CALCUTTA — Indian Muslim leaders are uniting with female students in opposition to a "fatwa" or Islamic edict demanding that Muslim girls stay away from academic institutions where boys are studying.
The order, issued by the influential theological school of Darul Uloom Deoband in northern India last week, said coeducation should be banned in schools, colleges, universities and even religious schools because it creates the potential for many evils.
But in an unprecedented display of solidarity, many Muslim leaders have joined with female students across India to oppose the edict, charging that it is detrimental to the real development of Muslim society.
"Right now, all across the country, Muslims are sending their children to study in schools and universities," said Muslim community leader Akhtar Alvi, professor at Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi.
"In a never-seen-before phenomenon, Muslim girls are coming forward for higher studies in droves, and this fatwa stands against them. The fatwa, as it appears, is directed to keep the Muslims as a backward community."
Even some Muslim religious leaders have spoken out against the fatwa.
"Studying in a coeducation institution is not unlawful for boys and girls as long as they follow Islamic values and remain within its parameters," said Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, a spokesman for the All Indian Muslim Personal Law Board [AIMPLB].
Maolana Khalid Rashid, a religious leader and AIMPLB member based in Lucknow, said it is well established that Muslims are unable to develop their community because they lag behind in education.
"There are many areas where separate schools for girls are not available. If we decide to keep girls away from the coed schools, we shall not be able to improve the miserable condition of India's Muslims," Mr. Rashid said.
A recent federal study found that conditions for Muslims in India are worse than for the Hindu majority and that Muslims are "worse off than previously believed." Although Muslims constitute at least 15 percent of the population, they make up only 4 percent of university graduates, the study committee found.
Specialists on the government-appointed committee recommended wider participation by Muslims in mainstream education as a specific measure to improve the socioeconomic condition of the community.
Since the report was released in November, Muslim leaders have been urging Muslims to send more of their children — boys and girls alike — to schools and universities.
Some senior female students said they could never think of giving up an education simply because they are ordered not to attend a coed institution.
"It is a senseless fatwa which will do more harm than good to our community," said Shabana Yasmin, a management student in New Delhi.
"We don't have management and other higher education institutes reserved exclusively for girls in the country. Now, if we follow this fatwa, no Muslim woman can become a good professional at all. This fatwa in fact steals the fundamental rights of a woman."
Tanuja Khatun, a senior medical student at Calcutta Medical College, described the edict as "a ridiculous fatwa."
"If I was barred from studying in a coed system, I would have ended up as a school dropout by now — let alone study medicine. I think most Muslim girls in India will take a stand against this fatwa, which aims to shackle women at home. If [Muslim] women do not get educated, the community can never progress," Miss Khatun said.
"If a girl is not from a mixed-school background, she often feels uncomfortable and nervous in most of today's workplaces where men and women work shoulder to shoulder. In fact, the grooming of a girl in a coed system helps her become a smarter professional," she said.
"If I have a proper education of Islam, despite studying in a coed institution, I can confidently keep myself away from those potential evils the Deoband leaders are talking about."