Book Review – Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia, by Shenila Khoja-Moolji

The following review is a (very) long and detailed version of a much shorter one that was just published in Reading Religion, a publication of the AAR. You can find the link to it below. (Short version: this is a fantastic book and would be of interest & relevance to everyone.)

Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia, University of California Press (2018), by Shenila Khoja-Moolji

Forging the ideal educated girlThe current Western discourse around Malala’s fight for education specifically and Muslim women’s perceived inability to go to school calls for a critique of the way education and Muslim women and girls are imagined, as well as of the promise that education is the solution to all sorts of problems. This is precisely what Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia accomplishes. Through an analysis of a variety of texts, linguistic and visual—didactic novels, political speeches, government documents, periodicals, advertisements, television shows, and first-person narratives—as well as through a focus group, the author examines the discourse surrounding women’s and girls’ education, the rationales given for their education, the ideal location for obtaining education, and the ideal curriculum. She finds competing notions of the ideal educated, and the failed, female subject. The book excellently shows that class, nationalism, religion, and patriarchy shape the conversation on girls’ and women’s education. Khoja-Moolji shows the changing nature of the debate, and the fluctuating ideas of the ideal woman, as illustrated in various media, including women’s magazines, periodicals, novels, and television shows. The book relies on both archival research and focused conversations with a community in southern Pakistan about education. These focus group interviews reinforce the arguments she makes throughout the book, particularly those pertaining to class, religion, and the patriarchal family. Khoja-Moolji’s focus is on the debate of women’s education internal to Muslim societies—in colonial British India and postcolonial Pakistan—in three moments of South Asian history: the turn of the twentieth century, the first decades after the creation of Pakistan, and the turn of the twenty-first century. The book is an essential reading not just for academics interested in questions of gender, South Asia, and gender and South Asia, but also and perhaps more importantly for development and education NGOs—and for anyone who believes that Nicholas Kristoff and others like him do noble work.

Khoja-Moolji opens by contextualizing the contemporary conversation of the west’s self-imposed burden of educating Muslim girls and interrogates the assumption in this white savior-led discourse that education is the answer to the perceived oppression of brown Muslim girls worldwide. Education, the idea goes, would enable the Muslim girl to produce “radical change at multiple levels—personal, familial, and national” (4). This educated woman would grow to be the ideal woman who can resolve all of her nation’s and communities’ problems, such as poverty, terrorism, and gender-based violence. The discourse around Malala assumes that education would “save” and “civilize” entire cultures and nations, if only their “barbaric” cultures would allow girls to go to school.

The first chapter, “Girls’ Education as a Unifying Discourse,” contextualizes the contemporary western., white savior-centric discourse on girls’ education by highlighting its colonialist, classist, and racist roots. Khoja-Moolji emphasizes the relationship between gender, class, and nationhood, a link that is often overlooked particularly in western discussions of Muslim women’s education. Her discussions on class in particular are an excellent illustration of the reality that Pakistani women do not all have the same concerns and visions of “women’s rights.” A fascinating point in this chapter is that of the fluidity of gender: the author describes the different ways that the terms “woman” and “girl” are defined in both historical and contemporary layers of the discourse. For instance, it is sometimes not age but marital status that distinguishes a “girl” from a “woman,” while in other moments, biological age defines the distinction, and yet in other cases, there is no distinction. This promise is rooted in colonialism and legitimates political and militaristic intervention and the regulation of women’s bodies and mobility. Perhaps the only disconcerting moment in this chapter is when the author asserts the value of the research by noting that it interrupts the myth of the silent, oppressed Muslim woman and instead shows “women to be fully human and political subject.” The harm in such constant efforts by scholars and researcher to prove Muslim women’s full humanity is that it assumes such dehumanizing ideas as the basis of the research, even if the scholar’s objective is to challenge them. Further, this book accomplishes far more than simply humanizing Muslim women, including, as the author notes herself in this chapter, filling the gap in existing “knowledge of how Muslim women’s spaces opened up in the twentieth century” (p. 22). Throughout the book, too, readers themselves appreciate the relevance and importance of the book.

