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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 29, July 15, 2023

Malerkotla: An Opportunity to Reimagine the Educational Experiences of Muslim Girls Using a Community-Based Approach | Gupta & Kaur

Saturday 15 July 2023


by Mahima K. Gupta, Satvinderpal Kaur*

Muslim girls and women are far behind in education and empowerment as compared to other communities. With recent tensions surrounding the educational experiences of Muslim women, including Karnataka’s hijab ban, the need to understand and protect Muslim minority women is more important than ever. Holding the unique status of being a Muslim city within a newly formed district, located in a Sikh-majority state (Punjab), and operating in a Hindu-majority country, the traditionally tolerant Malerkotla offers an opportunity to evaluate the educational experiences and future aspirations of Muslim girls in India. To engage a community that has regularly experienced systemic minimization, this article argues how the ambiance of peace, harmony, and brotherhood within the town has created conducive conditions for Muslim girls to live and avail of educational opportunities. It also proposes the need for community-based qualitative research methods to foster authentic participation, spur collaboration, and develop community buy-in to improve and understand the educational experiences of Muslim minority girls. The understandings drawn in the Malerkotla experience can be applied to provide insights into the context of the Indian Muslim community at large.


Muslim women continue to be reported as one of the most backward sections of the population in India as far as education is concerned (Talha, 2022; Hussain et al., 2018). Despite efforts propelled by the Sachar Committee Report, the Reservation system, and the Mandal Commission, there are still considerable barriers entrenched in the Indian education system which particularly impact the experiences of Muslims. The effect of the systemic inequities in place has resulted in separate economic and social networks for Muslim students and their non-Muslim peers. In her research on Muslim populations in India, Jeffery (2007) confronts societal proclivity to blame low educational attainment on the “backwardness” of Muslims instead of “confronting the role played by systemic social, economic, and political processes in the educational careers and prospects of Muslim children in India.” She highlights the social and economic exclusion experienced by Muslims in Uttar Pradesh and throughout India. In addition to the structural barriers in place, many media-constructed societal barriers have greatly impacted the experience of Muslim women in India. The mainstream media in India has pushed a narrative of submissive or disempowered Muslim women (Middle East Institute & Parween, 2018; Talha, 2022). Popular headlines have splashed stories of varying validity, from the talaq divorce practice in India or the Karnataka hijab ban to the frivolous and damaging stories of beef and love jihad. (Ali, 2018; Farooquee, 2022; Scroll Staff, 2022; Pandey, 2022; Sharma & Khan, 2022) but this can be a distraction from discussing the genuine discrimination experienced by Muslim women in education, the workplace, or politics (Roy 2018; Amin 2022). It is important to highlight current issues and acknowledge the intersectionalities at work of being a Muslim woman in India. However, completely avoid separating Muslim women from their religious or marital identity prevents society from looking at Muslim women as multi-faceted, capable, or empowered individuals.

Social media has had an extremely damaging impact on the portrayal of Muslim women in India. In recent years, digital crimes against Muslim women have increased through the objectification and “auctioning” of Muslim women through the Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai apps, which occurred in early 2022. Of the hundreds of women listed on the app, a significant portion were individuals who were socially or politically active, which showed that the developers aimed to humiliate and “silence Muslim women and target the community” (Salim, 2018). Overall, the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim women reduced to only issues surrounding Islam and their marital status, coupled with the genuinely dangerous online crimes has created damaging perceptions across India. This can hurt the confidence, aspirations, and inclusivity of Muslim women.

Malerkotla, an epitome of Safety and Peace for women’s education
Malerkotla, a recent city-turned-district in the state of Punjab, has long been considered a haven of tolerance, enjoying significant harmony and inter-religious friendship. This Muslim-majority city in India has approximately 68.50 percentof the Muslim population (Census 2011).

 Historically, Malerkotla is believed to be blessed by Guru Gobind Singh and has a special significance for both Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims. When Punjab was embroiled in the killings and riots of 1947, the violence stopped at the border of Malerkotla. “Eyewitnesses and participants of the violence against Muslims reported that they did not touch any Muslim refugee who entered Malerkotla because they believed they were honoring the wishes of Guru Gobind Singh” (Chhina, 2021).

The unity within the Malerkotla community has continued in recent years too. In 2020, Hindu-Sikh farmers stood in solidarity with the people of Malerkotla in a women-led protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which disproportionately affected Muslim Punjabi women marrying across the India-Pakistan border (Pushkarna, 2020). Additionally, in 2020, Muslims from Malerkotla traveled to Delhi to not only participate and support the protest against three recent farm laws but also served them food from special eateries, demonstrating unity and solidarity with their Hindu- Sikh “brothers’’ (Singh, 2020).

In addition to religious tolerance, Malerkotla represents a new age of female leadership at multiple levels of government. With its district-level resources and status, and a strong educational infrastructure (including local women’s colleges), the state of Punjab has taken a particular interest in fostering women’s empowerment as the state government deputed women officers in the district to help empowerment activities in the best possible way. Community-based research centering girls’ education is of particular relevance due to recent government efforts, including a new medical college, college for girls, and a women’s police station, and can provide an avenue to understand and reimagine education directly from the community itself (The Tribune India, 2021). Based on our community-based inquiry and observations in Malerkotla City, along with interviews and discussions with Muslim girls and women, an attempt has been made to provide insights into the perspectives of girls, their families, and educators in a community that has a strong foundation of education and peace, connections, and resources.

