Mumbai: Shabina Khan’s greatest ambition is also the source of her biggest fear. Khan, 21, who lives in Shiv Shahi, a colony of rehabilitated slum dwellers in Mumbai, aims to clear her board examinations through an open school exam but lives in constant dread that her father, who forced her to drop out of school, will find out and scuttle her plans.

Shabina’s schooling ended in the 9th standard, when her elder sister Farheen completed her 12th standard course. Till then, the two of them would go together to the same school in Malad, a Mumbai suburb.

Shabina’s father, Salauddin, baulked at the idea of sending his young daughter to school alone, and put an end to her schooling as well. Salauddin, a scrap dealer, would have forced both the sisters to drop out of school even earlier were it not for Farheen’s fiancé, who insisted that she write her 12th standard exams before their marriage. That allowed Shabina a chance to tag along with Farheen till the time the eldest sister was still going to school.

Shabina was dejected but she has refused to give up. She decided that like several of her peers in Shiv Shahi, she would finish her schooling through a distance learning programme without letting her father know.

Khan’s mother Sadia is equally determined that her daughter finishes schooling without her husband finding out.

“He (Salauddin) does not see any point in educating girls," said Sadia. “And I don’t see any point in arguing with him on this."

The silent struggle waged by the women of the Khan family mirrors the experience of several other women in Shiv Shahi. The 200 sq. ft tenements built by Mumbai’s slum rehabilitation authority in this corner of Mumbai is home to taxi drivers, scrap dealers, film industry workers and drug addicts, mostly belonging to low-income Muslim families, many of which had to relocate here after being evicted from a slum in Andheri. Built atop a hillock standing over the Film City in Goregaon, Shiv Shahi routinely witnesses intra-family battles, which are as dramatic as those staged in the film studios nearby. The young women waging the battles are increasingly trying to loosen, if not break, the vice-like grip of patriarchy on their community, driven by a shared dream of a brighter and better educated future.

Across Mumbai’s slums, Muslim girls are enrolling in schools in higher numbers than before and outshining boys in school tests, said Farida Lambay, one of the founding members of the non-governmental organization Pratham that works with municipal schools in the city to improve learning outcomes. Even enrolment rates at the state and national level reflect the fact that girls are on par with boys at the elementary stage of education. Yet, despite their superior performance in schools, few enrol in colleges, and fewer still attain jobs in the formal sector of the economy.

The superior performance of Muslim girls in the elementary stage of education followed by high dropout rates in the secondary stage and beyond makes this community a standout across all socio-religious groups in India. Although a gender gap is common across all communities in higher education, the divide between early achievement and faltering later is starkest among Muslims. Muslim girls attend elementary school at higher rates than girls from other minority groups, but fall to last place in their secondary school completion rates and beyond, a 2012 report by the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions pointed out.

While similar data from the 2011 census is not available yet, 2001 census results show that the proportion of Muslim girls enrolled in primary schools at 88% was the highest among all socio-religious groups, while the enrolment rates of 9.53% and 3.85% in the secondary and senior secondary levels were the lowest rates among all socio-religious groups.

It is social conservatism that explains both the early advantage of Muslim girls in schools and the faltering later, said Lambay. “The mobility of girls is often limited at an early age and they spend more hours studying. But while primary schools are often located nearby, secondary schools or colleges are usually distant," said Lambay.

The local municipal school near Shiv Shahi for instance, runs Urdu-medium classes only till the seventh standard, and students wishing to study further have to migrate to more distant public schools or enrol in one of the private schools in the locality.

“The educational attainments of Muslim women also tend to have large inter-state variations. For instance, in the region I come from (Konkan) or in Kerala, education is highly valued and women enrol for professional courses," said Lambay. “In other states such as UP (Uttar Pradesh), where most Muslims are self-employed in various business activities, education is not much of a priority."

“Traditionally, there has been a reluctance to allow girls to enrol in colleges, which are usually co-educational. Also, the traditional jobs in which Muslim women are employed such as home-based tailoring or embroidery did not require a college education," said Neha Madhiwala, founder of the non-governmental organization Sahyog, that runs coaching classes for girl students appearing in open school examinations at Shiv Shahi. “But we have seen changes over the past five years as aspirations have shot up even among Muslims."

