Visiting urbanized Shabath Muradpur, a hamlet just behind the spanking New Delhi airport and Chainsa in rural Haryana state -- three striking similarities emerged. First, both villages have long histories of Hindu-Muslim amity over 150 years: Harmonious relationships dominate these religiously mixed communities, and their Muslims did not flee to Pakistan in 1947 during Partition. Second, in both villages, a local philanthropist -- an older Muslim woman in Shabath Moredpur and a Muslim man and political /community leader in Chainsa -- gifted land to start a community center for their respective villages. And third, in both villages, Muslim girls and women resoundingly voiced their passion for learning and earning!
In Shabath Muradpur, a village elder donated her home for the community center* some years ago. When we visited it, the center was in action with a library, a computer design lab where girls created designs to be embroidered on cloth and even a spa/salon training center where women graduated with certificates, enhancing their employment opportunities. This was a fully functioning community center with kids of all ages through to young adults and mothers who could take advantage of occupational training to enhance family income. It was an upbeat, clean, environmentally aware hub where learning and earning seemed like real outcomes for young women -- being trained with different skill sets and poised to augment their family income.
In Chainsa, a typical village of the Mewat district in Haryana, the new community center was being built. We met with a group of villagers who had assembled with community leaders to explain to READ global, a nonprofit, their visions, hopes and plans for occupational trainings to be provided. With a passionate fervor, energy and clarity, the girls and women articulated their refrain for education and employment. These messages were shared across a wide spectrum of village girls and women. All were crystal clear about their need for education and livelihood skill sets in making rugs, bedspreads -- and putting their crafts and embroidery skills to use and enhance family earnings.
Society is not meeting its obligations to these women and girls; in Chainsa the school is three hours away -- an almost insuperable barrier for girls in particular. Philanthropy is only the start, but with projects like these it is quite a start. Both community centers are affiliated with READ global.
Our third stop was an urban village in Agra after a glorious sunrise visit to the magnificent Taj Mahal, where the America India Foundation (AIF)** Board met with rickshaw drivers who have received AIF guaranteed bank loans, enabling them to purchase their rickshaws, rather than renting them -- increasing their earnings by 50 percent and giving them an asset against which they can borrow. These rickshaw loans are on the name of both husband and wife -- part of the reason, AIF believes, that so far, out of thousands of loans there is not a single default -- and we even witnessed one ceremony where the loan was paid off and the rickshaw is now owned, free and clear by the couple. In this village, once again the women were engaged in minor activities but dreamed of sensible and substantial ventures to support their large families, with many of them having six to nine children. Where are those wonderful family planning clinics, I wondered? These women were both eager and desperate to work at more profitable ventures rather than selling vegetables from push carts, earning a paltry $8-10/day -- hardly enough to support the many mouths they had to feed.
The women I met were starkly honest: They needed to earn more to feed their many kids even as lived huts with minimal access to clean water, sanitation, food and health care. Income generation is their passport to a better life. When I asked one woman, how much capital investment she needed, without a blink she said: "One lakh rupees ($ 2,000)" -- certainly no lack of ambition or clarity here! One thing was eminently obvious: The women did not lack ambition; rather they lacked training, employment opportunities and capital investments. **
"Learn and Earn" -- as they explained to me in all three projects -- is the perfect mantra for women including Muslim women and girls who dream of being educated, employed and empowered. Girls were more focused on classroom learning while the women were ready to go out and earn a living. But even older and previously illiterate women had remarkable educational aspirations; one older woman in Shahpur was learning to read her native Hindi, but wanted to go beyond it and learn Arabic, so she could read her sacred text, the Quran, in its original language. Arabic, I've heard, is a very tough language -- and to learn it at the age of 40 after a lifetime of reading no language, is really "shooting for the moon."
All three of these projects, and the enthusiasm for them within the communities, demonstrate a promising pathway upwards through education, followed by skill based trainings leading to employment and entrepreneurship. This is what Muslim girls and women -- at the bottom of the totem pole -- are clamoring for. And to me that is the single most encouraging indicator for the future success of Muslim girls and women as they become integrated and respected members of their families and communities.
* These village community centers are affiliated with READ global which is committed to Inspiring Rural Prosperity. They build community centers in rural villages which support reading, learning, using computers to design their embroidery projects - with a bottom line focus on social and economic transformation.
**The American India Foundation started in the US in 2001 in the wake of the Gujarat quake has impacted 1.7 million marginalized lives, provided 852,517 children through their digital equalizer program, provided 280,000 children with an education in migration prone regions, trained 100,000 unemployed people with marketable skills and empowered 35,000 rickshaw drivers to own their vehicles and sent 297 Americans in India to serve 137 NGOs.
Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin's blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.