Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s 125th birth anniversary: His record on women’s rights

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is rightly lauded for propagating modern education among Muslims and advocating several reforms for the community. But he is also faulted for siding with the country’s colonial rulers and doing little for women’s education.

Sir Syed’s 125th birth anniversary coincides with the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill. It is time to analyse if the great reformer stood for women’s social, educational, cultural and religious emancipation. One has to revisit his writings and actions that prompted historian David Lelyveld to describe Sir Syed as “hardly a man of modern ideas that we usually take him for”.

Despite showing a marked inclination for liberal values and a rational outlook that culminated in setting up the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh in 1875, Sir Syed had conservative views on women’s education and believed in a “disorganised tutor-based home education” for them. “Female education means much more than… imparting rudimentary knowledge of arithmetic, history, geography and the like to them. It refers to a process of training that enables them to fulfil the duties of family life,” he wrote. Education, according to him, seriously jeopardised women’s ultimate purpose of life — marriage. Sir Syed argued, “It is my cherished desire that exemplary and good quality education be imparted to women, but in the present pitiable conditions, getting girls educated is not prudent. They cannot live without marriage and will not get educated husbands… Moreover, if they tie the knot with uneducated and uncivilised men, their lives will be filled with agony and misery”.

It is intriguing that Sir Syed threw his weight behind gender segregation. He pitched for purdah-centric home education for women. The British government opened co-education schools and started educational institutions exclusively for girls. Along with Bharatendu Harishchandra, another prominent north Indian intellectual, Sir Syed criticised these moves. In his seminal work, Causes of Indian Revolt (1858), he concluded that coeducation was one of the major causes of public unrest against colonial rule. People, irrespective of faith, disapproved of women’s education and slackening gender segregation in educational institutions, he said.

These views, no doubt, betray traces of a feudal mindset. Sir Syed was, however, a strong advocate of women’s empowerment and a critic of social practices that reduced possibilities of progress. The Aligarh Institute Gazette, a multilingual journal started by him, campaigned against female infanticide, polygamy, child marriage, sati, segregation of widows, and poverty-induced marriages of young girls with older men.

Festive offer

Mary Carpenter, a British philanthropist and proponent of female education, visited India four times between 1866 and 1876. On her first visit, Sir Syed welcomed her by writing an editorial. Her commitment to getting Indian women into public life by providing modern education to them impressed him.

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The reformer visited England in 1869-70 and his account of the visit is replete with appreciation for the contribution of women in the collective life of England. His interactions with women in Europe made Sir Syed revise his views on women’s education, somewhat. His travelogue has several appreciative comments on gender equality and the centrality of women to human progress. He was, perhaps, the first Muslim traveller to admire the freedom enjoyed by women in large parts of Europe. After he visited the continent, Sir Syed was convinced that the rejection of women’s education by Muslims played a big role in the decline of the community.

However, he did not completely go back on his initial advocacy of home-tutor-based education for women.

The writer, a bilingual critic, is the author of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, religion and nation

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