The period of relocation from Andheri to Shiv Shahi disrupted the schooling of many children, leading to a high dropout rate here, said Abid Ali, who runs a private Urdu-medium high school at Shiv Shahi. While boys either while away time or take up odd jobs, girls usually stay at home, and are encouraged to be in school rather than loiter in the colony, said Ali.

In Ali’s school, girls are more in number compared to boys, and usually outperform boys. The performance divide is typical of most families here, with bright girl students sharing a common roof with their academically-challenged male siblings. The family of Shazia Siddique, a tenth standard topper at Ali’s school, is a prime example. All three of her brothers are school dropouts. Her sister, Tayabba, successfully finished school and is at college now. The eldest son of the family, Aftab Alam, 24, is unemployed; his two brothers are employed as helpers in local workshops.

Alam was an autorickshaw driver before he was caught driving without the necessary permits, and has been unemployed since. “Boys lose interest in studies because of pressures to support the family," said Alam. “Girls are able to continue studying till they get married."

Shazia and Alam’s mother, Faqrunisa, however disagreed with her son. Her daughters have done well only because they are far more hard-working than her sons, said Faqrunisa.

“Whatever be the reasons, girl students are much more motivated than boys," said Ali. “However, they lack adequate opportunities and encouragement to grow."

Young women at Shiv Shahi face discrimination both within and outside the family, Ali argued. At home, they have to struggle against the wishes of their parents to pursue their careers. They also face the twin disadvantage of being women and of being Muslims while seeking employment in a city polarized across religious lines, said Ali.

“Most young women here know that even if they do well academically, they may still lack decent jobs. That uncertainty also contributes to the high proportion of dropouts," said Ali.

Poor Muslims living in cities such as Mumbai where there are more Muslim slums than Muslim ghettoes are worse off than those living in cities where there are more ghettoes, pointed out Christophe Jaffrelot, a political scientist and research director at the Paris-based CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), in one of his writings. Jaffrelot, who co-edited the 2012 book, Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalization, argued that the fact that middle-class and poor Muslims co-exist in ghettoes leads to better physical and social infrastructure in those areas while those in cities such as Mumbai are left to fend for themselves by the elites within the community.

The proportion of educational institutions in Muslim-dominated localities tends to be low, and that access barrier is particularly damaging for women, said Lambay.

“The limited economic participation of Muslim women also stems from the fact that they are present in only a few professions such as teaching," said Lambay. “Schools are considered a safe zone for women and hence one finds that many educated women in the community end up being teachers."

A committee on the status of Muslims in Maharashtra set up by the state government and led by Mahmoodur Rahman recommended reservations for Muslim youth and interventions in Muslim localities, in its report submitted to the state government last year.

“More than reservations, freeships in educational institutes need to be encouraged," said Lambay, who helped frame the Rahman committee recommendations on education. “The number of educational institutes in Muslim localities must go up."

“The community itself needs to be more pro-active in empowering women," adds Lambay.

There are slow signs of change now. There is a spurt in female entrepreneurship in the community, said Lambay. “Once given basic training, say in computers, or child care, women are able to run businesses even from their homes. This shows that there is hardly any dearth of talent; what women from the community need are greater opportunities and exposure."

The demand for college education is rising, said Madhiwala.

Ali agrees that people appreciate the value of a modern education much more than earlier. At Shiv Shahi, toppers in school examinations are now feted by the community. Their fame also attracts students in junior classes, who queue up to take tuitions from them.

But rising levels of education and awareness are also stoking the fires of aspirations, leading to intense conflicts behind closed doors, such as the one in the family of the Khans.

“We had filled up forms for a course at a computer training institute a few months back but my father opposed even that," said Shabina. “When the tutor came home to convince him, he (Salauddin) almost drove him away."

“I do not know why he is so obstinate on such matters," said Sadia. “Even my village-bred father was more progressive than my city-bred husband. My father insisted that I finish schooling before arranging my marriage."

“The paternal side of our extended family, who were settled in Mahim (located in the heart of the city), is regressive," said Shabina.

Shabina, who declined to be photographed for fear of incurring her father’s wrath, said she did not want to talk about what she wanted to do in the future.

“Who knows what might happen," said Shabina. “I just want to focus on one small step at a time, and right now I just want to be able to appear for the high school qualifying exams."