An Aligarh Experience: Educating Girls at the Aligarh Girls’ School: An Interview with Uruz Fatima

The education of the Muslim girl child has been a much neglected area. However the Aligarh Girls School has provided the security, the protection, the right atmosphere, the right fees and the right language to Muslim girls and has thereby acquired the rapport and confidence of many middle class families whose women would have remained uneducated if the school had not kept its doors open for them. The problem of the Islamic ethos in educating the Muslim girl child and how it could be a barrier to the advancement of their education are questions addressed by Uruz Fatima who speaks to Ritu Menon and Zoya Hasan. Uruz Fatima, Principal of the Aligarh Girls School has dedicated her life to the education of the women of her community.
The skill of the interviewer in eliciting the right response is crucial to the success of an interview. With a few well chosen questions, Ritu Menon and Zoya Hasan manage to draw Uruz Fatima to air her opinion on the changing attitude to the education of the girl child. Ritu Menon is publisher at Kali for Women, based in New Delhi who edited with Florence Howe, an international collection of writings from feminist publishers entitled Publishing for Social Change. Zoya Hasan is a political scientist who has edited Forging Identities: Gender, Community and the State. The Aligarh Girls’ School, set up by Sheikh Abdullah in 1906, remains one of the most sought after in the city. In 1999, its student strength was 2300 upto class X, and 1000 in the plus 2 section. It has a predominantly Muslim student body, with only 20% students who are non-Muslims. The number of non-attending private students enrolled in the school in plus 2 is equal to the number of regular students. Most of the girls come from a middle class background, but about 30% of the student body is from the inner city. The school functions in two shifts: mornings: classes V-X, afternoons: classes I-IV, and has a teaching staff of 110. The medium of instruction is Urdu and English, and education is free till class X, after which students pay Rs. 300-400 for 6 months. We interviewed the current Principal of the school, Uruz Fatima, about the status of girls’ education in Aligarh and about the changes in attitudes to educating girls, she has seen over the years, both as a student of Aligarh Girls’ School herself, and then as Principal. She has been Principal of the school since 1995, and is unmarried by choice. “Twenty years ago” she said, “the girls used to sit in the back row, embroidering and sewing. Today they want to do maths and science, and be able to compete.” 

Uruz Fatima: I do not belong to Aligarh, but my father settled here after his retirement. He was a product of AMU and that’s why he was keen to settle here. After his retirement we secured our education in Aligarh. I joined this institution in class III, not class I, passed my class 10 in 1971, and then graduated in 1979. Of course, I could never have dreamt that I would be the Principal of this school, never have thought it!

At the time, of course, I could only plan. And I should tell you that a number of additions have been made in the school, and I am getting feedback that the standard has improved, the discipline is quite a bit better compared to the time that I was teaching here. Our labs are quite up to the mark, we have established new labs, I’ll take you to that part of our building as well…You will see what improvements I tried to make in the building within the span of four years, in the labs, as well as in the attitude of the students. That is the most important.

I used to address them at the time of Prayers, especially classes IX and X, and give them some guidelines about how to decide their future, what different subjects they could opt for in class XI, because till Xth all the subjects are compulsory, but in class XI they have the option among art, social science, science and commerce. We run all four streams simultaneously in Aligarh, because of the professional courses, mainly engineering. The medical people are more inclined towards this, rather than going according to the attitude of the child, the ability as well as the capacity. And I should also tell you very frankly, that this we never do for our children, as parents. This kind of counselling and guidance is lacking today even in our homes. Parents only look at their future, rather than the aptitude of the child and her inclination towards a particular stream. So every year I would tell my girls that they can choose many lines apart from engineering and medical. Even in AMU we have a nursing diploma. We have a women’s polytechnic in which costume designing, computer diploma and shorthand-typing are taught. Apart from that there are ITI institutions and now we know that defence services are open for girls, and they can even join as pilots and so this kind of counselling and guidance I give my students and that has given them the impetus to find their own abilities. And then, of course, as a teacher I am very frank with them and even today I teach. I regularly take classes IX and X, I try to create an atmosphere so that the faces of my students remain fresh, shining, and their eyes glitter. I feel like that every time I see new faces sitting in front of me, so even if one is repeating the same things, one should do it with enthusiasm, and happiness, and interest. I have always been very fond of tours, field work and games, right from my student days.

