It was a cold day in February 2016. A woman from a small town of Uttar Pradesh received her Ph.D. at the 63rd Annual Convocation of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh. She was the first from her clan to have taken admission to AMU in 2003. Her parents never attended college; her four brothers took up family businesses at a younger age. The woman in the discussion is me. I am Mahino Fatima, a Muslim girl from a backward caste who became a scientist against all odds.
Friends, relatives, and peers celebrated my becoming a scientist as a consequence of my hard work and perseverance. In my heart of hearts, I knew this day has not come only because of me; I was grateful for the privilege of education that I was born with.
Most importantly, I should not forget Fatima Sheikh. If not for her, I would never have become a scientist. Lakhs of women who are successful because of education would have remained illiterate but for Fatima Sheikh’s pioneering work.
How can I, a woman, forget that my foremothers were not allowed to learn how to write? How can I, a backward caste woman, forget that my forefathers were not allowed to receive an education? Today, when we look at our curriculum, we find that women scientists, economists, philosophers, and intellectuals are negligible in comparison to men. Famous philosopher, Jaques Derrida, once remarked that no woman was a philosopher. His observation was true, but he did not delve into the reason. How can a woman become a philosopher when men for centuries controlled the development of her intellectual capacities in the name of culture?
In our society, men would not let women learn the art of writing for the fear that if literate these women would communicate to ‘lovers’ through letters. Bibi Ashraf, a late 19th-century educationist, recalled how she was not allowed to learn reading and writing like male members of her family. She secretly learned to write. The secret came out when during the revolt of 1857; she had to write a letter to her father and uncle. Instead of receiving accolades, she was abhorred by men in her family. Her uncle was furious and made her take an oath that she would never write a letter to a man. Similar was the story of Rassundari Devi, who secretly learned writing by stealing books from her son. How do we expect women scientists in such a society? Still, a large section of our society would not let women study more than what is needed in the ‘marriage market’.
In this society, Fatima Sheikh, along with Savitribai Phule, started a school for girls in 1848. Yes, 1848. 26 years before Sheikh Abdullah, who later founded a women’s college at Aligarh, and 32 years before Begum Rukaiya Sakhawat, doyen of women education, were born, Fatima had started a girls’ school and taught herself. Today, that small classroom of 9 girls has prepared lakhs of educated women.
Today women are asking for gender parity in opportunities and pay scales. Thanks to Fatima, women today are educated to understand their worth and assert their rights.
Fatima was a pioneer; she was followed by Begum Rukaiya, Begum Wahid, Muhammadi Begum. A revolution starts with an idea. Fatima’s was the idea that put women of India in general and Muslim women in particular, on the march to empowerment through education.
Today, I thank Fatima for making me a scientist. Nobody knows how many bright women before 1848 had been deprived of education and were not allowed to dream of becoming a scientist. But, we surely know that after 1848, women have slowly entered different fields through education and are today competing with men to have their rightful place in the books, laboratories, and society.
(Author is a neurobiologist with her major research on depression and Alzheimer’s)