"The education of the girls among Mahomedans is not a very unusual thing. Those of the upper class among them, when there are no schools to go to, are taught at home privately. It also seems that they have no objections to letting the girls study along with young boys." This was reported by Bajaba R Pradhan, Deputy Educational Inspector of Bassim District (now Washim in Maharashtra), to the Assistant Commissioner on 5 January 1870.
The British Resident at Hyderabad had asked the education department to implement co-education in Indian vernacular schools. Nobody was sure how the people would react. Pradhan reported that under his jurisdiction Muslims were not averse to the idea and were sending girls to the Boys' schools. He reported that 45 girls were attending these schools in the district while 11 were admitted to Girls-only schools. According to the report, "leading men of the villages were the first to set an example to the other people" by sending their daughters to school.
The report noted, "among Hindus, it is thought quite a novelty to see the girls in school. The majority of those that send their girls to Boys' Schools do so at present more out of curiosity than with any real sense of the benefit that will accrue from female education." Several people believed that by mixing with boys the girls would "acquire rude habits".
The experiment of co-education was launched in all the districts of Berar province, which was then ruled by Nizam of Hyderabad and is today a part of Maharashtra. Interestingly the British government wasn't very excited about this experiment and E. C. Bayley, the secretary to the Government of India, remarked, "for myself, I would rather prefer to see separate teaching". Village heads, orthodox Muslims, and Hindu priests readily sent their daughters to these schools.
According to a report submitted on 25 February 1870: eight girls were attending co-education schools in Akola, four in Buldhana, and 45 in Washim, Achalpur, Yavatmal, and Amravati also had a good response to this experiment. Deputy Educational Inspector of Buldhana noted, "the people are quite satisfied to let their girls attend the Boys' School under the conditions prescribed". He also hoped that the number of girls in these schools would increase with time.
Assistant Commissioner of Bassim (Washim) reported: "The Mussulmans with whom I have conversed allow that for little girls to go to Boys' Schools is all right and proper". He also noted, "the prejudice is strong, but not stronger than time will do away with". The report specifically praised a Muslim woman teacher for bringing about this revolution in the district.
About the district which returned the most positive results of this experiment of co-education, Assistant Commissioner wrote, "The mistress is a Mussulman, and collected a class without difficulty."
The reports were positive but the British Government was not much keen on letting Indians develop and thus the Resident and Secretary asked the Education Department to stop the experiment. It is noteworthy that the Director of Public Instructions contested this view and wrote, “They (reports) show that mixed schools are generally beginning in the Berars with good results." Like any good government servant, he didn't argue further and said, "I beg to submit that I did not venture to doubt the propriety of the Resident's order simply on my own opinion."
This experiment paved the way to further development of female education but here I haven’t written this episode to stress the British attitude. My idea is to highlight the attitude of Indians in general and Muslims in particular towards co-education in 1870. Around 150 years later, are we moving forward on women's education is a question for the community to ponder over.