Many scholars, teachers and colleagues have written much about A.M. A. Azeez’s contribution to Muslim education, but very little is known about his thoughts in the sphere of Muslim Women’s education in Sri Lanka. Having benefitted greatly from his work in the field of Muslim Women’s education, it is only befitting to share a few thoughts regarding Azeez’s ideas on education and status of Muslim Women in Sri Lanka.
Azeez realised at a very early stage that the lack of education was the main reason for the backwardness of the Muslims. He urged young men to follow higher education; also with a few like-minded friends, founded a Scholarship Fund to help needy students. His concern for education led him to retire prematurely from the Ceylon Civil Service in 1948 and take up the post of Principal at Zahira College Colombo.
Azeez then concentrated on education with the idea of ensuring the progress of the Muslim community. At Zahira College he set about establishing a well stocked library – reading, he said was the prerequisite for a good education! He appointed dedicated and efficient teachers from all communities and with varying ideologies; and also encouraged students irrespective of their community, to enter Zahira. He felt that these measures would be beneficial to Muslim students and would give them an understanding of each other’s religion and culture. This he believed would pave the way for tolerance and communal amity. ‘Muslims should not’, he said, ‘adopt a “frog-in-the-well attitude”!’
What of the education of Muslim Women? The Holy Quran stresses the importance of the pursuing knowledge and education. During the latter part of the 19th Century, therefore, some interest was taken in educating Muslim girls by those personages like Siddi Lebbe, who wanted to improve educational standards among the Muslims including Muslim girls. In 1891, Lebbe established the first school for Muslim girls in Kandy, followed by another in Gampola and then in Kurunegala. These schools, however were failures resulting from parental indifference.
In 1923 Dr M C M Kaleel, an ardent supporter of education for Muslim women, stated, “As long as we keep our sisters in the dark, we are depriving ourselves of over 50% of the benefits that education brings to each family and the community.”
Sir Razik Fareed urged the Government to establish schools only for girls so that Muslim parents would send their daughters, but only a small percentage made use of these schools. Even up to the 1940s there was opposition to educating Muslim girls.
Taking a great step
In 1946 Muslim Ladies‘College was established at a new premises in Colombo, with the encouragement of Sir Razik Fareed. Ayesha Rauf was appointed as Principal. Azeez welcomed the establishment of the school and he hoped that this Muslim girls’ school would follow the same systems that he introduced at Zahira College. To him this was a great step forward in promoting education for Muslim women.
As stated by the Poet/Philosopher Allama Muhammed Iqbal, Azeez believed that “Education being a preparation for life is needed by all, the rich as well as the poor, the male as well as the female.” He was a fervent supporter of women’s rights to higher education and to gain a University degree- a notion that was the result of his educational background.
Azeez realised at a very early stage that the lack of education was the main reason for the backwardness of the Muslims
Azeez was from an educated family of Moor street Jaffna. Most of the families, in Jaffna, including the women were literate. They were not English-educated, but were well-versed in Arabic, Tamil and Arabic-Tamil (Tamil written in the Arabic script enriched by many Arabic words). Young girls attended the Madrasas with young boys; later they enrolled in schools near-by but did not continue schooling after puberty.
Although Moor Street was demarcated as a Muslim area there was much interaction and friendship with the Tamil community; in fact Azeez attended Vaidyeswara Vidyalayam and later Jaffna Hindu College. Perhaps this was why Azeez became a very liberal-minded person and was keen on friendship and understanding among all communities.
The right of women
Azeez has often said that it was his mother who instilled the faith in Allah and the importance of education not only for males, but for females too. Guided by his mother, the children of the family learned to recite the Holy Quran and the meaning in their spoken language, Tamil. They read Islamic works in Arabic-Tamil and in Tamil. It was at this time that Azeez began to be interested in education for girls; he encouraged his cousin Sithy Khadija to sit the London Matriculation, for which she attended Holy Family Convent, Jaffna. She passed this exam, but in keeping with the times did not continue further.
Azeez was adamant about the right of women to higher education and of their right to gain a University degree. He disapproved of the prevalent Purdah system (seclusion) and the un-Islamic dowry system. The Purdah system hampered the education of women. They did not attend school after puberty. They were secluded and taught to recite the Holy Quran and to read the Hadiths within the confines of their homes; at most they also learned Islamic songs. In addition, girls were taught cooking and sewing to prepare them for an early marriage.
The Purdah system was prevalent even up to the 1950ties and was practiced rigidly. It was at such a time, that Azeez encouraged the education of Muslim girls and discouraged the dowry system.
He stated that education would end, at least discourage the dowry system and it certainly did. He also expressed the belief that an educated mother would bring up disciplined and educated children who would want to better themselves - a necessity for the progress of the community. He expressed these views in his speeches, writings and at seminars and discussions. To a great extent his efforts were successful and many young women were allowed to follow teacher-training courses.
From the 1950 ties onwards, the contribution of Azeez and like-minded Muslims such as Siddi Lebbe, Dr Kaleel and Sir Razik Fareed spearheaded the education Muslim women who had taken up the challenge to pursue higher education and were aspired to gain University degrees and professional qualifications. Their efforts have made women independent. They are able to contribute to the family income resulting in an improved standard of living. They can also encourage their offspring to pursue education and help themselves and the community prosper.
These educated Muslim women are able to stand successfully alongside educated women of other communities with confidence. They have taken to many professions and hold responsible positions in Business. They have motivated other Muslim women to pursue higher education and gain employment. This augurs well for the Sri Lankan Muslim community.