MUMBAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–These days, the G.M. Momin Women’s College boasts an enrollment of about 1,250 Muslim women and a bustling campus.

For Jayashree Thakre, a chemistry lecturer, that’s a big step forward.

In 1989, when a progressive Muslim society founded the women’s college to serve a conservative Muslim community in the hard-pressed textile neighborhood of Bhiwandi, their "empowerment through education" agenda wasn’t an easy sell. Many in the neighborhood greeted the effort with distrust and disapproval.

"Initially, we had to go from door-to-door asking people to send their daughter or daughters to college," says Thakre.

The big change happened in the past decade, says Kamala Balsubramanian, a physics teacher who took over as principal in 2000, when enrollment was still only 350.

"In the last 10 years, through continuous parent-teacher interactions and thanks to a growing awareness about educating women, our numbers have tripled," says Balsubramanian.

The school’s students–all of whom wear the abaya, or customary robe for women in many Islamic communities–are pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Sign of Change

It’s a real sign of change, says Sama Aslam Sheikh, whose daughter is an undergraduate science major.

"Our relatives and others from our community were opposed to the idea of sending our daughters to pursue higher studies," she says. "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."

When another student at the school got engaged in her final year of college, her father, Shahid Momin, who works in a local Muslim school, asked the groom’s parents to allow her to complete her studies before the wedding.

"Due to financial constraints I had discontinued my studies after the 10th grade," says Momin. "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."

The school extends some scholarships and often accepts tuition in installments. For parents in this community almost any of the payments represent a major investment in their daughters.

Worthy Investment

Many of the students have proven worthy of it.

Last year, for example, three G.M. Momin students earned the top three physics scores in the third-year exams given by Mumbai University.

Zulfa Fakih took the top score and Ansa Momin ranked second on the exam. Both lost their fathers when they were small children and were brought up by their mothers.

In 2008-2009, the college won second place in the Mumbai University’s college rankings.

Alumni include Huma Ansari, a court judge, and Momin Tehzeeunisa and Tripathi Sangeeta, graduate researchers at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Several graduates have returned to the school to work as lecturers.

In addition to academic achievement, the school is also turning out high-performing athletes. Last year a tall, lanky student named Nazia Khan won first prize in the javelin throwing event at the district level sports meet. When asked about the length of her throw, Khan jokingly boasts: "They didn’t have that long a tape and so they couldn’t measure."

For Sheikh, the mother of the undergraduate science student, the school is disproving the low expectations surrounding young women in the struggling neighborhood.

"Outsiders have this misconception that our girls–always seen wearing 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," she says.

ATTRIBUTION: This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to:

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Surekha Kadapa-Bose is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She writes extensively on women’s rights, the environment and films.