All-female madrasas boom in Pakistan
Almost 2,000 registered Islamic religious schools for girls provide more than half of all candidates in graduate-level exams
Riazat Butt, Religious affairs correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 14 May 2009 18.47 BST
Female madrasas in Pakistan are expanding at a dramatic rate, educating almost a quarter of a million young women and providing more than half of the candidates sitting graduate-level exams every year.
There are more than 1,900 registered all-female madrasas in the country, around 15% of the total, that are experiencing a boom thanks to the failures of the Pakistani education system and an increasing appetite for traditional Islamic values among the lower middle classes.
Female madrasas were virtually unheard of in Pakistan before the late 1970s; the religious institutions have always been aimed at males.
The boom in female madrasas has led to the funding of a project to examine their impact. An Oxford academic, Dr Masooda Bano, has received more than £400,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council to study their appeal and their students.
According to the latest statistics from the Pakistani government, nearly 236,000 girls are studying in almost 2,000 madrasas. Female students exceed males in their academic achievements, with a greater number registering for graduate exams and enjoying a higher pass rate.
Female madrasas charge fees, unlike their male equivalents, and existing figures on madrasas account for registered schools only. The number of unofficial madrasas for both sexes could be much higher.
Bano said: “Parents who send their daughters to madrasas are lower middle class, and the girls who enter are aged between 16 and 20. Most say it was their choice. There is an emergence of a very conservative value system. Madrasas promote traditional roles for women and students feel confident about their position in society. You cannot associate this phenomena with poverty.”
She claimed that madrasas gave women economic and social opportunities. Students could offer private tuition in religious education, increasing their respectability and upward mobility.
As part of her research, she will also explore the links between the growth in all-female madrasas in Pakistan and religious militancy in the country. Part of her work will focus on Jamia Hafza, the female madrasa attached to the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where 100 students died defending sharia law during an armed struggle with the state.
Students who played an active role in the resistance, and the parents of those who died, will be traced and interviewed about their perceptions of the resistance and the impact on their own religious conviction. A central theme is looking at whether the use of military force as a strategy acts as a militancy check or whether it further radicalises believers.
She said: “The female madrasas provide a lens to study the uncertain interface between traditional values and beliefs and global influences that often results in further radicalisation of the traditional beliefs. Being focused on Pakistan, a nuclear armed country at the centre of global concerns about Islamic militancy, should mean that these findings have major policy significance.”
She added that while there were no “explicit links” between the madrasas and militancy, it was something she would be exploring. “You don’t get involved with militancy but they [students] are capable of spreading support and sympathy for Islamic groups.”
A third part of her study will focus on those involved in military operations aimed at combating religious militancy. Officials of the military brigade that carried out the Red Mosque operation will be interviewed about their experience. They were later targeted in suicide attacks that caused more than 30 deaths after the operation. Interviews will also take place with officials from the Pakistani armed forces who resigned or faced being court-martialed for refusing to take part in anti-Taliban operations.