmad was born (1817 to be precise) the status of women in India was not something we can be proud of. The noted historian Dr. Bipin Chandra has this to say about the precarious position of women in India of the early nineteenth century-‘
The most distressing was the position of women. The birth of a girl child was unwelcome, her marriage a burden and her widowhood inauspicious. Attempts to kill girl infants at birth were not unusual. Those who escaped this initial brutality were subjected to violence of marriage at a tender age. Often this marriage was a device to escape social ignominy and, hence, marital life did not turn out to be a pleasant experience. An eighty year old Brahmin in Bengal had so many as two hundred wives, the youngest being just eight years old. Several women hardly had a married life worth the name, since their husbands participated in nuptial ceremonies for a consideration and rarely set their eyes on their wives after that. Yet when their husbands died they were expected to commit Sati which Rammohan Roy described as ‘murder’ according to every shastra. If they succeeded in overcoming this social coercion, they were condemned, as widows, to life-long misery, neglect and humiliation. ’The condition for Muslim women with respect to education was even worse, for a Muslim female child was doubly disadvantaged. The Muslim community in India unlike its counterparts from other faiths had failed to develop a bourgeoisie middleclass due to lack of trust and suspicion in western norms and English education, so as observed by Sir Syed while the Bengalis had taken to English education and were gradually placed in relatively higher positions with the government the Muslims in India had a long way to go.
This explains his immense emphasis on Muslim youth to take up scientific and secular studies. A Muslim woman in British India had to face prejudice on two counts, firstly because she was a Muslim and secondly because she was a female. The Memorandum on Progress of Education in British India published in 1916 shows that the general levels of enrolment among girls were considerably lower than boys in all provinces of the country, the inimical conditions faced by the Muslim girl child is evident by the fact that their enrolment was even lower when compared to their Hindu sisters. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was one of the first Muslim scholars to have recognized the importance of educating the girl child in fact contrary to popular perception female education was integral to his reformist program, he was one of the first social reformers in India to have actually furthered a socio economic context in relation to the plight of women in India. In the words of the great Harvard scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith Sir Syed Ahmad Khan “sought to overthrow the notions that Islam could not permit women out of seclusion (purdah) nor recognise the duty of women’s education. ”Educational Status in nineteenth century IndiaThe educational framework of our country was in shambles, to say the least, in the nineteenth century. Lord Macaulay’s shrewd attempt at forcing English down thethroats of our school children had created a vast gulf between the sliver of educated upper class Indians and the majority.
The attempt was to stifle the progress of Indian languages and create an English speaking bourgeoisie army of loyalists who could be paraded through the comity of civilized nations as proof of Britain’s benevolence. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan despite being a moderate took great exception to this feudal structure in the educational system in the country; he not only expounded the theory of democratizing education but also made relentless efforts towards achieving parity with Europe in terms of education (his visits to Cambridge and other parts of Europe had a profound impact on his thinking). The dismal state of Education in India is evident from key educational statistics of the nineteenth century, it is estimated that literacy rate in India ranged from anywhere between 3 to 7 percent, female literacy is estimated by various sources to be less than one percent. The skewed policies of the British promoted school going among only select sections of the society. A cursory glance at indicators throws up a very stark picture of the state of affairs in the education sector during the British Raj.
In 1853 the Gross Enrolment Ratio in India (cutting across religion) was 0. 014 percent, the average literacy rate for Hindus was 8. 4 percent and that for Muslims was 6. 4 percent. Latika Chaudhury assistant professor of Economics at Scripps College notes in her influential research paper that public spending on education was grossly inadequate during the Raj and the British were doing very little to promote education in a place as heterogeneousas India.
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