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‘It will help future generations’: Muslim schools in north India set to modernise

Muslim faith schools in Uttar Pradesh will be required to teach English, maths and science subjects to secondary-school level in an attempt to equip students more effectively for the modern world, the Indian government has said.

The move was announced by Laxmi Narayan Chaudhary, state minority welfare minister for Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which won a landslide victory in India’s most populous state earlier this year.

Uttar Pradesh has an estimated 19,000 faith schools, or madrasas, but most teach only Islamic theology. Even madrasas that do teach these subjects – many are trying to modernise their curricula – make them optional at secondary school.

“The state government is working to introduce changes in the curriculum to ensure that students coming from madrasas can compete with others in professions like [medicine] as well as engineering,” said Chaudhary.

Millions of Muslim children will be affected by this proposal.

Of all India’s religious communities, Muslims have the highest illiteracy rate (42.7%), the lowest share of people in work (33%), and the lowest level of enrolment in higher education (4.4%) – even though they comprise 14% of India’s population.

Madrasas are a particular point of contention between Hindus, the BJP and Muslims. Madrasas have been called breeding grounds for Islamic extremism by some BJP members. Meanwhile, staff at the schools accuse the BJP of attempting to meddle with their traditions and bring them to heel.

The Jamea Tus Salehat madrasa in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, welcomed the move to make the subjects compulsory. Soofia Azhar, an English teacher, said these subjects were not taught in secondary school because Arabic takes up a lot of time.

“I welcome the move. But will the government help us in hiring the extra teachers? And the government textbooks for these subjects need to be translated into Urdu, the medium of instruction here. We need to find out about that,” said Azhar during a tour of the girls’ school, which has more than 2,000 pupils.

All the school’s teachers are women, except for the four men who teach Islamic studies. The syllabus includes English, Hindi, maths, science, history, computer studies, PE and social sciences.

A modern education is fused with a culturally orthodox ethos. When teachers, already in abayas, leave the main building for the Islamic studies wing they have to use scarves to cover their heads and faces.

Muslims are the majority in Rampur, which is rare. Although 20% of Uttar Pradesh’s population is Muslim, only a handful of towns have a Muslim majority.

Shaair Ullah Khan Wajeehi, joint secretary of the Jame-Ul-Uloom Furqania madrasa, a few kilometres from the girls’ school, said a modern curriculum is taught to the boys alongside the classical Islamic education. But because maths and science are non-mandatory at secondary level, many students opt out. When they enter the job market, they are at a disadvantage, he said.

“The government needs to make an extra allocation for the extra teachers, books and equipment. Let the government commit money to this announcement to make it work and we will be happy. This move will help future generations,” said Wajeehi.

A Muslim women’s activist, Zakia Soman, said the plan was not only welcome but imperative. “Muslims are so poor … we urgently need a modern education. Studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of parents want a modern curriculum for their children,” she said.

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