Select Page

In Pakistan and India, the figure of the “educated girl” has emerged over the past few decades, linked to the countries’ politics, educational reform, and campaigns for development. But what is the true meaning behind this idealized figure of Muslim women and girls?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji is an Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College, where she examines the relationships between race, gender, religion, and power across nations and with particular attention to Muslim populations. She recently authored the book Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia, an in-depth exploration of her research into the history and culture surrounding the figure of the “educated girl” in postcolonial Pakistan and colonial India.

Read our interview with Khoja-Moolji below, and attend her talk at the Mittal Institute on April 17, 2019 to learn more.

Can you tell us a little about your book, and what inspired you to delve into this topic?

I had been researching and writing about the convergence on the figure of the girl in international development policy and practice for some time. I noticed that many development campaigns portrayed girls in the global South as not only threatened by poverty, disease, and terrorism, but also as holding the potential to resolve these problems. Education is often presented as the primary social practice that can enable girls to re-shape and re-invent themselves. The argument is that if girls go to school, they will delay marriage, child-bearing, enter the workforce and pull themselves, their families, and nations out of poverty.

So, I wrote about how the burden of development and ending poverty was being shifted to black and brown girls, without any due consideration to how poverty is political and an effect of historical relations of power. I argued that girls are called on to re-shape themselves into flexible labor for the neoliberal economy, and we find limited critique of [the] capitalist and racist exploitation that leads to displacement and dispossession in the first place.

The argument is that if girls go to school, they will delay marriage, child-bearing, enter the workforce and pull themselves, their families, and nations out of poverty.

However, as I did this work, I also noticed that this enticement of the figure of the “educated girl” is not a new phenomenon. We find similar writings about women’s education during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in colonial India as well, where colonial administrators — Christian missionaries, as well as Muslim social reformers, for different reasons — claimed that education would save, civilize, [and] reform native women.

In the book, I decided to track these myriad articulations of the figure of the “educated girl” in the context of Muslim South Asia during the last 100 years or so. In a way, I wanted to discover her allure and promise.

In transnational discourse, what characterizes a girl as “successful,” and how does this harm women and girls in India and Pakistan?

In addition to examining the neoliberal logics, I have also examined the racial logics of girls’ education discourses. I have noted that models of “successful girlhood” are often premised on white, middle-class sensibilities. Girls who, due to structural disadvantages, cannot enact this form of girlhood become the specter of failed girlhood — they are often called “at-risk” or “traditional/backward” girls.

What is the “ideal educated girl” in this context? How does that interact with the construction of class relations, religion, family structure, employment, and so on?

In the book, I tried to understand how the figure of the ideal “educated girl” is being conjured: What rationales are given for girls’ education? What curriculum is being prescribed? What spaces are imagined as suitable for girls’ education? I found that calls for girls’ education are often entangled with other societal goals — particularly the reproduction and expression of social class.

Middle class aesthetics, of course, differ and change over time — so a key contribution of the book is to show how discourses on girls’ education have always also been about establishing, securing, and reproducing class boundaries. This meant that educated girls were invited to learn specific things and not others, in order to secure their families’ social status. Similarly, restrictions on their mobility, participation in the labor force, and performances of piety can also be linked to expression of middle-classness. In the book, therefore, I discuss how it is crucial to pay attention to social class; that there are different expectations for girls from different economic backgrounds.

I found that calls for girls’ education are often entangled with other societal goals — particularly the reproduction and expression of social class.

As we move to the early decades after the political establishment of Pakistan, we continue to find articulations of ideal educated women and girls, but this time, the discourse is also linked to discussions about nation-building, modernization, development, and the role of Islam in the new nation. In particular, women are idealized primarily as “mothers of future citizens” or as “daughter-workers.” I show in the book how women are invited to join the labor force, but their participation is circumscribed as they continue to be cast as “ideal caregivers” and daughters, which subsumes their work within the frames of familial and national welfare. And at the turn of the century, girls are called on to educate themselves and become flexible workers for the neoliberal economy.

What do organizations and efforts get wrong when it comes to girls’ education and empowerment, and how can we change that approach?

The book calls on practitioners and advocates of girls’ education to avoid abstracting girls and their education from broader concerns related to social class, domestic and foreign politics, and missionary impulses of international development. It problematizes education’s emancipatory promise by showing how schooling can reinscribe old hierarchies and/or produce new ones. Hence, any effort toward girls’ education must account for the entrenched and systemic subjugation of girls and women across multiple social spaces. Otherwise, schooling and its attendant rewards of participation in the labor force only add additional burdens to the lives of girls.

The political stake of this book, then, is to rally allies who are interested in empowering girls — to not simply focus on education and waged labor, but to also critically analyze the underlying conditions of women’s subjection; a move away from the service-delivery model and toward a more politicized feminism.

Learn more at Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s upcoming book talk on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Click here for more information.