Table 1 presents the literacy rates of males and females in India using data from the 2011 Census. It is important to note that since the district of Malerkotla was recently formed by combining three cities within the Sangrur district, including Malerkotla City, the demographic parameters used in the data are out of date. Despite this, the 2011 Census data shows the persistent achievement gaps in place for the Muslim community within India and between males and females. An analysis of the data indicates that men surpass women in literacy by approximately 10 percentage points across all the highlighted demographics. The data also indicate that Muslims in India, especially women, are underperforming compared to the average rates. For Malerkotla, the recommended site of research, it is important to note that the literacy rates of Malerkotla City are on par with that of Sangrur district, and surpass rates compared to the average Muslims in India parameter. However, Malerkotla has still underperformed when compared to Punjab and India. Due to Census data not being released in over a decade, there is a lack of the up-to-date data needed to make conclusions on the literacy rates of Malerkotla’s younger population. Malerkotla’s newly formed district status precludes it from being included separately in survey data, and the most recent National Family Health Survey of Punjab does not stratify for the Punjabi Muslim population. However, since Malerkotla is a developed urban area, it is likely that its school enrollment of students aged 6-14, and therefore child literacy, mirrors Punjab’s enrollment rate of over 96 percent. Table 1 also provides a comparative view of the educational status of Muslim women in Malerkotla.

 Table 1: Literacy in India (as per 2011 Census Data) 

Average Literacy (%age) (as per the 2011 Census)  Muslim Population (%) (as per the 2011 Census) 
Total  Male Female Percentage 
India  74.04 82.14 65.46 14.23 
Muslims in India  57.28 62.41  51.9  14.2
Punjab  75.84  80.44 70.73  1.93
Sangrur District  67.99 73.18  62.17 10.82
Malerkotla City  69.10  73.45  64.21  68.50 

Source: The data has been derived from the 2011 Indian Census data. [1]

 During the discussion on the economic benefits of higher education, women expressed that education is a safety net for their future, allowing them the possibility of supporting themselves if divorced or widowed and developing an identity independent of their father or husband. For women, higher education attainment could play a major supporting role in achieving this. Financial constraints emerged as one of the major challenges to higher education attainment. Women also expressed instilled social norms, including the cultural expectation to engage in household work after marriage, as additional factors.

Our observations reveal that Malerkotla takes a departure from many of the structural barriers experienced by Muslim women in India, boasting numerous educational institutions, with multiple schools catering to Muslim families, and additional government schools, private secular schools, and religious schools, etc. [2] (PTI, 2021; The Tribune, 2021; Press Trust of India, 2021). Additionally, residents of Malerkotla experience local political representation, with parties almost always nominating Muslim candidates, and only one non-Muslim MLA winning an election in 1957 (Singh, 2022). Economically, Malerkotla is known for its wholesale agricultural production, and for skilled crafts, particularly badge-making and flag-making. Many women expressed that the town has an entirely different socio-cultural ethos. The flag-making industry in particular caters to a lot of Malerkotla’s women, offering the opportunity to earn an income from home, including for those without a high level of formal education. Further, many mothers expressed this additional income as a way to ensure their daughters can complete schooling up to the 10th or 12th grade (Vinayak, 2022; Goel, 2017; Majeed, 2022). Malerkotla does not experience social and political disenfranchisement like the broader Muslim community of India, as its industrial practices also link to a strong sense of Indian pride. During the “Har Ghar Tiranga,” many Indian flags were produced in Malerkotla, and additionally, one of the badge-making industry’s premier customers is the Indian army (Vinayak, 2022).

As a community in which there are a variety of primary and secondary educational opportunities, stable agricultural and crafts-based industries, religious diversity, and national pride, Malerkotla offers an example of how a diverse and modern India can one day live in religious harmony and tolerance. Muslim girls asserted that they have never experienced any kind of discrimination or prejudice in the formal and informal spaces of learning. They are aware that the interfaith respect and understanding present in their town is a rare phenomenon in contemporary times. They perceive the city as the safest place to live in and develop. Girls are enjoying freedom at par with their counterparts from other religious communities. The brotherhood and sisterhood across the communities provide a positive ambiance for their education and development. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus do not experience discrimination in the education or work spheres and instead celebrate and embrace their cultural and religious differences.

   In this way, Malerkotla offers the opportunity to evaluate the educational experiences and future aspirations of Muslim girls without having to take into consideration the same heightened level of locally-based violence, discrimination, and exclusion faced by Muslim girls in other parts of India.

