Forging the Ideal Educated Girl

The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia

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Shenila Khoja-Moolji
Islamic Humanities Book 1
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , June
     204 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Western discourses around Muslim women’s perceived inability to go to school necessitates a critique of the promise that education is the solution to all sorts of problems. This is precisely what Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia accomplishes. Through an analysis of a variety of texts—linguistic and visual—the author examines the discourse surrounding women’s and girls’ education. The book is essential reading for academics, researchers, and students interested in questions of gender and South Asia; for development and education NGOs; and for anyone convinced that educating girls will “save” and “civilize” entire cultures and nations.

The first chapter, “Girls’ Education as a Unifying Discourse,” contextualizes the contemporary western, white savior-centric discourse on girls’ education by highlighting its colonialist, classist, and racist roots. Khoja-Moolji emphasizes the often-overlooked relationship between gender, class, and nationhood, illustrating the reality that Pakistani women do not all have the same visions of “women’s rights.”

 “Forging the Sharif Subjects” underscores the making of sharif (“respectable”) women as imagined in political writings, advice novels, and women’s writings in periodicals. We learn that unlike in pre-colonial India, sharafat (respectability) was no longer signaled through nobility or aristocracy but through hard work, religiosity, and self-discipline. Whereas previously, women were deemed unfit to raise children, embodied uncontrollable sexuality, and caused fitna (chaos), they were now “upholders of familial morality, domestic managers, and mothers of future citizens” (25).

This was due to their ability to be reformed through education. Nazir Ahmed’s Mirat-ul-Uroos (“The Bride’s Mirror,” 1869), a story about two sisters—Asghari the ideal and Akbari the failure—is discussed in detail. According to the author, the dominant view at this time was that the ideal woman was educated enough to advance familial and communal interests by reproducing familial respectability; others recognized the woman’s choice to be educated for her own interests. Women also contributed to the debate, but their views did not radically depart from men’s. The diversity of women’s views shows that the idea of the sharif subject was not as straightforward as the male authors imagined.

Chapter Three, “Desirable and Failed Citizen-Subjects,” focuses on the early decades of Pakistan’s establishment (1947-1967) and surveys national education politics, newspaper advertisements, and political speeches. Khoja-Moolji explores the relationship between Pakistan’s nation-building and modernization efforts and women’s bodies; women were to serve as producers of Pakistan’s citizenry, both biologically and culturally. While the state now expected women to contribute to its economic development alongside men, it did not make any efforts to recognize them as equal subjects legally. The author also finds that, according to the male writers, the ideal girl knew and demanded her rights, worked and studied alongside men without being sexually involved with them, and did not observe purdah so as not to prevent her from contributing to the nation’s development projects. Women writers, however, were concerned that legacies of colonialist projects like missionary schools were producing subjects with inferiority complexes.

Chapter Four, “The Empowered Girl,” investigates notions of ideal girlhood in present-day Pakistan through transnational girls’ education campaigns and interviews. Khoja-Moolji critiques the liberal humanist discourse that views an educated girl as the solution to all ills, like poverty, gendered violence, and terrorism. Such false promises, the author contends, are problematic in at least three different ways: they ignore the complexities of the lives of women and girls, they set up the dichotomy of girls as either heroines with immense potential or as victims of their patriarchal cultures, and they legitimate Western intervention. The discourse also targets only girls in the global south, while the conversation on girls in the global north with similar structural disadvantages is more nuanced. Khoja-Moolji’s interviews with southern Pakistanis further demonstrates the relationship between social class and education as her participants explain why they go to school: to obtain “office jobs," unlike the upper-class women who seek to secure "respectable" marriage proposals. The ideal woman in this discourse embraces her “triple shift,” as one interlocuter explains: to be an excellent homemaker, have an office job, and raise good children.

The next chapter, “Akbari and Asghari Reappear,” analyzes two television shows that aired in Pakistan in 2011 and 2012 based on Ahmed’s Mirat-ul-uroos. Comparing the original novel and its modern renditions illustrates how notions of education, respectability, class, religion, and womanhood have evolved. While in the 2012 version, women remain simply good or bad, the 2011 version offers more complex, real women: the characters embody both the qualities considered good and those considered bad.

The final chapter, “Tracing Storylines,” highlights the conclusions of the study. In all articulations of the ideal female subject, women are burdened with multiple roles that include ensuring domestic happiness, nurturing the next generation, contributing to the nation’s economic growth, and maintaining and reproducing social class standing. Fulfilling these roles requires appropriate levels of aesthetics, public piety, and withdrawing from or contributing to the workforce as needed, as well as knowledge of many different subjects, such as psychology, biology, health, finance, etc.

While the discourse has changed dramatically in the last two hundred years, it has maintained consistent points. These include perpetuating the patriarchal illusion of an ideal woman or girl, constructing a false binary of either failed or desirable subjects, regulating women’s education and behavior, and imagining women as the site of reform. The ideal woman’s socio-economic status also largely remains the same: poor, working-class girls and women are not acknowledged in the conversation. It appears that lower-class women, and even lower-middle class women, are never imagined as the ideal subjects; neither are rich, upper-class women.

The only significant limitation of this study is its focus on middle-class women to the utter neglect of poor and lower-class women. While they are certainly acknowledged throughout the study, they appear to be spoken for rather than with, and there is something to be said about overlooking one of the largest classes of Pakistanis. Since the archival work Khoja-Moolji investigates centers on middle-class women, interviews with poor and working-class women would have been a good opportunity to hear and amplify their voices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shehnaz Haqqani is an Assistant Professor at Mercer University.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shenila Khoja-Moolji is Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College.


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