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A Call for Rethinking Islam: Studying Women Madrasa Graduates; Aspirations and Roadblocks

By Dr. Kausar Fatima, New Age Islam

29 August 2016

As an insider and a graduate from one of the prestigious female-only madrasas, this researcher began her work with no unfounded assumption but rather with a strong feeling that there were some serious flaws in the madrasa system. It was in fact the personal predicament of the researcher that led her to take up this issue for research. However, in my new role as a social scientist, I knew that mere strong feelings or personal experiences were not enough ground to come to any conclusion. Hence my personal feelings had to give way to empirical findings.

Hence onward I started asking myself if my feelings about female-only madrasas in India are really based on facts and if so what facts are they? As a researcher, trips to girl’s madrasa campuses in Bijnore, Delhi, Azamgarh and Rampur where I travelled as an activist, and in some cases to speak on some special occasions, acquired new meanings for me. To me the madrasa girls are a potential research subject and reading their minds held promise of cracking the nuts, or so to say, peeping right into their minds; understanding their hopes and aspirations. Even my participation in national seminars in Aligarh, Delhi and other places where I took up the Muslim women’s issues during the informal discussions thatusually follow such programs – went through a radical transformation. Instead of talking to my female colleagues in Burqa in more general terms as to what ails the Muslim woman, now I would have copies of a questionnaire handing them out. My new role, as a researcher as compared to my previous studies as a madrasa graduate, I felt, was more fulfilling and rewarding. Most of them received the questionnaire with a smile on their faces eagerly promising to help me in this venture. Although not more than fifty questionnaires have come back to me out of five hundred or more that I have disseminated so far, some of their comments have enriched my understanding and opened new avenues of future researches. Each questionnaire, I feel, introduces me to a unique experience of a unique madrasa girl. Although I spent my school days on a similar campus, I never imagined that there were so many small worlds living side by side, each girl student living on a different mental plane. I never knew that the female mind was so rich in imagination and feelings and that the girl living next to me had such big dreams.

Big dreams beget bigger frustration and anger if they remain unfulfilled. This is a dangerous aspect or fall out of the madrasa system so far gone unnoticed. Recently, some of the respondents from Mumbai wrote to me about her shattered dreams that sum up to a great extent the agony and disillusionment of women Maulanas:

They say that the world is now a global village, full of new dreams and newer opportunities. The time is running fast and the people are faster than time. A lot of windows are open for those people who want to do something great both for themselves and for the nation. But it is also a wired fact that the women madrasa graduates who spend formative years of their life in madrasas are not aware of the side effects of this lame education system. True, they get education and in their own opinion, they get the best education as it has a religious value, a key to success in the life hereafter. In their own right they become God’s missionary divinely ordained to set things right. Yet it is not the whole truth. It is only one side of the picture and the other side of the picture is not bright. When we madrasa graduates enter the practical, mundane world we feel that our share in the new global village can only be on the margins. Here, the rules of the game are different and we have not learned them at our religious seminaries. In the job market our qualifications do not carry any weight. We are completely at a loss. Where can we go and what can we do? Probably, we cannot do much except begging. But that too is no easy task especially for those who carry big dreams of changing the world as God’s female soldiers and yet lacking even basic skills of Bhikshus to beg for sustenance. Why the madrasa did not offer us a course in begging if it did not equip us with courses relevant for the job market? .... I know, I am rather harsh on my own alma mater but how else can I describe my deep pain and anguish?

۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔ Feelings of a female madrasa graduate, Mumbai, February 18, 2013(translation mine)

Such painful stories are piling up as my encounters with respondents are growing. Sometimes I feel like crying when on the other end of the phone a respondent recounts her agony and misadventures in the practical world. Things get out of hand and passions run high when the respondents realize that what they got in the name of Islamic education was a mere sectarian perception of Islam and in their zeal to become God’s missionary they have ended up as exponents of certain sects. I have encountered many women who started their education afresh, appearing for one examination after another. And it has been an arduous journey. An analysis of their personal narratives can brighten many lives.

Survey of Literature:

As no significant study is available on female-only madrasas except a few stray articles and a full-scale book by a Dutch woman Mareike Winkelmann (From Behind the Curtain: A Study of A Girls’ Madrasa in India), not to mention a number of classic studies on madrasa system in general, the search for helpful material in Arabic, Urdu, and English only reinforced my feeling that I was doing something new and hence all care should be taken in collecting the empirical data.


This study will employ a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Primary data of the study is based on field work; questionnaires, visits to relevant institutions, arranging the meetings with the women madrasa graduates in the modern universities and institutions and also listening to their personal stories, often charged with emotions and commotions. The questionnaire is also given to those madrasa graduates who could not make their way to modern institutions for further studies. The questionnaire is also made available in Urdu for better outreach and response. The questionnaire intends to explore:

  • A comparison between the secular and religious (madrasa) education system
  • Job prospects for madrasa graduate respondents in global market
  • To observe the aspirations of women madrasa graduates
  • To see what are the road blocks that hold their participations in the society or a leadership role.
  • What are their suggestions for their respective alma maters?
  • What role do they envision for themselves once they become part of the modern education system?

To examine the above mentioned research methodology, a survey pilot study will be carried out first to examine the viability and effectiveness of the questionnaire prepared and the responses received from the beneficiaries.

So far, what I have gleaned from the respondent’s data can briefly be summarized as follows.

  • As long as they are in Islamic seminaries, the Muslim women hold a stereotypical image of the outside world which in their opinion is profane and evil. Joining a modern institution poses a clear dilution to their Islamic identity.