The second chapter, “Forging the Sharif Subjects,” underscores the making of sharif (“respectable”) women with a focus on religion because of the role that Muslim male social reformers played in defining and regulating womanhood. Who was or is the ashraf (singular) woman, how must she carry herself in public and private, where does she study, and does she interact with women of lower classes are some of the questions explored in this chapter. Importantly, answers to questions of the sharif’s woman’s education do not remain the same in any one time period, particularly as the ashraf class held certain privileges in pre-colonial India and later struggled to preserve its social status in colonial India. We learn also that sharafat (respectability) was no longer signaled through nobility or aristocracy, like in pre-colonial India, but instead through hard work, religiosity, and self-discipline. Whereas previously, women were deemed unfit to raise children, embodied uncontrollable sexuality, and caused fitna (chaos), they were now “upholders of familial morality, domestic managers, and mothers of future citizens” (25). This was due to their ability to be reformed through education. The shift in the construction of the ideal woman brought about further surveillance of women’s bodies, work, mobility, etc. In this chapter, the author utilizes political writings, advice novels written by prominent social reformers and by the pioneer female author Muhammadi Begum, and women’s writings in periodicals such as Ismat, Tehzib-e-Niswan, and Khatun. Given the wide circulation of male writers, Khoja-Moolji notes that while women’s writings did exist, they were not considered worthy of digitization and were meagerly funded. Among the literary works it explores, and to which the author returns in other chapters, is Nazir Ahmed’s Mirat-ul-Uroos (“The Bride’s Mirror,” 1869), a story about two sisters, Asghari and Akbari. The novel imagines the Muslim female subject, characterized through Asghari, as having elementary reading and writing skills, being an expert at house-hold management, disavowing superstitious customs and excessive rituals, is adept at creating a happy home for her husband and in-laws, and provides education (religious as well as reading, writing, and skills necessary for managing a household, such as sewing, cooking, etc.) in her home to sharif girls for free, and maintains good relations with everyone in her community. Her sister Akbari, however, is presented as the epitome of a failed woman: she spends her husband’s decent income irresponsibly, is impulsive, and interacts with people outside of her social class despite her family’s warnings not to trust lower class people. Essentially, the ideal woman was one who had merely sufficient knowledge and skills for domestic happiness—in a heteropatriarchal household. Some of the important distinctions in the ideas put forth by the reformers are as follows. For Ahmed, Ashraf Ali Thanawi (d. 1943), and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (d. 1898), the ideal woman was educated enough to advance familial and communal interests by reproducing familial respectability.  On the contrary, Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III (d. 1957), the forty-eighth imam of Isma‘ili Muslims, and Mumtaz Ali (d. 1935) recognized the woman’s personhood and imagined a woman who sought education for her own interests, such as economic independence and her other rights. By the turn of the twentieth century, it is taken as axiomatic that girls will go to school and the question instead focused on the kind of education necessary for them and the ideal location for it. The discourse maintained its patriarchal undertones: for instance, some authors, like Mumtaz Ali argued in favor of equal access to education for women and men so that they can make better and more interesting companions for their husbands (p. 31). Only the Aga Khan appears to have viewed education as equally essential for girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds and its purpose as economic independence for women. However, he also proud abolished the veil for Isma‘ili women, which suggests that, like the other reformers and leaders, he, too, sought to regulate women’s bodies and demand that they conform to his ideals; the abolishment nonetheless led to more mobility for women. In most cases, the reformers’ vision of the ideal women sought to advocate only for their own social classes.

