For Ghazala Tasneem, October 31 was not a normal day. It was the day her dream came true and she was rewarded for her hard struggle of three years. She was selected for the Bihar Judicial Services Competitive Examination with 65th rank and can soon aspire to be a judge.
"Indeed, it was difficult, but thanks to Allah, due to the continuous support and motivation from my husband and other family members, I have achieved what I deserved," says Tasneem, a housewife from Katihar district of Bihar with two sons.
There is a general perception that Muslim women rarely pursue higher education, or go for competitive exams, and the social odds are stacked even higher once they get married and have kids. But women like Tasneem challenge such stereotypes.
"The situation is changing now and there are many more Muslim girls going to school," Tasneem said. Zebun Nisa Khan, associate professor at the Department of Education in Aligarh Muslim University, says that situation has already changed. "The trend is not changing, but it has already changed.
For the last few years, the number of Muslim girls in schools has increased massively," Khan said. Muslim women's literacy rate is on the increase in Uttar Pradesh, but the situation in states like Bihar and West Bengal needs to further improve.
Moonisa Bushra Abidi teaches Physics at Maharashtra College of Arts, Science and Commerce in Mumbai. She also thinks that educating the girl child is an increasing trend among Muslims.
"One can see a larger number of girls with hijab in many institutions now. In the early 1990s, when I was pursuing my M.Sc. from the University of Mumbai, I was the only girl in the entire university with a hijab," Abidi explains.
She says that during her days in the same college, at the Intermediate level, there used to be one division of girls against four of boys, but now there are four divisions of girls against one for boys. At UG and PG levels, there are hardly 8 to 10 boys in each class against 80 to 90 girls.
Khan lists poverty and lack of awareness as some of the major problems in the path of girl child education. Sadia Rahman, PhD scholar of International Relations at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, thinks that widespread poverty and financial constraints are the major causes that prevent Muslim girls from accessing modern education.
"Also, the poor quality schools in Muslim populated areas is also responsible for it," says Rahman who hails from Kolkata and completed MA from Presidency University.
According to Islamic teaching arrangements of classes, male and female students should be separated and many people believe that it is also one of the important reasons for the low literacy rate of Muslim women in various places.
"I think the biggest obstacle for girls' education was co-education and less availability of Muslim-management colleges. Sometimes a girl with a hijab becomes the butt of jokes, because of which religious-minded girls are hesitant to go to colleges run by non-Muslim managements," Abidi added.
Abidi believes that Muslim girls from conservative families don't feel comfortable in the co-education system and the community should think about opening more separate colleges for them. "In rural areas, even Hindu girls prefer girls-only colleges and avoid co-education," Khan pointed out.
Neyaz Ahmad Daudi, who runs Fatima Girls Inter College in Daudpur village in Azamgarh district of eastern Uttar Pradesh, has another story to tell. Daudi, who has doctorate in Psychology from Banaras Hindu University and served at Shibli National Intermediate College as principal, says that in places like Azamgarh, where most of the guardians away in the Gulf countries or in metro cities earning a livelihood, people are cautious about the security of girls and don't allow them to be sent too far; they also seek a safe and secure transportation system from home to school.
At 73.01 percent, Azamgarh has the highest Muslim female literacy rate in Uttar Pradesh. But being a small place, it is still difficult to gain higher education here. "Now girls are educated but they have less opportunity for higher studies and competitive exams because usually it is available only in bigger cities," Daudi explained.
There is another misconception that some people think that educating a girl child -- especially modern education -- is against the religion, but Khan believes that getting an education is a religious duty. "Islam and Muslims are not against education. Islam teaches one to gain knowledge from cradle to grave, but some people misinterpret Islam," says Tasneem.