  • The outside world, especially modern universities too bear stereotypical image of burqa-clad madrasa graduates. For them the madrasa women are closed minded, rigid and conservative per se.

  • Within the madrasa an internal debate, indeed rather a fierce ideological battle is under way. The Muslim society in India is divided into two opposing camps. One group of elders wants to modernize the syllabus while others believe that any change in the curriculum will deprive the madrasa of its ideological content.

  • The debate that started long back in early twentieth century about the nature of religious knowledge is also a continuing discourse. Some believe that knowledge is indivisible. Its classification as religious and mundane or Sharai (in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence or Shariat) and Ghair Sharai (in violation of Shariat) has no basis in Islam. But this discourse takes a different turn when it comes to female madrasas as their founders are still not clear about the social role of their graduates. Probably they never imagined in their wildest dreams that the female Maulanas that they have been producing will someday aggressively seek a social role or join the secular courses in the university system.

  • Within the traditional Muslim conclaves, that mainly comprise the Muslim Ulema, the debate is waging whether an Islamically oriented Muslim woman should seeks a social role for herself. Should she be allowed to become a Qazi or a mufti or be allowed to conduct marriages and lead a congregation?

These premature findings apart, the survey has also brought a new phenomenon to the notice of the researcher. One knows for certain that some boys’ madrasas like the Jameat ul-Hidaya of Jaipur was in the process of reinventing itself. For example, Jameatul Hidaya has a proper computer education and also a polytechnic on its campus. I was also aware of the Markaz Ma’arif of Mumbai and Darus Suroor of Bangalore that Offer Bridge courses to male graduates of madrasas. But this is mainly because there is no confusion about the social roles of male Maulanas. But what surprised me during this survey was some good news coming from girls’ madrasas as well. In recent years there have been some shifts in emphasis on the core syllabus. For example, the Jameatus Salehat of Rampur itself, from where I graduated, had introduced NCERT text books up to VIII standard. Jameat ul Banat in Hyderabad also deserves being mentioned. It has managed to prepare their candidates for school examination simultaneously. Here school curriculum (NCERT) has been accommodated within the madrasa syllabus. And the end result is that students appear for +2 examinations and also later write BA examination from Osmania University. It offers the girls to choose from a number of courses offered in Humanities and Social Sciences. This is a welcome change and more such surprises are in the air.

Some Pointers:

It is not probably out of context to mention here some of the pointers that have been guiding me during my research.

  • We must bear in mind that the madrasa system stands for Ilm e Sharei or Islamic education. This in itself is a flawed notion. For in Islam, knowledge is indivisible. Wisdom is our common heritage and a submitter to God should obtain it from wherever it is found, said the prophet Muhammed. Hence religious seminaries need to correct their perception. Throughout the Muslim history there has been a fusion of the two; secular and religious. It was only after the fall of Muslim rule that some Ulema setup madrasas mainly to preserve Islamic heritage. It was an ad hoc move that later paved the way for pure religious education. Hence no sanctity should be attached to its syllabus or method of teaching. Now, we are living in a different era and it demands from us a different response.

  • In its own right religion is very important and we should respect all religions. As a Muslimah it is a good choice to get religious education. I think the madrasas fulfill the desire of those who want to know about Islam and want to serve Islam. But we cannot ignore the fact that most madrasas impart a sectarian view of Islam. The Islam that is an open invitation and abode of solace for the entire mankind, not Muslims alone, the Islam that speaks for all children of God, irrespective of colour, caste, creed or religious affiliation, is no more a part of the madrasa syllabus. It is a Muslim God that they teach to worship and it is the Muslim’s Islam, nay, rather Sunni or Shiei or Wahhabi and Hanafi Islam that they preach. The universal message of Islam is lost. Hence, a rethinking of madrasa syllabus or reinventing the madrasa system requires a rethinking of Islam itself.

  • After a lot of complaint from madrasa graduates and persuasion by some elders some madrasas like the Jameatus-Salehat, Rampur included NCERT books at primary and secondary levels but this remains of little use as it is not recognized by the government. The students face a lot of problems when they go for further studies in modern institutions. After spending many years in the madrasa the students feel that they have landed nowhere.

  • The degrees of madrasas are accepted only in a few modern universities/institutions. And there too they are given admission only in a few subjects. After Alimiat (+2) the candidates gets a chance to do B.A. honours in Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Theology and Islamic Studies only and after Fazilat (graduation) they get admission to M.A. but only in Arabic and Theology. This is where our graduates end up. It is a very frustrating situation. They find themselves in a university yet the doors of most of university departments locked on them. It is the peak of intellectual and psychological helplessness. It is like sailing on an ocean but not a drop to drink.

Changing of madrasa curriculum is the need of the hour. Change or perish, the Madrasa pass out have no other option. And why not change when what we teach today is not Islam per se but Islam as understood in a feudal India of the past. Our respondents have unequivocally voiced their opposition to Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s vision of Islam, the famous author of Bahishti Zewar. Maulana Thanvi advises Muslim women to be meek and submissive housewives, be obedient to their husbands no matter even if he indulges in outright violation of Islamic norms. Thanvi’s ideal Muslim woman has no self, no heart and no feelings. The Muslim community must be made aware if madrasas intend to produce a whole new brand of such meek women, it has no place in Islam nor there are many takers in the modern world. I think the Bahishti Zewar kind of books that propagate a flawed vision of Islam and snatch from us our God-given rights should be dropped from the bridal gift package.


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