In a country where public education has long been low on the state’s list of priorities, madrasas, or Islamic schools, provide a way for Pakistan’s poorest families to educate, feed and even house their children. Though they have traditionally been open only to males, there has recently been a dramatic rise in the number of all-female religious schools: of the roughly 12,000 madrasas registered with the state, around 1,900 are attended by young women only. The female students, who have limited educational opportunities in Pakistan, are excelling in the schools and writing graduate exams at a higher rate than their male counterparts.
The illiteracy rate for women in Pakistan is nearly 80 per cent, and any opportunity for young girls to learn to read and write is worthwhile. There is concern, however, over what the madrasas’ real lessons are: some believe the schools are exposing students to radical Islamic teachings, and fostering sympathy for militant groups.
In the Punjab region, where a significant number of madrasas are found, police say that more than two-thirds of suicide bombers there had attended a madrasa. In 2007, an all-female madrasa connected to the Red Mosque in Islamabad was involved in an eight-day standoff with Pakistani security forces that left over 100 dead. Female students had launched a Taliban-style morality campaign, carrying Kalashnikovs and raiding music and video stores, and kidnapping women they alleged were running brothels. The standoff was a turning point for Pakistan, building support for militants and further eroding state power.
Despite the concerns over radicalization, madrasas are often the only education that girls’ families will agree to. And for those in Pakistan who feel that Islam is weakening under the influence of the West, the schools have appeal. Others are calling for reform in the schools’ curricula. Ultimately, the madrasas’ limited curriculum may only feed the cycle of under-representation of Pakistani women in productive society.