Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: A Conversation with Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji

This week, IEN shares a conversation with Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji, Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies at Bowdoin College. We discussed her latest book, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia (University of California Press, 2018). The book is available for free download here.

Dr Khoja-Moolji 2

Photo credit:  Dennis Griggs/Tannery Hill Studios


IEN: What was the impetus for the book?

Shenila: I had been researching and writing about the convergence on the figure of the girl in international development policy and practice for some time. I noticed that many development campaigns portrayed girls in the global South as not only threatened by poverty, disease, and terrorism, but also as holding the potential to resolve these problems. Education was often presented as that ‘silver bullet’ that would help girls overcome any issue they faced. I explored if girls really were the key to societal progress, and contemplated on the kind of girlhood that was portrayed as being desirable. Crucially, I wrote about how the burden of development and ending poverty was being shifted to black and brown girls, without any due consideration to how poverty is political and an effect of historical relations of power.

As I did this work, I was reminded of how this girl resembles her predecessor, the “Moslem woman” or “Musalman woman” who, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in colonial India, emerged as a figure to be saved from backward cultural practices of purdah, seclusion, early marriage, and religious superstitions. We find writings where colonial administrators, Christian missionaries, as well as Muslim social reformers—for different reasons—claimed that education would save/civilize/reform native women.

So, in the book, I decided to track these multiple articulations of the figure of the ‘educated girl’ in the context of Muslim South Asia during the last 100 years or so. In a way, I wanted to discover her allure and promise.


IEN: Can you offer an overview of the book?

The book is a genealogy of the figure of the educated girl and it is situated in the context of colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan. I have organized the book into three time-periods—the turn of the twentieth century, the early decades after the political establishment of Pakistan, so the 1950s and 1960s, and the turn of the twenty-first century. I explore a broad range of texts: 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 conjured: What are rationales given for women’s and girls’ education? What is the ideal curriculum for girls? What are imagined as the most suitable spaces for girls’ education?

I found that calls for girls’ education are often entangled with other societal goals. During the turn of the twentieth century, for instance, women were to be educated so that they could signal a respectable status for their families; after the establishment of Pakistan, women and girls were to be educated in order to become ‘scientifically-inclined mothers’ or ‘daughter-workers’ and by doing so contribute to the development of the state and family; and since the turn of the century, girls are called on to educate themselves and become flexible workers for the neoliberal economy.

Of course, there is a lot more going on in the book. For instance, I discuss how it is crucial to pay attention to social class; that there are different expectations for girls from different economic backgrounds. I also trace the rise of mass schooling as a central institution for disseminating knowledge and how this shift has elevated particular forms of knowledges over others. Finally, there is also a discussion of how over the course of the century different kinds of dispositions and practices of women have come to signify respectability, and how they are linked with advancing the welfare of the patriarchal state and family.


IEN: Can you say more about the expansion of mass schooling?

Well, the book traces how the institution of the modern school, with its systems of learning, bureaucratic administration, and examinations, gradually becomes the hegemonic institution for educating young people. The modern school has displaced the multiple community-centered and home-based educative spaces that were prevalent in colonial India. In doing so, it disturbed some of the ways in which the elite reproduced their privilege through education but replaced it with new hierarchies. For instance, it was “English schooling” that conferred upward mobility through access to the British administrative apparatus and exposure to Victorian norms.

Schooling in contemporary Pakistan, like elsewhere, is viewed as a pathway to obtaining jobs. For low-middle-class girls – who were the subject of my study, as you know in chapter four – schooling, unfortunately, did not really deliver on its promises. This group of girls desired more vocational education, which has been excised from formal schools. So the book also traces the promises and failings of mass schooling for girls of a particular socio-economic class.


IEN: With whom is the book talking?

The book is primarily aimed at an academic audience in the fields of gender studies, South Asian studies, and international education. However, I also think that it would be a useful read for development policymakers and practitioners to situate the current enticement of the figure of the girl.


IEN: What does it/can it say to policymakers / how might it be of use to policymakers? What possibilities are offered for policymakers and the like?

The purpose of a genealogy is to de-stabilize taken-for-granted categories and truths. So my hope would be that the book compels policymakers and practitioners, particularly those in the field of girls’ education, to interrogate some of the assumptions around girlhood and education. In particular, it calls on them to pay attention to the range of meanings that are often subsumed in calls for girls’ education. These meanings are frequently linked to reproducing particular privileges; in the book for instance, I focus on the reproduction of social class and masculine privilege. So I would hope that the book serves as a case study so policymakers and practitioners can engage in similar analyses in relation to other contexts.

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