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Fact vs fiction: National Family Health Survey busts some myths about Muslims in India

Overpopulation, a disregard for women's education and early marriages—the latest National Family Health Survey breaks down the myths that haunt the Muslim community

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New Delhi: With a population of 20 crore, Muslims make up India’s biggest minority. And yet, in any discourse on the community, misinformation, and sometimes disinformation, often takes centrestage.

From their views on the institution of marriage and procreation to a woman’s status as laid down by Islam, it is largely preconceived notions that inform Indians’ understanding of the religion and the people. But how much of it is fact and how much is fiction?

Using the latest data provided by the National Family Health Survey 5 (NFHS-5), released earlier this month, ThePrint busts five myths that bedevil the Muslim community.

Also read: ‘Zyada secular ho gaye ho’—Indians’ idea of secularism keeps pot boiling for Hindus, Muslims

The overpopulation myth

Among the biggest allegations made against Muslims in India is that they have too many children, contributing to India’s problem of population explosion and upsetting the demographic balance. In fact, in 2015, right wing Hindu leader Unnao MP Sakshi Maharaj had said that Hindus must produce at least four children in order to outpace Muslims.

However, a look at the Total Fertility Rate (TFR, the average number of children a woman is likely to give birth to in her lifespan) reveals that while the Muslim community registers a high fertility rate, it is not that much higher compared to other communities.

National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)
National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)

According to the NFHS-5, the TFR for Muslims in 2019-21 was 2.36—essentially 236 likely births by 100 women, adding up to more than two and less than three children by each woman. The Time Series Data shows that over the past 25 years, the TFR among Muslims has fallen sharply from 3.6 in 1998-99 to 2.36 in 2019-21. And with the TFR among Hindus recorded as 1.94, every 100 Hindu women are giving birth to 42 children less as compared to Muslims.

Favouring consanguineous marriage

It is believed that the practice of people marrying within their families among Muslims is a common one. However, the data shows a different picture.

The survey found that only 15.8% Muslim women are married to a blood relative (first or second cousin from either father’s or mother’s side, an uncle or other blood relatives), but in over 80% of the cases, the spouses were not related at all. The Buddhist/Neo Buddhist community followed with 14.5% consanguineous marriages, Christians with 11.9% and Hindus with 10.1%.

National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)
National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)

Overall, on a national level, 11% of Indian women are reportedly married to their blood relatives, further establishing that Muslims aren’t significantly ahead of the national average.

The NFHS also records data on polygyny—the practice of a man marrying multiple women—but that is not available in the final report. According to available past data, by 2005-06, only 2.5% Muslim women had reported that their husband had more than one wife, the same was 1.77% for Hindu women. ThePrint has requested the data on polygyny from the NFHS team and will update the story with their response.

Also read: Communal harmony needs ‘sabka prayas’. Indian Muslims also have a part to play

Early marriages

Child marriage among Muslims, especially of adolescent women, is believed to be popular practice. The Muslim Personal Law even permits marriage for men and women after age 15. However, as the NFHS-5 shows, Muslims are no outliers in this regard either.

National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)
National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)

The median age at which a Muslim woman gets married is 18.7 years. Which means that more than half the women from the community get married at the age of 18-19. The median age at first marriage is the same among Hindu women—18.7 years. Among other minorities, the average age at marriage for women is over 21—Sikhs, 21.2 years; Christians, 21.7 years; and Jains, 22.7 years.

A lack of education

The Hijab controversy in Karnataka seen earlier this year sparked fresh debates around attitudes towards female Muslim students in the education space. A myth that stalks the Muslim community is that they tend to show disregard towards female education. Steps to shut schools for girls taken by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has further augmented the debate on women’s education among Muslims.

But if Muslim women are being barred from going to schools, the data should reflect this gender disparity. The numbers, though, tell a different story.

National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)
National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)

NFHS-5 data shows that the median number of years a female Muslim student spent in school was 4.3 years. In other words, almost half the Muslim women NFHS surveyed had completed at least 4.3 years in school. The same for men was 5.4 years. So, on an average, Muslim boys spent 1.1 year more in school than Muslim girls. In fact, the gender gap in other communities in schooling years was higher, at least over 2 years, and was the highest among Hindus, where male students spent an average of 7.5 years in school and females 4.9 years.

Alcohol Consumption

Islam strictly prohibits consumption of alcohol. In most Islamic countries, liquor is either not sold at all or is restricted for sale and consumption only to non-Muslims. In India, while the percentage of Muslim men who consume alcohol (6.3%) is significantly lower than the national average, there are those from the community who do partake.

National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)
National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)

Even if we extrapolate this finding to the 2011 Census, the Muslim population of men aged 15-54 stands at approximately 6.2, crores so about 40 lakh Muslim men count among those who consume alcohol.

Also read: What’s happening with Muslims in Modi’s India is nothing short of psychological ‘terrorism’

So why do Indians remain ignorant about Muslims

Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says the NFHS statistics are “not surprising”. “The findings of the NFHS corroborate the facts that our own surveys have been telling about Indian Muslims for decades. CSDS Lokniti surveys have shown for years that Indian Muslims are not outliers. It’s just that the myths around them have travelled faster than the facts”.

Indeed an analysis by the New Statesman, a UK-based magazine, had found that whenever Muslims are in news, misinformation around them also spreads wide. “When you form an opinion about a community without checking the facts, you form a misconception. But when you provide a narrative and perspective supporting the misconception, it becomes a stereotype, which is dangerous. The anti-Muslim groups has been able to fuel narratives to build stereotypes against the Muslim community, but a counter against it is still missing”, adds Ahmed.

The challenge to such misconceptions, believes Ahmed, can only come from the political class . “We cannot expect a lay person to go back to the survey datasets and question the misconceptions. The political class, especially those who believe in secularism and inclusive character of Indian society, will have to amplify these facts and bust these myths,” says Ahmed.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: Left and liberals have crafted a delusory narrative of inevitable Muslim genocide in India


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