I navigate a series of dark lanes. I use tiny roads, passing shops selling car batteries, ceramic tiles, thread, water pipes, exotic birds, mutton, and mosquito nets, all to get to the Rehmat Ali madrasa in the Tejgaon neighborhood of Dhaka. The school is at the end of a narrow alley where the stench of open drains and rotten food is overpowering. I am here because I want to see for myself what madrasa education is all about. There is an inherent contradiction, it seems to me, in the existence of a girls’ madrasa. If madrasas are really the orthodox institutions they are portrayed as being, what kind of students does a women’s madrasa hope to produce?

More than any other institution, the madrasa has come to stand for the possible radicalization of a country such as Bangladesh. Ever since independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has struggled with its religious identity. While Islam has prevailed in this region for many centuries, its role in public life has always been contested. Over the years, debates have raged, in parliament and on the streets, about the role Islam should play in political and daily life. In a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, Bangladesh has remained safe in western eyes, a “moderate” Muslim nation, though there are regular forecasts of the scales being tipped. The suicide bombs that rocked Bangladesh in late 2005, and the grassroots power of the organization responsible, the Jamaatul Mujahideen, stirred up a palpable sense of anxiety within the country. In 2009, the discovery of a stash of arms at the Green Crescent Madrasa in Bhola, funded by British Bangladeshis, reignited fears of Bangladesh’s role in the global rise of militant Islam. At the center of this debate are the 6 million Bangladeshi students who attend madrasas.

Bangladesh has two kinds: private Quom madrasas and state-sponsored Alia madrasas.

There are an estimated 6,500 Quomi madrasas in the country, with almost 1.5 million students. The Quomi madrasas are entirely supported by private donations, enabling these institutions to resist any efforts by the state to control, modernize, or reform them. By contrast, there are 7,000 or so Alia madrasas, which follow a standardized syllabus that includes subjects such as English, Bengali, science, and mathematics. They dispense degrees, up to the MA level, and are registered with, and regulated by, the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board. The students who graduate from Alia madrasas often go on to complete their education at secular institutions – in fact, 32 percent of Bangladeshi university teachers in the humanities and social sciences are graduates of Alia madrasas. Depending on how you look at it, madrasas are either an insignificant proportion of the education system, or crucial in determining the future of the nation’s relationship to its faithful.

So I’ve come to see for myself, to try to get beyond the anxious headlines, and to discover whether or not our fears of madrasas are founded. I also have personal stakes. In the 80s, my mother’s brother and his wife rediscovered their faith, and became what I can only describe as extremists. They shunned the rest of our family, threw away their Western clothes and furniture, and decided to live like the Prophet. While I attended school and learned to sing nursery rhymes, my cousins ran away from one madrasa after another, relaying stories of horror about the squalid conditions, the beatings they suffered from the older students, and the mysterious classes in which they would memorize books but were never told what they meant. Since then, I have had an image in my mind of draconian institutions in which children are tortured. And that is why I am here today, at the Rehmat Ali mission.

It wasn’t easy. Like most madrasas, it is an elusive institution. I had to find a series of fixers—friends of friends, half-known acquaintances, and contacts—to get me inside.

Finally, my mother’s colleague Mohua convinced the school principal to let me come for a brief visit. He has even granted me permission to bring a photographer. This is how I meet Snigdha, who will accompany me on my visits to the madrasa over the next few weeks.

Before we are allowed to meet the principal, Huzoor Saleh, Snigdha and I are asked to wait in a tiny room and interrogated by a man wearing a henna-dyed orange beard. He stares quietly at me as I stammer through my cover story. I tell him I am writing a research paper. Will I portray the madrasa in a negative or positive light, he asks. What will I write? Can he see it? Finally, Huzoor Saleh sends word to the man downstairs, and we are granted permission to enter.

In Bangladesh, he explains, the word for orphan, eteem, does not necessarily refer to a child whose parents have died. It can also mean a child whose father has abandoned her, or whose parents don’t have the money to feed her.

We follow an old woman down a covered walkway, and then into the building. The corridor is narrow, the ceiling high and unlit. The walls are painted in dark Islamic green.

