Book Review: Forging the Ideal Educated Girl by Shenila Khoja-Moolji

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

Reviewed by Aftab Waheed

Aftab Waheed is Research Associate of Gender and Sexuality in Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan and fellow at Atlantic Council South Asia center, Washington DC. He is founder and campaign director of women of Pakistan which works for gender mainstreaming in Pakistan. The author, Shenila Khoja-Moolji, is Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. Her work examines the interplay of gender, race, religion, and power in transnational contexts, particularly in relation to Muslim populations. 

Girls’ education is a much-debated topic in Muslim as well as non-Muslim contexts. Women have been a key concern of religious and educational reformers especially when it comes to colonial India and Pakistan. Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji in her book, Forging the Ideal Educated girl: The production of desirable subjects in Muslim South Asia, traces the history of different discourses about the educated women/girl and her coveted identity in the period of colonization and decolonization.

She organizes the book into three moments, the turn of the twentieth century, early decades after the establishment of Pakistan, and the turn of the twenty-first century. She explores a broad range of texts, such as novels, political speeches, government documents, periodicals, advertisements, television shows, and first-person narratives, with an eye to examining how the figure of the ‘educated girl’ is being made and remade. She asks: Where is this girl to be found? What kinds of anxieties and hopes does she represent? What is her educated expected to do? What is the ideal curriculum for girls?

In the book, Dr. Khoja-Moolji traces many articulations and different images regarding the figure of the “educated girl” and the ways in which this figure crossways with politics, religion and notion of respectability. In the second chapter, Dr. Khoja-Moolji examines the role of Muslim political and religious reformers and their suggestions regarding women and their education. The most interesting part of this chapter is Dr. Khoja-Moolji’s research on women’s own writing using archival methods, which included examining women’s magazines in Urdu. In doing so, she breaks the stereotype that Muslim women were silent objects of educational reform campaigns. Instead, she shows their contribution, role and voice.

I found Dr. Khoja-Moolji’s exploration of the girl-subject during the 1950s and 1960s most illuminating. She notes that during this period, we find two ideal types: the “scientifically-inclined mothers and the daughter-workers” who are to contribute to the development of the new nation by nurturing their families and participating in waged work.

Analyzing the current discourse on girls’ education, Dr. Khoja-Moolji notes that a range of organizations from the the government to transnational corporations such Nike articulate their version of ideal, educated girlhood. In the name of “girls empowerment,” however, these corporations are shifting the responsibility of solving political problems to girls. This is a key practice of neo-liberal articulations regarding education where every one is the responsible for their own growth and development. Dr. Khoja-Moolji finds that, “Women and girls’ education has become the central discursive site through which social issues are being discussed and ‘educated girl’ is often presented as the solution to wide range of structural problems including poverty and terrorism that actually require political solutions at the state level.”

She reminds readers that concern of the developed world regarding women’s education and her rights is not a new phenomenon. In past the British administration had introduced educational and social reforms to save native women, and in doing legitimize their cultural superiority. This also included introduction of particular laws such as the Age of consent Act (1891), Sati Abolition Act (1829), and Widows’ remarriage Act (1856).

As “Foucauldian genealogies do not have beginnings or ends” this book also does not propose any remedies or neat conclusions. It is an effort to see the unseen. It shows how women/girls’ education is also about broader concerns linked to social class, domestic and foreign politics, and missionary impulses of international development. It also informs us that women’s actions have always been severely constrained. As Dr. Khoja-Moolji writes in the closing remarks, “The political stake of this book, then, is to rally allies who are interested in empowering girls to not focus simply 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 towards a more politicized feminism.”

This book would be a good resource for development professionals, policy makers, gender studies students and teachers, postcolonial feminist researchers, and historians of South Asia. This book is reading treat; it opens up new horizons and raises many questions about gender and education.

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