A Call for Community-Based Work 

 Engaging with the Malerkotla experience to gauge the educational issues of Muslim girls also highlighted the dearth of community-based research in India. Much of the pedagogy surrounding the education of girls in the global south has been shaped by the Western international development sector. Muslim women in particular “have long occupied a special place in the Western political imagination...” [with] “dedication to saving them from barbaric practices or development projects devoted to empowering them.” (Abu-Lughod, 2009; Khoja-Moolji, 2015). When discussing education in the global south, many practitioners and policymakers propose a Western framework, embedding globalization, economic growth, and the neoliberal perspective into the fight for education equity. Khoja-Moolji (2017) explores this phenomenon in her article, Envisioning an Alternative to the Neoliberalization of education in the global south. She argues that, historically, western-led initiatives such as the Let Girls Learn and Because I Am a Girl campaigns value educating girls to push economic growth, pigeon-holing women into “economic actors,” who are only worthy of an education if they represent an untapped market of potential consumers or small-scale entrepreneurs. Through the corporatization and commodification of education, individual identities, perspectives, and desires of girls in particular are erased while cultural and religious specificities are ignored. The intersectionality of multiple marginalized identities poses additional complications and barriers. In India, the minoritized identity of the Muslim community, and the lack of Muslim women in government, policy, and education leadership roles, means that education policy and initiatives created by and for Muslim women are severely lacking (Lahiri & Shadab, 2021).

Through conducting field research along with our discussions within Malerkotla, many important insights were identified that should be further investigated. School girls between the ages of 12 and 16 were interviewed and asked questions including:

  • What do you envision for your future? Do you imagine enrolling in college? Do you expect to build a career? Would you prefer to stay at home after marriage?
  • What do your parents or potential in-laws envision for your future? Would they like to see you have a career?
  • Would you like to work? If yes, what type of job would you like? How much education will you require?
  • Which city do you picture yourself living in? Why?

From just beginning to delve into community-based research and starting to understand the education and future aspirations of Muslim girls in Malerkotla, it became quickly clear that their answers and experiences deviate from what is commonly perceived or reported in the media. Girls discussed their passions for education, wanting to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, or llamas, and with many hoping to continue their education up to a Masters or doctorate level. Though the media often suggests that Muslim families are unsupportive of their daughter’s education, the girls stated that this could not be further from the truth. Girls said their parents “want [their daughters] to have a better life than they received,” and were supportive of their education and career ambitions, encouraging girls to aim for education or life abroad. Of the girls that were interviewed through the in-depth interviews and focus groups, a majority stated that they aimed to take the IELTS and study in the West, and those who planned to stay in India hoped to move to larger cities, including Chandigarh or New Delhi. Many girls also hoped to break traditional Indian family structures and support their families through their adulthood or have their families follow them to go to America, Canada, or Australia. The most significant observation was the environment of tolerance, peace, liberty, and motivation for the Muslim girls.

  There is a lack of qualitative information surrounding the literacy and educational attainment rates of Muslim women in India that is community-based. Much of the data takes a Western perspective, maintains stereotypes of ‘vulnerability’ or a ‘lack of agency,’ fails to understand the intersectionality of Muslim identity, or falls prey to minimizing or fetishizing Muslim women. In India, many conversations cantered around provocative headlines including the triple talaq or the hijab ban, instead of on the opinions, perspectives, and needs of the Muslim community (Roy, 2018; Sharma & Khan, 2022). A lack of authentic information in India can also be attributed to consolidating Muslim community women into one monolith or stymied (Jaffrelot, 2018).


Malerkotla offers a unique opportunity to understand the enrollment rates, educational experiences, and future aspirations of Muslim girls. To support the ambitions of the girls of Malerkotla and create an environment that would allow other Muslim girls across all of India to feel confident and comfortable pursuing higher education, we must understand the factors needed to foster harmony and increase access to education and workforce participation for the female Muslim community. Malerkotla is already a leader in how to create peace and religious harmony, through engaging in community-based research, particularly understanding the actual experiences and future goals of the community, it can also become the leader in creating the framework to allow Muslim women in the rest of India to achieve the future goals that they envision. Malerkotla offers the opportunity to evaluate the educational experiences and future aspirations of Muslim girls in India without having to take into consideration the same heightened level of locally-based violence, discrimination, and exclusion. Further, instead of relying on secondary information to get insights into the issues of Muslim women in India, there is a dire need for community-based research to get an authentic understanding.

*(Authors: Mahima K. Gupta , Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Scholar (2021-22). Email: gupta309[at]; Satvinderpal Kaur, Professor of Education, Panjab University Chandigarh, Email: satvinder2002[at]


[1The Wire India article, ‘42.7% of Muslims Illiterate, Reveals Census Data’ uses 2011 Census data to reveal more specific information about the literacy rates of Muslims in India; this data is portrayed in row 4, “Muslims in India ’’ of Table 1. 

[2‌The Tribune India. (2021, June 8). Malerkotla set to get girls’ college. Tribuneindia News Service; The Tribune India. PTI. (2021, June 7). Women officials in charge of top police, admin posts in Punjab’s new district. The Times of India; Times Of India.
Press Trust of India. (2021, May 14). Punjab CM declares state’s only Muslim-majority town Malerkotla as district on Eid. India Today; India Today.

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