I cannot help but think of Jane Eyre’s Lowood School, where the children were starved and frozen, and the teachers full of self-righteous rage. A young girl rushes past. “Assalaam walaikum!” she says loudly, as though we are far away, or deaf. I turn to greet her, but she has already run past. She is followed by another girl, equally loud, with a baby on her hip.

Rehmat Ali’s principal, Huzoor Saleh: “The madrasa was founded 35 years ago and now we have over 500 students… Some of our students go on to teach at very prestigious colleges and universities.” Photograph: Snigdha Zaman for the Guardian

As we walk up the stairs to the principal’s office, a man follows us with a can of air freshener, spraying the air above our heads, trying to mask the stench of garbage, sweat, and moisture. The air gets fresher as we climb, and on the fourth floor we are led into a large rectangular room. In the center of the room is a wooden desk, behind which is Huzoor Saleh. He is tall and lean and wearing a crisp white jellaba. He stands to greet us. Snigdha removes the camera from her bag and begins photographing the office. The shelves are overflowing with newspapers, books, pamphlets. I recognize religious texts by the gold lettering on their spines. The stench has climbed up to us now, and the air freshener man redoubles his efforts.

“The madrasa was founded 35 years ago,” Huzoor Saleh says, “and now we have over 500 students. They are mostly orphans.” In Bangladesh, he explains, the word for orphan, eteem, does not necessarily refer to a child whose parents have died. It can also mean a child whose father has abandoned her, or whose parents don’t have the money to feed her. The madrasa houses these children, feeds them three meals a day, and educates them in subjects both religious and secular. “And we find them good husbands. I make the matches myself.” Madrasa-educated women, I learn, are sought after by men, and the girls often marry into well-off families.

The electricity has cut out and Huzoor Saleh is airing himself with a hand fan. He continues his story. “The mission is the first girls’ madrasa in the country to give masters diplomas.” He strokes his beard as the pride rises in his voice. “Some of our students go on to teach at very prestigious colleges and universities.” He names a few well-known institutions in the city.

As I listen to him speak, Huzoor Saleh sounds surprisingly like the aid workers I have met over the years, who insist that girls’ education is the route to prosperity in Bangladesh. Educated girls make better household managers; they know what to do when their children fall ill; they have lower maternal and infant mortality rates. Most importantly, they are able to bargain, advocate for themselves and demand what is due to them from their families, communities and from the state.

Because of this incontrovertible evidence, the Bangladeshi state, along with international aid agencies, has invested massively in girls’ education over the past 10 years. Now, amid the stories of floods, cyclones, famine, and political instability, the education of girls is one of Bangladesh’s successes. The decade of investment means that girls have achieved parity with boys in primary school enrolment. In order to keep them in school until they are 16, the government gives out stipends to their families and actively encourages them not to marry until they have completed their education.

NGOs have played no small part in this. Grameen Bank and Brac (the Bangladesh Rural

Advancement Committee—the world’s largest non-governmental organisation) have set up thousands of non-formal primary education centres. These schools are community based, and organized around village life. Along with the government syllabus, the students are also taught subjects relevant to rural life—how to look after the animals on their farm, or how best to manage a household income. The classrooms are small and intimate, and the children sit in a semicircle around the teacher, reciting Bengali poetry in loud, cheerful voices. The Rehmat Ali mission is nothing like a village school. The heavy steel doors are closed every night, and the children need special permission to leave the compound. There is no outdoor space – they used to have a flat rooftop, where the children were sometimes allowed to play, but the space has recently been converted into another classroom. Out of the window of Huzoor Saleh’s office, I see an old woman hanging up her washing. She shuffles back and forth with clothespins, revealing, as she moves, a large and sagging expanse of midriff. The whole atmosphere is close and claustrophobic.

Huzoor Saleh takes us to the classrooms. We begin with the seven- to nine-year-olds.