The second chapter also highlights Muslim women’s writings in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. Their writings did not receive the same attention as men’s writings because they were featured primarily in platforms not considered worthy of preservation, such as periodicals, diaries, reformist literature, interviews, letters, and pamphlets; indeed, the author notes that locating the Urdu magazines essential to her research, such as Tehzib, Ismat, and Khatun, was difficult because archival preservation efforts in the past have ignored women’s writings (p. 37). Among the women whose views as presented in periodicals are discussed in detail are the daughter of Maulvi Bashiruddin (who did not reveal her first name), Begum Saheba Rizvi, and Sayyida Asghari Begum (their birth and death dates are not provided); they all wrote for Ismat in 1911. Another important author discussed is Muhammad Begum (d. 1908), whose didactic novels teach young girls how to comport themselves, writing different novels for different age groups; they all underscore the girl’s and woman’s roles in service to patriarchal ideals as well as a selfhood marked by a rejection of English norms, such as English dress. The daughter of Maulvi Bashiruddin offered that education should engender proper Muslim subjects and therefore be religious, emphasizing the value of such education in women’s everyday lives. Contrary to her views, Asghari Begum and Rizvi call for women to reclaim the prominent status they enjoyed in their imagined Muslim past, thus urging for comprehensive education that includes the study of the sciences and literatures; they cautioned, however, that such education must not be sought in English school due to their missionary nature and their focus on western literary texts. This concern was not outlandish, given that, as the images provided in the chapter show, Muslim girls in missionary schools did indeed wear western clothing, and images of Mary and Jesus were a common scene in the schools. Women therefore participated in ongoing discourses of various themes, ranging from age of consent laws to women’s education to the British occupation. Whereas men’s writings ignored women’s diverse lived realities, women’s literary culture shows that women, too, espoused competing visions of ideal womanhood, of education and schooling. Further, while women sometimes rejected the idea of a sharif woman, their views did not radically depart from the men’s views. Khoja-Moolji notes the importance of this diversity to emphasize that the idea of the ideal subject, of the sharif subject, was not as straightforward as the male reformers seemed to imagine. Women indeed engaged these ideas by asking questions, answering questions, challenging assumptions, and putting forth new ideas. Clearly, then, the discourse was not being shaped only by men, as women were an integral part of the conversation as well.

In Chapter Three, “Desirable and Failed Citizen-Subjects,” the author continues to explore the question of the educated female subject, focusing on the early decades of Pakistan’s establishment (1947-1967) and by surveying national education politics, newspaper advertisements, political speeches, and a qualitative academic study by Asaf Hussain conducted in 1963 with girls. In this time period, the roles of the educated girl now included serving as mothers of the future citizens of the country and as daughter-workers, contributing to the economy of their emerging nation. The binary pitting women against each other was now “modern women” or “failed women.” Khoja-Moolji explores here the relationship between Pakistan’s nation-building and modernization efforts and women’s bodies: women were to serve as producers of Pakistan’s citizenry, both biologically and culturally; their service as workers in the workforce was also to contribute to the economy. As in the other time periods, the ideal woman in this case, too, served patriarchy enthusiastically by contributing to the patriarchal family and state, embracing their roles as homemakers, workers, consumers, representatives of Pakistan to the rest of the world, and mothers of the next generation. This message is helpfully illustrated in the advertisements shown in this chapter, such as that of Pakistani International Airlines, which reads, “Pakistani girls make good daughters—no wonder they make such good Hostesses” (p. 69-70). In order to fulfill these roles, women had to be trained in many different areas, such as psychology (to better understand how to raise kids), health (to raise healthy children), and economics (to manage her family’s finances competently). Khoja-Moolji finds that according to men, women had to be able to detect the perfect level of proper womanhood by being neither “too religious” nor “too modern”—the middle-ground was imagined to be an obvious “modern Pakistani girl”; this modern girl knew and demanded her equal rights, attended coeducation schools, worked alongside men without dating them or being sexually involved with them, and did not observe purdah because that would hinder her mobility and prevent her from contributing to the nation’s developmental projects. According to women, however, the emphasis appears to surround more on the anxieties of missionary education and Pakistani identity. Women writers expressed their concern that legacies of colonialist projects like missionary schools were producing subjects with inferiority complexes, leaving their students to be enamored with the West and not maintain their religious and cultural identities and thus gradually think of themselves as superior to other Pakistanis. These women wanted religious (Islamic) education to be included in the curriculum so that girls would grow to embrace their religious heritage and also know their proper roles as espoused by Islam. For some of these women, the ultimate role of the Muslim girl remained that of mother and wife, and her education was to make her a good mother and wife in order to be useful. Women not trained properly as nurturers of the next generation were a threat to the nation’s future. Thus, we observe yet another layer added to the discourse on women’s education, that of the role of Islam and the future of Pakistan in creating the ideal respectable female subject. While the state now expected women to contribute to its economic development alongside men’s, exploiting women’s bodies and labor, it did not make any efforts to recognize them as equal subjects legally or otherwise address the inequalities embedded in the Muslim Personal Status Law.

