Women’s College Empowers Young Girls to Excel in Academics and Sports

The corridors are buzzing with the chatter of girls, all clad in the ‘abaya’. The principal, Prof. Kamala Balsubramanian, is on her daily rounds and they stop to greet her warmly. There are about 1,250 students studying for their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in various streams on this campus. Almost all of them are easy to interact with, seeing as they are eager to talk about their studies, teachers, the principal and their dreams, even in the presence of faculty members.

This would be just another day in any Mumbai University college, but this institution is special. G.M. Momin Women’s College is a minority college and it is certainly a more convenient and easier source of higher education for Muslim girls, being an all girls college in the neighbourhood of Bhiwandi in Thane district near Mumbai, where underdevelopment and poverty are part of everyday life.

Besides tackling severe deprivation and difficulty, the people of Bhiwandi, which is a textile industry hub as well, constantly fight another demon – a huge rift amongst its Hindu and Muslim population, a ‘legacy’ of the bloody riots of 1984 and 1992 that had left several hundreds dead.

“But things have changed tremendously since then, especially for our girls. And the credit goes to the college and its faculty members for their support that has helped our kids,” says a group of happy parents, who were at the college to meet the faculty.

Education can be an eye opener; it can change the way people treat each other; it can also help people understand and come to terms with their past. And as most of the students at G.M. Momin belong to the lower middle class or poor families and are first generation learners, the impact of education entering their homes can easily be gauged by the reactions of their parents.

But this change has not occurred overnight. Established by the K.M.E. (Konkan Muslim Education Society), the college’s ’empowerment through education’ agenda has been on for over two decades now, ever since it first opened its gates in 1989. “Initially, we had to go from door-to-door asking people to send their daughter or daughters to college,” reveals Jayashree Thakre, a Chemistry lecturer, who also looks after the Extension Education Unit.

Adds Prof. Balsubramanian, who took over as principal in 2000, when the college strength was a mere 350, “In the last 10 years, through continuous parent-teacher interactions and thanks to a growing awareness about educating women, our numbers have tripled.”

The winds of change are definitely sweeping through the Muslim community of Bhiwandi. Says Sama Aslam Sheikh, mother of Amrin, a first year B.Sc student, “Our relatives and others from our ‘quam’ (community) were opposed to the idea of sending our daughters to pursue higher studies. But despite our dire financial strain – my husband is an autorickshaw driver – we want our daughter to continue her studies. I feel strongly that our community will prosper and be considered progressive if our girls get education.”

In fact, when another student, Sana – a final year B.Sc. student – got engaged, her father, Shahid Momin, who works in a local madrassa, requested the boy’s parents to let Sana complete her studies before her ‘nikaah’ (marriage). “Due to financial constrains I had discontinued my studies after the 10th. So did my wife, who had to leave her studies after 12th standard as it was not thought proper for girls in Bhiwandi to pursue higher studies in those days. But we want our daughter to complete her post graduation, if possible,” says Shahid.

And the girls are certainly not letting down the faith that their parents have reposed in them. Students of this college excel in both academics and sports. Last year, G.M. Momin’s girls had bagged all the three top slots in Physics in the third year B.Sc final exams of Mumbai University – incidentally Prof. Balsubramanian is also a Physics teacher. Both Zulfa Fakih, the topper, and Ansa Momin, who ranked second, had lost their fathers when they were barely five or six years old and have been brought up by their mothers single-handedly. The women may have done odd jobs to support their daughter’s education but today they are the proudest moms in the neighbourhood. In fact, Ansa is not resting on her academic laurels and is currently doing her M.Sc. from Mumbai University.

This list of achievers does not stop with the Physics department. In 2010, Anam Shahid Momin of the Zoology department got Rs 10,000 as prize money for scoring 80 per cent plus in her M.Sc First Year. And she dreams of topping the university in her final year. Last year also saw the tall and lanky Nazia Khan bag the first prize in the javelin throw event at the Thane district level sports meet. When asked about the length of her throw, Khan playfully says, “They didn’t have that long a tape and so they couldn’t measure.”

For the year 2008-2009, the college bagged the second place in the Best College Awards that are given by the Mumbai University, in recognition of its various academic achievements and participation of the college teachers in the University System through various bodies of the university.

There’s a reason behind G.M. Momin’s high achievements. The facilities that it makes available to its students – a fully-equipped IT department, research labs, provision for fashion studies and even a good gym – enables them to not only pursue their studies seriously but also encourages a healthy appetite for outdoor sports, leading to all-round development. In fact, many are encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities and compete in college-level competitions held in colleges in Mumbai and its suburbs. And to allay the fears of parents, of their girls travelling alone, teachers regularly accompany those taking part outside Bhiwandi. Besides, to facilitate poor or deserving students, there is also a heavy fee concession and at times they are even allowed to pay in installments.

Prof. Subramanian is quick to give due credit to the K.M.E. Society and especially to its president, Aslam Fakih, who she believes has a vision for the community’s future.

Sama Sheikh is a proud mom today because her daughter is a student at G.M. Momin Women’s College. Of course, it’s little wonder that she is happy, because she knows her daughter has the same opportunities that some of the more illustrious alumni of this institution have got. Take Huma Ansari, who following her graduation passed the judicial service exam and is presently serving as a judge in a Pandharpur (Maharastra) court. Momin Tehzeeunisa and Tripathi Sangeeta have joined the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and are doing Ph.D. in material sciences. Several others have returned after doing their post graduation elsewhere to work as lecturers here.

Concludes Sheikh, “Outsiders have this misconception that our girls, always seen clad in an ‘abaya’, cannot measure up to the standards of excellence, partly also because Bhiwandi for several reasons has got a bad image. But by educating our girls we want to tell them that even with our trademark ‘abaya’ we can do wonders in this world.”