The madrassa series: Misogyny and outdated mores pervade north India’s centres of Islamic learning, but reform is creeping up on them

Editor’s note: Last year, Yasmin M Khan, a Paris-based researcher whose area of interest is Muslim education, visited a collection of small and large madrassas in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. She spent three months interviewing administrators, students, former students, and local Muslim leaders. Her inquiries ended in September, by which time she had gathered a large quantity of information and opinions on the relevance of madrassas, their role in Muslim radicalisation and the impact the government's madrassa modernisation programme has had on these institutions.

Khan found Muslim opinion divided. Many thought madrassas were being unfairly targeted because of “anti-Muslim prejudice” and that the debate ignored the role they played in providing Islamic learning and providing free education to poor Muslim children. Others argued that these institutions were an “anachronism” and called for greater regulation around their sources of funding and their curriculum.

There was near unanimity on one issue: it was all very well to modernise madrassas by introducing computers, but not at the expense of mainstream “secular” schooling. Parents in rural areas told Khan they were “forced” to send their children to madrassas owing to the lack of proper schools in villages.

Firstpost invited Khan to write a series of four articles drawing from her travels. We commissioned pencil drawings by Maitri Dore, a Bengaluru-based architect, to serve as visual elements accompanying Khan’s pieces; she was not allowed to photograph her subjects.


By Yasmin M Khan

Madrassa Azizia in Bihar Sharif, Nalanda district, was considered a popular co-educational institution, beneficial for girls from conservative Muslim families. But in October 2014, it stopped enrolling women without warning, and banned its existing female pupils from entering the campus, claiming co-education was “un-Islamic”.

The madrassa series: Misogyny and outdated mores pervade north India’s centres of Islamic learning, but reform is creeping up on them

Many maulvis believe that it is 'un-Islamic' for boys and girls to study together. Illustration by Maitri Dore

Headmaster Mohammad Mumtaz Mahal declared that Islam forbade male teachers from teaching female students, and it had been a “mistake” to enrol girls. SM Ashraf, secretary (mutawali) of the Soghra Wakf Estate, which runs the madrassa reiterated Ashraf’s position: “As co-education is not permitted in our religion, boys and girls cannot study together and male teachers should not lecture female students in our madrassa.” He was noncommittal when asked how the practice went unchecked before Mahal’s directions were put in place. “I do not know under what circumstances girls were allowed to join the madrassa but it is illegal as per Islamic law,” he said.

The state government, which initially watched helplessly as girls were evicted from the campus, sought a report on the madrassa’s decision and eventually intervened following protests by outraged women’s groups who accused the authorities of misinterpreting Islam and jeopardising their future. After a prolonged stand-off, the madrassa agreed, albeit reluctantly, to lift the ban; authorities refused to resume mixed-gender classes. In the future, the madrassa said, girls would be taught in another building; and only by female teachers. Gender segregation had suddenly arrived in an institution that had a long history of openness and forward thinking.

Meanwhile, last summer, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was neck deep in an ugly row after a senior professor caused outrage by demanding a ban on madrassas calling them “dens of vice and homosexuality”. In a WhatsApp message to a television channel, Waseem Raja, professor at the university's history department wrote: “We want removal of madrassas...where sexuality (sic) is rampant...Maulanas are part of it.” The professor’s remarks prompted calls for him to be sacked for “defaming” madrassas, though he claimed that his phone was hacked. Students and officials of local madrasssas were livid. Madrassa teacher Shoib Ahmed expressed that such “nonsense” would embolden right-wing Hindu groups to attack such institutions. “If something like this had been said by BJP or some Hindu zealot we would have branded them communal and anti-Muslim but here is a senior left-wing professor making such irresponsible things (sic) without any basis,” he said.

The matter escalated to the Vice Chancellor, Zameeruddin Shah; Raja was officially reprimanded for “slandering” madrassas, which, the VC said, had played an important role in the freedom struggle and were now providing a “valuable” service to “marginalised” sections of the Muslim community. An investigation revealed the professor had no evidence to substantiate his claims that his phone had been hacked. I wanted to speak to him but I was told that he did not wish to speak to “outsiders” and had nothing to add to his claims. His colleagues told me that he was merely echoing the concerns of liberal residents of Aligar over the radicalising influence of madrassas but admitted that his “choice of words” was perhaps off the wall.

These two unconnected incidents offer a glimpse into the political and cultural milieu in which madrassas exist and the strong feelings they evoke both among their critics and supporters. If AMU’s was a case of liberal prejudice against madrassas, the Azizia madrassa episode reinforced the image of madrassas as “dens” of sexism and bigotry. At a time when gender segregation is fast becoming a thing of the past with previously male-only institutions throwing their doors open to women, here was a bizarre case of reverse engineering: a co-ed institution throwing out women invoking Sharia laws. The irony, however, is that the trust which runs Azizia madrassa was set up in the name of a woman.

The central government estimates that there are close to three lakh madrassas in the country, mostly in north India. Madrassas in north and south India are quite diverse in terms of their origins, affiliations and curricula. They range from “maktabas” (Quran learning classes held in mosques) to bigger madrassas which teach traditional theological courses and train students to become imams and those which combine traditional courses with modern subjects.

Government regulation of madrassas varies from state to state. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are among five states in north India which have set up madrassa regulation boards to frame syllabi and conduct exams. Despite the intense debate, there has been no comprehensive official review of madrassas since the Sachar Committee report – a public review published by UPA government. The committee report strongly recommended modernisation – this has been enthusiastically embraced by most madrassas despite suspicions in some quarters that this is aimed at bringing these institutions under greater government control to keep an eye on their activities.

The reforms boil down to introducing computers and subjects like English, mathematics and science. And they have proved quite popular, forcing even reluctant madrassas to fall in line. Computers especially have proven to be a big draw with children from poorer families, the main catchment areas of madrassas. Many have reported improvement in enrolment since computers were introduced.

Shabir Ahmad of a madrassa in the walled city of Delhi said that they had begun to receive so many applications that they had to turn down a few of them. “It is heartbreaking to turn back these children but we don't have enough money to buy more computers,” he told me.

In survey that my colleagues and I conducted, we found that modernisation is restricted primarily to urban areas and bigger madrassas. Institutions in small towns or even metros like Delhi remain primitive. Many lack basic facilities. I visited madrassas where children sat on threadbare mats. There was one barely a few kilometres from Kanpur in UP that operated from a dilapidated house with peeling plaster and broken windows. The maulvi in charge, Shakir Ali said, with self-deprecating humour, “Madam they say that madrassas are getting a lot of money from Arabs. Please get us some also.” He added that the trust which ran the madrassa didn't even pay him his salary regularly.

My colleagues came across madrassas in similar conditions in other states – Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh. A more disturbing feature is that modernisation has failed to change the mindset of those who run these madrassas. Despite the new computers, madrassa managements remain conservative, insisting on promoting “Islamic values” as the Azizia madrassa shows. The environment in madrassas with their strict “Islamic” dress code, segregated classes and restrictions on personal freedoms promote insularity and separateness that is the antithesis of modernity. Co-education is banned in all madrassas run by the Uttar Pradesh Board of Madrassa Education; even in states where there's no blanket ban, mixed classes are discouraged and women face huge pressure to follow “Islamic” practices. Misogyny and homophobia are rampant because of the cultural values imposed on students and narrow interpretation of religious texts. Madrassas are going through a historic transition and it is as yet unclear what the future holds for them. But what I hope these articles will prove to readers is that reform, sluggish as it is, has begun.

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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2016 18:33:31 IST

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