What Sir Syed Actually Thought About Women's Education

What Sir Syed Actually Thought About Women's Education
Sir Syed's views on women are often ignored or are based on hearsay. Hence, they need to be looked at in detail. Sir Syed was home-taught by his open-minded mother Azeez un Nisa. In 1860, when the North Western Provinces (NWP) was hit by drought, Sir Syed and his wife Parsa Begum worked together in helping the affectees and gave shelter to orphans.

After her death in 1861, Sir Syed refused relatives and didn't remarry. He also developed a distaste for "polygamy among Indian Muslims" because due to this "bad habit among the Indian Muslims, Islam has to face shame and defamation." Around nine years after losing his wife, Sir Syed also lost his daughter, Ameena. He revealed that his daughter's death left him shattered and in great agony.

In the 19th century, even in the West, women were mostly considered inferior despite it being more progressive than the Subcontinent. Almost all progressive intellectuals of mid-19th century India had regressive views about women. In 1866, Sir Syed published a lecture by WJD Gruyther titled “Mental Capacities of Both the Sexes.” In it, he proved that females, despite being biologically different, were capable of achieving the same things as males. Gruyther considered those men "miserable" who brought women down to their level. Sir Syed also published “Social Intercourse of the European with Hindustanis” by Captain AJ MacDonald who urged Indian men to educate women and treat them as their equals.

Also in 1866, Sir Syed moved a resolution urging the government to provide better travelling facilities to women in veils who felt uncomfortable sharing compartments with males. The British Government aimed to introduce an Act which allowed native converts to Christianity to divorce their non-Christian wives without reason. Sir Syed moved a resolution to have that Act repealed. He promoted the emancipation of women by highlighting the reforms of the Mughal ruler Akbar the Great. He was strictly against Sati. Even the wives of Ranjit Singh, a tolerant king of his time, were burned alive along with his dead body.

Sir Syed wanted widows to find new partners and live their lives to the fullest. “Our fellow countrymen oppose the remarriage of widows. By so doing, they violate the laws of nature. This prohibition is against the will of the creator of this world,” he said. Naturally, he was also against female infanticide. He put a great emphasis on mothers and childcare, the mortality rate and the training of female doctors. While promoting the training of female surgeons, Sir Syed wrote an article titled “Right of Women.” He wrote here: "There is no reason to consider women as lesser and inferior in comparison to men. [...] The woman is for a man like the left hand and a man like the right," he wrote.

Sir Syed believed in the right to own properties and people having the freedom to make choices. "A woman herself is the owner and proprietor of her personal property and has full right to use it in any way," he wrote. Sir Syed claimed that superior Islamic laws gave Muslims a better headstart but other nations progressed and left them behind. "Muslims being uncivilised, maltreat their women and all the nations of the world laugh at them as they find fault in the religion of this community," he pointed out. Similarly, he also opposed child marriages and dowry. Sir Syed taught that the single biggest reason behind Europe's progress was the emancipation of women.

The Subcontinent was so backward that after the anti-colonial rebellion of 1857, when Sir Syed started his investigation, the locals claimed that co-education also forced them to join 'rebels' to save their culture. And Sir Syed wrote this in his book The Causes of the Indian Revolt. This is where a false notion about Sir Syed being against female education comes from. He merely reported his findings. This was an era where even the mightiest Britain had a 70% literacy rate for men while only 55% for women. Women didn't get full voting rights in Britain until 1928 and feminists often faced violent crackdowns and arrests. On the contrary, the literacy rate in India was less than 4%. For men, it was around 8%, while for women it was less than 0.5%.

Hence, Sir Syed concluded that the Subcontinent would take over two generations to become at least as modern as Europeans were. According to him, first males should be taught to become tolerant, progressive and capable of accepting women as their equals before going for co-education directly. Until then, he preferred home education for women, the way he was taught by his mother. This was the reason why he ended up tearing Mumtaz Ali's roadmap for female education apart. After Sir Syed's death in 1898, some exaggerated the incident and told that Sir Syed tore Mumtaz Ali's 'book' on women's rights because he opposed the very idea. In reality, whenever someone successfully launched an institution for co-education without issues, Sir Syed published about it in The Aligarh Institute Gazette and congratulated them for their endeavours.

When a celibate British philanthropist Mary Carpenter visited India in 1866 to work for women's education, Sir Syed reported in an editorial, "Miss Mary Carpenter [...] arrived in India for disseminating modern education to women by giving up the comforts of her country." Sir Syed left for London in 1869. The ship was also to stop briefly in other European countries along the way. Coincidentally, Miss Carpenter was on the same ship and Sir Syed was delighted to meet her. "I have the honour and pleasure of meeting Miss Carpenter. I was very keen to meet her ever since I heard about her efforts towards women's education in Hindustan," he recalled.

Sir Syed was already more open-minded than his counterparts but his trip to the West changed him further. Their progress greatly frustrated him about the backwardness of his homeland. He also changed his views on the purdah system and called it "a prison." However, being a follower of classical liberals, he believed in evolution and the trickle-down effect instead of sudden change. To him, no system is perfect and without flaws, but the reason behind the West's progress was the very 'doctrine' of liberalism.

For Sir Syed, female education was the path to achieving modernity. In his editorial, he stated, "The all-around progress and cultural advancement could only be achieved if women of the country are encouraged to get themselves free from the shackles of ignorance. If women continue to stick to benightedness, then we cannot wipe out ignorance, and our nation will never be civilised."

Several notable Indian intellectuals before Sir Syed visited the West but they viewed their women as sex objects. Even women studying biology was considered immoral. Sir Syed, with different views, wrote, "Every day extremely well-dressed men, women, and children came for a stroll. They are free." He called it a feast to their eyes and then lamented, "How shocked our countrymen would feel if a woman in India is seen moving around unclothed."

He interacted with salesgirls during shopping and was left impressed by their manners. It was revealing for him to see women managing their businesses and also taking care of their families. Another thing that really moved him was the habit of reading books amongst middle-class women. He noted that in India even elites didn't develop this habit. He adored the way women bought newspapers daily, either for the news or for "the coloured pictures of young men."

This also angered him because if these women came to know about the condition of their Indian counterparts, then they would "consider them no better than animals." He concluded that the uplift in living standards of women "is the result of the policy of education for all." Sir Syed opined that the world didn't respect Indians because they were superstitious, "inferior and no better than animals." For him, there was no comparison between developed nations and them for now because he saw "Hindustanis in Hindustan as beasts."

Sir Syed genuinely believed in the emancipation of Indian women and their education but he didn't trust men until they became civilised. He addressed women, "My efforts for the propagation of education among boys cannot bear testimony to my insensitivity to the plight of women. My humble efforts in no way proved that I had forgotten my dear daughters completely. I firmly believe that efforts for spreading education among boys formed the basis of girls' education. Whatever little effort I made for the boys is primarily meant for both genders."

In a way, he was somewhat proven right when Sir Syed's student from his own MAO College, Ghulam us Saqlain, moved a resolution in the December of 1891 and criticised Sir Syed in his presence by stating that men and women should be educated together from the get-go. Ironically, this was exactly Sir Syed's point of view that educated men from the coming generation would be more willing to educate women. After the speech, Sir Syed hugged him and told Saqlain that he was proud of him.