Even now, after becoming the Principal, I feel like… if I tell you honestly, within the school, many teachers catch hold of me and advise me, “Uruz, you should not be doing that.” But my reply to them is, I am not only the Principal, I am a human being as well, and a teacher, too. So I go to the field even now, which helps. These doors, they are always open like this. Every student is welcome—seniors and juniors. Whenever there is a problem they come to me directly. This has had an impact on their characters.

Ritu Menon & Zoya Hasan: Could you tell us the social background of those who come to you? Are they children of teaching and administrative staff of AMU only or do they come from the city as well? At which stage do they drop out and why? And has there been any increase in enrolment?

UF: As far as the background of the girls is concerned, this limitation is not there at all. We get students from every class and every economic background. We cater to students from the city area as well, which includes the children of lock-makers, those whose parents are still making keys. Even those children come to us whose parents pull carts but when they fill up the forms, they write, “business”. As far as enrolment is concerned, in this very building where you are sitting, we run classes I to XII. But there is a very limited number of students in classes XI and XII, opting only for PCB (physics, chemistry and biology); we have a strength of around 2300 up to class X. Senior secondary girls, i.e., mainly class XI and XII, their strength is around 1000 plus, within the campus of Abdullah Hall, but not in the building where you are sitting. We have a separate building. And I must tell you that there is also provision for those girls who appear privately to attend classes in XI and XIIth. The 1000 girls are regulars in the four streams of science, social science, art and commerce.

       RM&ZH: Has there been any increase in this figure of 1000+?

       UF: It has gone up, but I must tell you that along with the increase, we have certain limitations—I am not going to use the word drawback—that is, infrastructure plus number of permanent staff. At present, till high school, we have 70 teaching staff and in senior secondary, around 40. But this figure includes both categories of staff, the permanent grade staff and part-time teachers. We have 57 permanent grade staff and the remaining 13 are part time. As far as the teaching load is concerned it is equally shared, there is no differentiation. The difference is only in the perks and salary. We have three permanently graded staff, as primary teachers, trained graduate teachers, and post-graduate teachers as far as basic salaries are concerned. As far as part-time teachers are concerned there is no difference with respect to qualifications, they are equally and highly qualified, but they work on a fixed salary of Rs. 2400 p.m. at present, but will you believe that they worked for Rs. 200 only, from 1975 till five years ago? The reason that they are not permanent graded staff is because we don’t have the required number of posts. As far as posts are concerned they have to be sanctioned by the University.

RM&ZH: But doesn’t the number of posts depend on student strength?

UF: No, that is the problem. That’s why I said there are a few problems. As far as the number of students is concerned, there is a lot of pressure. Will you believe that we can select only 20 students for class IX? Only 20, and our applications were more than 600 this year. It was the same last year—we could take only 16 students and there were around 400- 500 applications. The general intake in class I is 80 students. We run two mediums side by side. This is the most important character of the institution, that we give instruction in two mediums, side by side, Urdu and English. I have been a student of the Urdu medium section. When I joined the institution and up till 1971 when I passed out, the school was totally Urdu-medium—all the university schools are registered as Urdu-medium institutions—but with the pressure of the time, I am giving you the figures for various classes. In classes VI, VII and VIII we have six sections each, with a student strength of about 50 in each section. Urdu and English, six sections. When we move to class IX and X there are only two sections which give instruction in Urdu, and four in English; during this session, 1999-2000, we have 14 sections in both classes, seven in each and seven in classes X and IX. And of these there are two sections in Urdu in class IX, and two in class X, the remaining are English medium. The Urdu-medium section has much less students compared to English-medium—in certain English-medium sections, in class IV and class V, there are around 70 students each. Although Urdu-medium sections can also be overcrowded, in class IV we have about 55 students, and in class V around 60.

  RM&ZH: But most of your students have been here since class I and continue till class XI?

