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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 23:11 GMT 00:11 UK
Grandmother goes to primary school

By Roland Buerk
BBC correspondent in Chuadanga, Bangladesh

Fatima Khatun, at school in Jadabpur, Bangladesh
Fatima always sits in the front row
Most people have given up on education by the time they reach their 80s. But not Fatima Khatun, who instead of going to school was married by the age of seven.

Now she is catching up on lost opportunities.

And she is not the only elderly woman in the district of Chuadanga in western Bangladesh to have discovered an enthusiasm for learning.

The 84-year-old always sits in the front row of class 4a of Jadabpur Government Primary School, surrounded by nine and 10-year-olds in their neatly-pressed blue school uniforms.

"I feel very lucky to be allowed to enrol in school at this late age," she told BBC News Online.

"Though I do feel a bit ashamed to be seen carrying books like the young kids, sometimes I hide them under my sari," she laughed.

This school's been built in front of my eyes by my sons' hands.
Fatima Khatun
As she practised writing in Bangla on a slate with a small piece of chalk she told her story.

"I came here to enrol my grandchild and I was reciting Durood-e-Ibrahimi [a prayer] from the Koran to myself," said Fatima Khatun.

"The headmistress heard me and she said, 'Auntie, do you understand it?' I said yes. But then she gave me a chalk and told me to write it down. I couldn't write or read."

Arranged marriage

When Fatima Khatun was a girl there was no school in the district. Instead, she was married when she was seven.

Elderly ladies at school in Jadabpur, Bangladesh
Other women are hoping to follow in Fatima Khatun's footsteps
"At that time it was common for girls to get married very young, they were valued," she said.

"My mother arranged it with my relatives. He was my father's sister's son.

"I still lived in my father's house and I played with the other children.

"It is natural that despite being technically married at an early age children stay with their parents until they are grown up. My husband and I didn't see each other for years."

Life is different for Fatima Khatun's granddaughter, nine-year-old Taslima, who is in the same class, 4a.

"Now children like my granddaughter are going to school instead of getting married," said Fatima Khatun.

"Then the nearest school was a long way away, so how could we go? This school's been built in front of my eyes by my sons' hands."

'I can do it too'

Taslima says her grandmother is popular with her classmates.

When asked who got better marks the old woman and the small girl whispered to each other, laughing. Taslima finally shouted: "Me."

Fatima Khatun seems to have kicked off something of a trend in Jadabpur.

Fatima Khatun and fellow school pupils
Fatima with some of her fellow school pupils
Sitting at the back of a classroom and hoping to catch the eye of the headmistress were four elderly ladies, all wanting to follow in her footsteps.

"I am here to learn something," said Saheda Khatun (who is not related to Fatima). "I feel the need to study. My child, I don't know anything."

"In the past I didn't realise the importance, but I feel this is the time to do something about it," added Musammat Komela.

"Whatever I read in Arabic in the Koran I can't understand. We've come here to learn."

Ghorjan Nisa was convinced she would make as good a student as Fatima Khatun.

"Yes it makes sense, Fatima is older than me so why can't I do it too? It's useful for me if I can learn something, then I can also recite the Holy Koran, that's all."

The school headmistress, Musemmad Saleheh Khatun, is somewhat alarmed by the sudden influx of elderly would-be pupils.

"It's going to be very problematic, because our first duty is to educate the children - it is a primary school," she said.

"I'll have to go to different offices, do lots of paperwork. But I'll see how enthusiastic they are and then I'll try."

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