Courtesy - Kashmir: An Earthly Paradise by Wild Frontiers

Onset of terrorism and Women’s education in Kashmir valley

Mariam Karim

In the late eighties the unease had begun already…the Governments sitting at the Centre took no cognizance of it, paid no heed to the warning signs of growing restlessness and sense of alienation of a people, of a flourishing underground press that was subverting them. Today as they live without communication with the outer world… I remember that they have done so almost every harsh winter, when the snows were so heavy there were no working phone lines, no electricity, no television , water pipes burst, roads were blocked, and the underground press said…”see how India doesn’t care about you….” Yes I’ve been there.. Snowed into my barrack by a frozen lake at the university campus ….until someone dug me out and rescued me ..

The tragedy of Kashmir can be felt more keenly if we look at the tremendous efforts that had been made towards progress in so many areas in the valley before the onset of terrorism. Here I bring to you an extract from a research paper I had read at the Third National Conference of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies at Chandigarh in 1986. The paper was titled “Womens struggle for education in the Kashmir Valley and present day problems”.

Education in Kashmir was a relatively recent phenomenon in the eighties, especially in the case of women, so much so that the first educated women were still eminently traceable. Kashmir was studied here as a case different from that of the State as a whole because although the plans and projects for the State were the same , the geographical inaccessibility of the valley , and the majority community being Muslim, by and large not educated in the modern sense, except for a few families, warranted a different perspective.

Farmers in Kashmir – representative image

The majority began to become educated mainly after the Land to the Tiller policy implemented by Sheikh Abdullah, as this liberated the agricultural labour from exploitation and usury. It provided a base for greater possibilities of improvement in all domains (than in States where the land is not owned by the tiller) Although there was still a great deal of poverty and disparity in Kashmir in the eighties, very few could be found homeless and hungry.

Before Independence, the only women who went freely about their business were the Hanji women (from the fisherfolk community). The middle class Muslim women were in purdah, and the Pandit women were not much freer. The latter, however, belonging to a longer tradition of education were often imparted at least some kind of lessons at home. I met Begum Zafar Ali, who was born in 1901, the daughter of the first Muslim boy to matriculate and who later become the Law and Education Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. She was the first Kashmiri Muslim woman to have matriculated through private tuitions given by English governesses , in purdah. The sister of the famous Dr Krishna Misri (erstwhile Principal of Government Women’s College) was the first woman to graduate.

The Mallinson Girls’ Srinagar,.was established by Miss Violet B. Fitze as the Girls’ Mission High School at Fateh Kadal in 1912. Miss Oliver had come to Srinagar as Commissioner of Guides. The poor hanji or fisherfolk’s girls used to be brought by force to study or given the incentive of scholarships, but they were the only students to start with and there was only one old gentleman to teach them.

In 1925 Maharajah Hari Singh brought Miss Bose as Lent officer from Lahore to improve the education of women in the valley. At that time Begum Zafar Ali was the only educated Muslim girl. The Maharajah wanted her to go out and help with the project of women’s education but for a long time she did not do so for fear of being boycotted by her community and taken for a Christian. However, after her marriage, she went to Gilgit, where, seeing the condition of women and children, she started a knitting and sewing class along with healthcare and training for children. She also discovered women who were familiar with certain arts and skills such as embroidery and crochet, but wanted to hide it fearing their art may be popularized. She said to them, “Bibi tum apne dimagh ko qabar banaogi?” (do you want to turn your minds into a graveyard?), and persuaded these women to teach others their skills.

Later Begum Zafar Ali broke free from all her fears and taught at the school. The women involved in the education project went from home to home to persuade families to send their girls to school. At first the response was hamari beti besharam ho jayegi, (our daughters will become shameless) but gradually progress was made . Saraswati Devi was the Inspectress of Schools, in Srinagar. Begum Zafar Ali took over from her and established the system of free mid-day meals for girls as, she said, “A hungry child cannot learn”. Sheikh Abdullah later appointed her as Head of Department Women’s Education .It was also put forward by her that the children could not really learn unless the mother was involved and their education was supplemented by some skill relevant to their economic existence (poultry, weaving or spinning). When means were given to the mother the children would have a better economic background. The mothers started learning to be self-employed, and therefore free from the clutches of middlemen. Between 1945 and 1950, 1400 women were enrolled for the self-employment programme and were sent to Benares for training. The self employed women began to earn 14 annas a day as opposed to the 2 annas they used to earn before. After the training at Benares they could even earn Rs 2 per day!

The seats for women in the B Ed programme were increased from 1 to 20. Initially, when new schools were established, it had been discovered that there was practically no teacher who was properly literate! In fact many of the teachers had been given jobs out of compassion. Begun Zafar Ali started, in the Zenana Park, a Teacher’s Club, where the educated women undertook to teach subject matter and methodology to the teachers themselves. Within two years they were expected to pass their matriculation, under threat of discharge!

The author (front row, 2nd from right) at Naseembagh, Kashmir, with her students in the fall of 1985

Even in 1961, when the Government College for Women was founded, the parents had to be persuaded to send their daughters. It started out with 11 to 15 students and 5 or 6 teachers. In 1986 it had 2500 students and 170 teachers. Even as late as the seventies, Begum Abdullah, wife of Sheikh Abdullah, carried out a kind of a campaign to persuade people to send their daughters to the nursing profession which hereto forth had a stigma attached as is in many other parts of India.

In the mid eighties, women were becoming conscious of the need for education, particularly in the urban areas; although at the school level, the number of boys and girls was equal, the number of girls diminished by a third at the college level, especially among Muslims, even in Srinagar. For girls who studied and intended to work, it was mainly because it increased their value in the marriage market and also so they could supplement the family income. The business families, who formed and still form, a large part of the urban middle classes, still did not want even the educated women to work.