Chapter Four, “The Empowered Girl,” investigates notions of ideal girlhood in present-day Pakistan through transnational girls’ education campaigns and focus group conversations conducted with Pakistanis in 2015.  The author critically evaluates the liberal humanist discourse that promises that an educated girl is the solution to all social and other ills, such as poverty, gendered violence, and terrorism. The problem, of course, is that such false promises ignore the complexities of the lives of women and girl, set up the binary of girls as heroines with immense potential or as victims of their patriarchal cultures, and legitimate western intervention. The discourse also targets only girls in the global south, who are perceived as victims of their religion and cultures, while girls in the global north with similar circumstances of structural disadvantage are historicized and complicated. Khoja-Moolji interrogates that positions and shows that women’s lives are mediated by factors such as class, religious morality, norms of respectability, and state practices. Her discussions with girls, teachers, and parents in southern Pakistan complicate expectation that education necessarily leads to empowerment. Insightfully, the discussions reveals gaps in the existing curriculum particularly in terms of religious education; many participants offer, for instance, that they are concerned that religion is not being taught, or taught prpoperly, in schools. Their discussions show the ways in which Pakistanis negotiate the neoliberal rationalities that are forced on them, rather than passively adopting them. Khoja-Moolji’s case study offers some insightful data, among which is that it is primarily one’s social class that dictates the purpose of education and what will be done with it. Her participants, predominantly from lower-middle class, explain that they go to school in order to obtain “office jobs” (respectable jobs for upper-middle class women); they do not have the luxury to go school for the same reason that upper-class women do, which is to secure better marriage proposals by having respectable titles in front of their names and not work after marriage because their husbands would be taking care of them financially. Office jobs are prioritized over, for instance, factory work, because of the exploitative conditions of workers in factories, improving which the author notes is not in the interest of the global capital and neoliberal state (p. 115). If the office job does not work out, which the authors’ participants acknowledge as a possibility, then an alternative is vocational or crafts jobs.  The ideal woman in this discourse is one who recognizes and honors her “triple shift,” as one of Khoja-Moolji’s interlocuters explains it: be an excellent homemaker, have an office job, and raise good children. The question is also no longer about whether girls should go to school but what they should do with their education. Another shift is that in this century, women are expected to recognize working as their personal responsibility in order to improve their lives; work is not done only out of necessity. The author suggests that this is because of the state’s failure to provide basic services to its citizens (p. 113). In this chapter, also, the author’s analysis of Pakistanis’ critical response to Malala are helpful: many Pakistanis do not support Malala, not because she advocates for girls’ education—which is expected of girls today—but because the neoliberal project imagines her as an exception, someone who rose against all odds, despite her culture and religion; she is viewed as a representative of all the oppressed women of Pakistan while simultaneously positioned as empowered and therefore not one of them. Her positive attributes, such as courage, are imagined to be because of a formal education and her desire for success, with no relation to her Pashtun heritage that valorizes social justice (p. 121). What is perhaps most hypocritical about the projection of Malala in the western narrative is that her story imagines Muslim and Pakistani men to be barbaric and oppressive, when her book I Am Malala actually challenges this and highlights plenty of men as advocates of female education. In other words, westerners especially in development work read Malala’s book and her story not for what it does and is but to project onto the story their own racist, colonialist, and Islamophobic anxieties onto those parts of her story that affirm these myths.

The fifth chapter, “Akbari and Asghari Reappear,” also on contemporary Pakistan, offers brilliant and thorough analyses of two television shows that aired in Pakistan in 2011 and 2012 that are based on Ahmed’s 1869 novel Mirat-ul-uroos. This discussion articulates perfectly the ways in which ideas about education, respectability, class, religion, and gender (specifically womanhood) have shifted, and remained similar, through a comparison of the original novel as well as its modern renditions, from which can be concluded that these texts and ideally are socially conditioned. Since the primary subject group in this study, the middle class, are the main writers and producers of television shows and owners of television networks and also perhaps consumers of television, it makes sense to explore constructions of the ideal girlhood through this medium. With some important differences, both adaptations of the show imagine the ideal woman as one who performs her economic and cultural role in reproducing middle-classness. In both cases, women are expected to be available, able, and willing to ensure the financial survival of their families in case their male earners are temporarily unable to do so. This leaves the ideal woman in the vulnerable and precarious position of stepping up to fulfill her husband’s role of financial responsibility, going to work only when expected and needed, leaving her job once the men take over again, and so on. This scenario imagines the workplace to be flexible and accommodating, which is rarely the reality for working women anywhere. While in the 2012 version, women remain simply good or bad, the 2011 version offers a more nuanced portrayal of womanhood: the characters embody both the qualities considered good and those considered bad, and they make choices that make sense for their contexts, upbringings, visions, thus depicting women’s actions as socially and otherwise situated. However, the 2011 version centers around two sisters raised in England, and upon their return to their rural Punjab for marriage, Sara, the sister who characterizes a modern version of Asghari and who is offered as the ideal educated girl, calls out issues like misogynist practices, classism, men’s hypocrisies, the exploitation of women’s labor. Khoja-Moolji notes that Sara’s critiques simultaneously critique and advance patriarchy, but enough data is not offered to illustrate this point. The discussion about Sara ends abruptly in this chapter, and the reader is left with little information to better understand Sara’s character.