UF: No, they come in class VI as well, because we start two sections, one Hindi medium and one Urdu medium, and absolutely fresh and uneducated students join, but they are not more than three or four. We declare no seats—but being a part of AMU we have to keep at least five seats for the nomination category, but that number rises upto 48-50. What is surprising is the number of applications for the 40 English medium seats, it is anything between 350 and 400. I have been observing for the last four years, that for the Urdu-medium it is about 100+ and this year, if I remember correctly, it was 125 or 130. Even there you will notice the ratio, how it differs. This has become a mentality of our Muslim community. There is no difference in the standard of education, courses are not different, books prescribed are not at all different, teachers are not different, everything is the same. The campus is the same, the facilities are the same—but this has become our mentality. We do not see whether the child has the capability, we are just in a race. To some extent it is beneficial, but it becomes counterproductive after a point when we think that we must provide education in English medium only. We do not think we have to provide an education. This is the point at which I often have arguments with the parents. I tell them, do not educate your children with AMU Girls’ High School or AMU as the goal. Think of something else, because how many students can AMU cater to? But people from Aligarh or nearby areas, they do not give it a second thought, they say, no, we want to educate them here itself, and that too in English. Often parents and guardians suffer because competition is tremendous in English medium. If the same child goes in for Urdu, I can guarantee you that she will be much better, merit-wise, but because of the general outlook of people—that if you speak good English, write good English, can express yourself very well in English, you get jobs with ease, get admission to professional courses easily. But it is not the case. I tell them it is not true. This is the time of ‘expertise’—if we have expertise in sewing even, we can earn a livelihood.

As far as enrollment is concerned, in 1965, when I started studying here, there used to be only two sections A and B, upto class X, and the maximum numbers of students was 30 or 40 or 45 per section. Both Urdu-medium. But when we reached class IX in 1970, by then English medium had begun. It has always been a practice in this school—as it is in all the other schools—better students are kept in section A compared to section B. When I joined as a teacher in 1978, we had at the most 3-4 sections; their strength started increasing after class VI, and the reason for this is that the children of Abdullah Nursery and Primary School which is coeducational, used to be within this campus; so the children of those schools came to our school directly. And we have to admit them, they are transferred directly from there to here. This time the number of girls with us is around 95 and it is increasing. So we get a crowd of two sections from there every year. The strength is constantly increasing and we increase the sections from two to six, of which two are in Urdu and the rest are English-medium. Class VI is also an entry point for us where we have an open competition for new admissions in both sections. When I joined here, the school used to run two shifts because we couldn’t accommodate this strength—an increase between 800- 1000—in one shift. I have given you the total figures. We run classes I to IV in the afternoon shift, from 1.30pm to 5.00pm or 5.30pm, depending upon the weather, and classes V to X in the morning shift. I joined as Principal in May’95, and within these four years there has been an increase of about 300 students.

The most important reason for this increase is the awareness of the guardians. Girls from all sections of society come, whether they are key-makers or vegetable-vendors, even those who make cycles. I meet them, I meet their parents, we are providing so many facilities for this strata because their inclination is so great. It is a common fact that Muslims have not reached that stage economically where they can continue the education of their children in private or public schools… and continuing your education is a very big thing, even getting them admitted… It is not his shortcoming or that of his children, but the fault of their economic condition and status—the trend in public and private schools is that, if possible, they would charge exhorbitant fees…

  RM&ZH: On the issue of Muslim women’s education: are the girls studying as much as required? Why aren’t they able to study? What are the constraints?

UF: Those who live near our school and whose parents work in the fruit market, those who are retailers and one does not know how many there are who are trying for admission of their children to this school—they come and address me as Apa, Bibi, or whatever relationship they wish to establish, and ask me where they can educate their children. “If they are not admitted in your school, where will they study? We cannot educate them in a private school, my husband does not earn so much and I have six daughters.” Mostly mothers come. I would like to tell you that fathers come only when I force them to come, when the child fails and I get very angry. But since this is a girls’ school, women do not hesitate, but I would definitely add that my attitude is also important. They know that I meet everyone, that is why they come here with a lot of hope. They come and cry, literally cry, they say, “Please admit our daughter otherwise she will not be able to study at all. You tell us, how will we educate them? Our husbands or in-laws will not permit us to send them to a boys’ school.”

They can go to a government school, but they say we cannot send them to municipal schools because they do not have a proper atmosphere. What they mean is that there, both boys and girls receive their education together and there are older boys as well. Plus, they do not have all the facilities. Even today, the municipal schools in Aligarh, which are very close to my house, do not have enough benches or desks. So all these things have an impact on the parents. They do want education but in an atmosphere where their wards are secure and protected, where they get the right atmosphere, according to Muslims…where the fees are suited to their economic condition… where the language spoken is decent, their children do not have to listen to improper or abusive language. Nobody should use language which is indecent because this feeling is very deep in the Muslim community—that they will starve but they will not be dishonoured. They do not want to beg. We have generally observed that all these mothers do wish to educate their daughters, they say, “We remained uneducated and we are suffering, we do not want our daughters to face whatever problems we are facing today, in our lives”… They understand the importance of education. But there are other factors along with education. They want those as well, they want the education that their child receives to be cultured and according to Islamic tradition. Some parents themselves want restrictions because there are elderly people present in the home.