In the 1980s education in Kashmir was on steady ground, especially where women’s education was concerned in the urban as well as rural areas. The case of the valley is taken as different again, as girls were rarely sent outside for any kind of education. But the paucity of teachers needed to be addressed still. There being a lot of scope in tourism and handicrafts many of the educated classes were in business in the urban areas. In the business classes the status of the teacher is low, especially for men but also for women (they are seen at least as secondary wage earners). For women, it was clear that the primary area of interest should be the home and the family, so dedication to the profession often suffered.

The struggle for higher education also needed attention in Kashmir as education was completely caught up in government red tape, and at the time as V.V John has stated, “There is more governance in education and less of education in governance” Education was extremely bureaucratized and needed fresh ideas, for even the three private colleges depended on the government for grants. The government at the time was less open to innovation or to giving extra grants. There was little scope for experimentation in a region where many changes needed to be brought, especially in the field of women’s education. In his time too, Sheikh Abdullah used to bring eminent educationists such as M M Beg or Sayyadain as advisors who made educational plans and policies. They were not bogged down by bureaucratic procedures. Later, however, policy makers in education were not educationists at all but politicians from any domain. The business houses could have provided some alternatives to the government’s lacunae, but education was then not something they wanted to invest in. Only nursery schools were mushrooming as business ventures.

Approximately 85 percent of the population lived in rural areas in the eighties. In the main towns of larger districts, (Anantnag and Baramullah) colleges were established but a lot was still to be done to make them viable and improve their standards. The problem of women’s education began of course at the school level and the statistics for schools were not readily available.

In the rural areas the parents of the girls who were going to school were not satisfied with the type of education the girls were receiving. It is understood that in rural areas girls and women have well defined roles to play. Their situation could not have been altered in one stroke. Education had not yet reached a point where it was thought out enough to be of relevance to their day to day existence, in terms of skills which could differ from locality to locality, depending on the local crafts etc. The parents felt education was becoming a means of alienating the girls and even the boys from their own culture, as it lead to learning things totally alien and impracticable. Rural girls dropped out of schools for much the same reasons as in other parts of India – distance of schools, lack of transport, and absence of women teachers. In a more urbanized district like Baramullah there were supposedly 800 schools with 60,000 students and 5000 teachers but only 1500 of those were women. In Srinagar, on the other hand in 1983, the number of female teachers was found to be double the number of male teachers. Educated women were unwilling to move to rural areas, away from their primary interest of home and family, and very few rural women were educated. But education was slowly trickling to rural women and the situation would have improved further if the political situation had been stable. In Ladakh the situation was the same but in the eighties many ladakhi girls would go to Srinagar for a post graduate degree.

Dr Krishna Mishri was the principal of the Government Women’s College. At that time she saw a very bright future for women in the valley saying that in the mid eighties women could be found in every field such as post and telegraph, insurance, banks, and nursing. Women were taking all the possible professional courses – engineering and medicine being top priority. Many adult education centres had been established which received good response from women. Women’s cooperatives were coming up, advocating self-reliance, training them in the local crafts and artisanal skills. More and more women, according to Dr Mishri, were joining these as they were becoming conscious of their economic status. In the course of several discussions and conferences it was discovered that a general education for women didn’t really offer them employment opportunities. Therefore a women’s polytechnic was inaugurated to offer courses in electronics, secretarial work, etc. They could even get government jobs or be self -employed in hitherto unexplored areas. She felt that perhaps, like in the time of Sheikh Abdullah, arrangements could be worked out where educational advisors could be invited and innovation and experiment given a proper direction.

Since parents were unwilling to send their girls out of the valley, coaching classes could be started for civil services etc and invite external teachers to bring the girls up to national standards.

In the days before the hold of terrorism spoiled everything, only 16 percent of women were literate in the state, two thirds of these being in Jammu. But literacy figures for the greater part of the State weren’t really available.

The situation was also very hopeful for another less talked about but very important reason – women, although suppressed in some ways, the degree of aggression towards them was extremely low, and they could circulate with cheering confidence in the masculine world. When I was teaching at the university the number of girl students in burqah or hijaab was almost non-existent and they were on very friendly terms with the boys, much more naturally than in a city like Delhi. In fact it should be noted that in India Kashmir is the only State where women go to pray in the mosques and throng them on Fridays. This kind of freedom and fearlessness seemed natural at the time and unquestioned, and was reflected in the attitudes of the university girl students.

How much effort went into the struggle for women’s education, decades of effort, decades of thought, by people like Begum Zafar Ali and Dr Krishna Mishri…and today, tragically there’s not a student in the schools. Women are not safe on the streets. A bright and beautiful future done to dust by the political games, by greed and hatred and mindless violence.

But in the late eighties the unease had begun already…the Governments sitting at the Centre took no cognizance of it, paid no heed to the warning signs of growing restlessness and sense of alienation of a people, of a flourishing underground press that was subverting them. Today as they live without communication with the outer world… I remember that they have done so almost every harsh winter, when the snows were so heavy there were no working phone lines, no electricity, no television , water pipes burst, roads were blocked, and the underground press said…”see how India doesn’t care about you….” Yes I’ve been there.. Snowed into my barrack by a frozen lake at the university campus ….until someone dug me out and rescued me ..

The author, Mariam Karim, was lecturer in French at the Institute of Foreign Languages, University of Kashmir between 1985 and 1989

2 thoughts on “Onset of terrorism and Women’s education in Kashmir valley”

  1. Thank you Mariam for sharing your first hand experience and knowledge of this state. Misfortune for a land which is home but not heaven on earth for the poor Kashmiri women…. leave alone the menfolk..May the fortunes turn in their favour and may this land and it’s people prosper in peace!


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