The final and sixth chapter, “Tracing Storylines,” discusses the final conclusions of the study. Girlhood and womanhood, as the ideal educated Muslim woman, are socially, politically, and otherwise contingent categories. In all articulations of the ideal female subject, women are burdened with multiple roles at all times that range from ensuring domestic happiness, nurturing the next generation, working to contribute to the nation’s economic growth, and maintaining and reproducing social class standing. Fulfilling these roles requires appropriable levels of aesthetics, public piety, and consumption and labor practices.

Some of the book’s important findings are that the discourse has changed very little from the ways that missionaries, colonial officers, and social reformers conceptualized women’s education. For instance, Muslim women remain the site for reform, and since the survival of their nations and communities is perceived to lie entirely in their hands, women are largely objectified in the discourse as an investment, a natural resource, etc. Historically, too, both the social reformers and the missionaries and colonialists expected the Muslim woman to reform their ways through an education that reinforced patriarchal and classist notions of familial respectability and produced civilizations.

While the debate surrounding women’s education and producing the ideal subject has changed dramatically in the last two hundred years, it has maintained some consistent points. These include perpetuating the patriarchal illusion of an ideal woman or girl, of pitting women against each other, of constructing a false binary of either failed or desirable subjects, of regulating women’s education and of viewing the ideal woman and girl as an enabler of patriarchy, and of viewing women as the site for reform. The ideal woman’s socio-economic status also largely remains the same: poor, working-class girls and women are not acknowledged in the conversation. Strikingly, while the author does not address this point, it appears that lower-class women, and even lower-middle class women, are never imagined as the ideal subjects; neither are rich, upper-class women.

This exceptionally well-written and well-researched book has very few limitations, the most significant one being that the study focuses on middle-class women to the utter neglect of poor and lower-class women. While the author explains that the book’s focus is on middle class articulations of ideal girhoold, there is something to be said about overlooking perhaps the largest, and certainly one of the largest, classes of women in Pakistan. Since the archival work Khoja-Moolji investigates centers on middle class women, where the reader could have benefited from hearing from poor women would have been through the focus group; interviews with them would have surely been a productive opportunity to hear and amplify the voices of lower-class and poor women. Women of poor and lower-class backgrounds are, however, acknowledged throughout the study, but they appear to be spoken for rather than with.

Another limitation is that the index does not include all of the women whose writings are discussed (e.g., Begum Saheba Rizvi); therefore, if the reader misses their birth and death date information, they become difficult to find them. Importantly, the birth and/or death dates of many of the women are not provided, but they are for men. A note on why this is would be helpful to readers and researchers of the same topic.

Finally, Khoja-Moolji on a few occasions does not offer more information when necessary. For instance, on page 24, when the author is discussing the changing role of the ashraf class and their declining privileges under the British rule, the author briefly mentions “changes in inheritance laws and pensions/tributes.” On the following page, the point about changes in property ownership and inheritance laws is made again with the addition that such changes “led to many transformations in women’s roles.” Since this may be outside of the purview of the immediate discussion, the author may have a valid reason for not offering more details, but perhaps a footnote or reference would have been useful for the reader. As aforementioned, the reader is not provided with enough information about Sara’s character in the 2011 adaptation of Mirat-ul-Uroos for readers to understand Sara to be reinforcing a patriarchal vision of femalehood.

A shorter version of this review was first published in Reading Religion

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