RM&ZH: Do the girls who come here wear burqas or cover them-selves?

UF: If we take the proportion of burqa clad girls coming to the school, it would be hardly more than 5% to 10%, but the system of covering the head has gone. In the last 15 to 20 years, since the Muslims have started going to the Gulf— it has had a good impact on the economic condition of the Muslims, but along with this, the custom of wearing abaya has increased after going there. No woman can stay without abaya. Along with abaya there is isfaq. And I would like to tell you that it has been mentioned in Quran Sharif that when you go out of your house, cover your head with a chadar. There is a lot of emphasis on covering one’s hair in the Quran. In Arab countries, isfaq is worn along with abaya. Many families have undergone a tremendous change after seeing that. Women who have come from there, all the families which have come from there, have bought abayas or scarves for their daughters and relatives. Ever since then it has become a custom to use scarves. Thirty per cent of the girls who come to school definitely wear scarves but not abaya, but 70% of girls neither use scarves nor burqas. And there would hardly be one per cent out of 300 or 400 or 500 who keep their scarves on during school hours. Most of them take it off after reaching the school because a scarf is not part of our uniform. Secondly, I do not allow coloured scarves and, thirdly, we allow only white scarves for classes V to X, during winter, for those who wish to use them. A black scarf is allowed for class I—so these are the conditions. Those whose families impose restrictions on them, use scarves on the way to the school but in school they fold them and keep them in their bags,

As far as it is a matter of getting education and enlightenment, if there is a clash between that and Islamic precepts, then in the families where Islamic precepts prevail, there is no compromise. They consider education as secondary. There are girls in my school whose fathers are highly educated, they are professors, readers and lecturers—I am telling you about daughters of my friends, even their daughters were not allowed to continue after the Xth even though they are very good at their studies. I tried to force my friend, who is her paternal aunt, saying let me talk to your brother, but she refused saying that he would not agree, there is a very good proposal for her so we have decided to get her married. I talked to her brother who is a lecturer here, the girl whom he married is from the same culture, she has also studied at our school but discontinued her education after marriage, her father is also a lecturer here… But this clash between Islam and education does not prevail too much. It is found in a very limited section. It is also true that in our families, the Islamic ethos is also there, that is, they are staying in naqab, their daughters are going in for medical and MBA type of courses and they are completing them, wearing abaya and scarves. When I did my M.A. around 1977, I had two classfellows who were doing M.Sc. Chemistry and they used to attend classes in burqas…

       RM&ZH: The clash between Islam and education, is this only for girls?

UF: Yes, only girls. I have seen this and I would say both things are in our ethos—it is my observation that this kind of impact is felt more by women and girls because they go through more restrictions than men. It does not make any difference to men whether they wear sherwani or pyjama or shirt and pant. Dress does not make any difference. But there is a lot of difference in the appearance of girls, they stand out in public if they wear an abaya or scarf, so all these things…

       RM&ZH: You emphasized that there is a Muslim ethos in this school which is very essential for your girls. Is it the same for the boys? Is Muslim ethos an important element in their education? Tehzeeb (culture), tameez (behaviour), dignity, respect and a protective environment…

       UF: You see, most of these things are meant for girls and applied to girls only. The reason is that the dignity of the house depends on her. The kind of education and upbringing a girl gets, the same is imparted to the next generation and the whole atmosphere of their homes depends on their personality. As far as the boys are concerned, parents do want all these things for them, that they should get the best education along with the basics of Islam, they should keep practising it and follow the basics, all these things are demanded from boys by their parents and the community, but since boys are temperamentally extroverts and the girls are not—I do not mean from a psychological point of view but that they go out and move around in public—and girls are temperamentally shy, and that is desirable. Also, that along with all the confidence, mobility and education, girls should have an element of shyness.

       RM&ZH: Muslim ethos cannot be special to Aligarh. Are you sure the opportunity of being able to avail of it is greater over here?

       UF: Yes, the opportunity is greater over here. As I said, the question of Muslim ethos as being problematic arises only outside Aligarh. Depending on the family environment, a girl will imbibe the Muslim ethos, internalise it. The conflict will arise when she steps out in society where it does not exist. This is not true for Aligarh.

       RM&ZH: Is Muslim ethos a barrier to the advancement of Muslims—not in Aligarh, outside Aligarh?

UF: No, no question, not in Aligarh, or outside Aligarh, Muslim ethos is not a barrier at all. As far as education among women, among Muslim girls is concerned, an Islamic ethos is not a hindrance, not a barrier. For a normal Muslim—normal in the sense, a Muslim who believes in all those things which have been imparted by Prophet Mohammad, Salal-e-Salam, all those things which are a compulsory part of Islam, I am calling those Muslims, normal Muslims—for a normal Muslim, education is much more important and those people will prefer to give an education to their girls, to their children. Tabliqui-Jamat, Jamat-e-Islami, these people don’t want to lose this Muslim ethos. But Muslims must go for modern education because education is the only base, not only for our livelihood, but for our existence in the modern and cultural society which is now forming and is going to be formed in the future. Islam never hinders education. I am going to tell you that hadith in which Prophet Mohammad said, “Getting educated is the responsibility of all male and females.” This is our interpretation. There is a community of maulanas among Muslims who say they limit this education.

RM&ZH: What, in your view, is the barrier to educating young girls? If it is not parental, not social, not necessarily cultural, could it be lack of facilities, lack of mobility, lack of resources, lack of programmes?

       UF: I think, apart from all these factors, like facilities, social, economic or family hindrances are less important. The number of schools is few, especially those schools which ordinary people can approach. We have some areas which are very far from cities where we don’t have these types of schools at all. But apart from that we don’t even have motivation. For schools, as far as the population is concerned, it goes for all types of people, but for Muslims—at first they were not aware, now they are aware but there are no schools. As far as awareness of education among Muslims is concerned, you see they have been aware only for around twenty years, but other communities were aware much before, ninety or a hundred years ago. So the fact that schools are few, they are very far from their homes, teachers are not regular, these are all negative points. Muslims don’t have family planning facilities so there are more children in their families. When their girls are seven or eight years of age they start working at home…

RM&ZH: Do you think this is one reason for their dropping out from school?

       UF: I am telling you not only about AMU but about all the schools in Aligarh. As far as dropping out is concerned we have zero per cent dropouts, because when girls come to study they get more and more motivation from their classmates, they think an education is most important for their careers and, you see, they are very interested in vocational education now. They want to marry after they study. Third, they want to be independent after they get educated. They want economic independence not remain within the four walls of a home. They have started seeing marriage as a secondary thing now, and their education and career as primary and basic. Not just primary, but basic. This is across classes, leaving out the very poor, the very low economic strata, where parents are unable to carry on with the education of their girls because of poverty.

Is co-founder of Kali for Women and an independent scholar. Has written exclusively on women and her papers have appeared in several volumes. Is co-author of Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, co-editor of Against all Odds; Essays on Women, Religion and Development from India and Pakistan, and guest editor of Interventions: Journal of Post –Colonial Studies, Vol.1 No.2, Special issue on the partition of India. An edited volume, Unmaking the Nation: A Three Country Perspective on the Partition of India is forthcoming. She is also co-author with Zoya Hasan, of Inequality & Community Disadvantage : A Study of Muslim Women in India.

ZOYA HASAN. Is Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Is associated with Kali for Women. Has several publications to her credit and has contributed much to research in women’s studies. Her recent publications are: Indian Politics in Women’s Studies, Inequality and Community Disadvantage : A Study of Muslim Women in India and Gender Communities and the State in India, published by Kali for Women and West View Press, USA.

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RITU MENON. Is co-founder of Kali for Women and an independent scholar. Has written exclusively on women and her papers have appeared in several volumes. Is co-author of Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, co-editor of Against all Odds; Essays on Women, Religion and Development from India and Pakistan, and guest editor of Interventions: Journal of Post –Colonial Studies, Vol.1 No.2, Special issue on the partition of India. An edited volume, Unmaking the Nation: A Three Country Perspective on the Partition of India is forthcoming. She is also co-author with Zoya Hasan, of Inequality & Community Disadvantage : A Study of Muslim Women in India.ZOYA HASAN. Is Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Is associated with Kali for Women. Has several publications to her credit and has contributed much to research in women’s studies. Her recent publications are: Indian Politics in Women’s Studies, Inequality and Community Disadvantage : A Study of Muslim Women in India and Gender Communities and the State in India, published by Kali for Women and West View Press, USA.

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