They are sitting on the floor of a large room, identical in size to Huzoor Saleh’s office upstairs. They don’t have classes today, and they are dressed casually in salwar kameezes, their heads wrapped in dupattas. They giggle as we enter. We are told by the teacher that they eat, sleep, and study in this one room. When the classes are in session, they bring in the wooden benches that are stacked up in the hallway and arrange them in rows, then pile their things – blankets, clothes, mattresses, trunks and schoolbooks – at the back of the room. At night they sleep on the floor, three or four huddled under each mosquito net.

I see the girl who greeted me in the hallway. She gives me a tentative wave. When I squat next to her, the other girls turn to stare, so I have to whisper. Her name is Rabeya. She has a deep, pleasant voice. When did she come here, I ask. Three years ago. Her mother sold puffed rice at their village market. One day she told Rabeya she couldn’t afford to feed her any more. Rabeya spent the next few months eating every third day. Then she heard of the madrasa. “My mother said, if you want to study, study and don’t come back.” Rabeya doesn’t go home for the holidays like some of the other children. Chittagong is too far away, and she doesn’t know if her mother is still at the old address.

I asked Sultana if the children are allowed to sing, fully expecting her to give me a shocked no.

The girls are shy at first, but Snigdha’s camera pulls them towards us, and before long they are crowded around her, asking to see the photos she has taken in the small screen on her digital camera. In the maths classroom, a man referred to as Sir is teaching algebra. He explains the equation and they repeat after him. I have squeezed myself on to one of the benches. The girl sitting next to me, her pen moving quickly as Sir solves his quadratic equation, casts shy glances in my direction. Her name is Ayesha. I ask her about her textbooks.

“What’s this one?”


“And this?”

“Fiqh. It teaches you how to be a good Muslim.”

“Like rules?” I ask.

“Yes, rules, how to conduct yourself, and how to be pious, and how to show your faith.”

“Are there separate rules for girls and boys?”

“It’s the same book for girls and for boys.”

“But are the rules the same?”

She looks very seriously at me, adjusting the white headscarf that is pinned neatly under her chin.

“In Islam, a man and a woman are equal.”

Chastised, I turn my attention back to Sir. We make our way downstairs, to a Quranic study class. This looks more as I had imagined, the children hunched over their Arabic texts, rocking back and forth as they read. The teacher sits at the front of the class with a long stick, which she bangs on the floor. “Recite!” she says, echoing the first word of the Qur’an. The children begin again, chanting, swaying, pointing to each word with an index finger. The younger children have shorter books. I whisper to the one nearest to me.

“What are you reading?”

Ampara,” she says.

“What does it say?”

The teacher approaches me.

“We don’t teach them the meaning until they’re older.”

“How old?”

“Class six.”

A few weeks later, Ramadan, the month of fasting, has begun. The shops in Dhaka play tapes of Quranic recitation instead of pop music, and very early in the morning the muezzin outside my window urges me to wake, eat and prepare for a day without food and water. “Muslims, wake your neighbors!” the muezzin cries. In the afternoon, Snigdha and I relax with some of the older children in their dormitory. They are accompanied by one of their housemothers, Sultana. I am reminded of last year, when I visited a village school in one of the poorest corners of Bangladesh. I remember asking one of the children to recite a poem for me, and hearing him sing it in long, soaring notes full of tenderness. I asked Sultana if the children are allowed to sing, fully expecting her to give me a shocked no.

“They can sing,” she said. “They sing ghazals.”

“Ghazals, really?” I reply, thinking of the devotional, but often subversive Urdu lyric poetry.

“We hold competitions,” Sultana said, “every year. With prizes.”

She asks the children to sing, and one of the older girls gets up in front of the class. She sings in Bengali, a very plain devotional song. It lacks the poetry and subtlety of a ghazal, but the children appear to enjoy it, clapping and humming along.

“I wish they had somewhere to play,” Sultana sighs. “Sometimes we just let them run up and down the corridors to get some exercise.”

Snigdha snaps a few more photographs, and we take our leave for the day, promising to return as the children grasp and hug us goodbye.

I’ve grown attached to my visits to the Rehmat Ali mission, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s a typical example of madrasa education. Huzoor Saleh seems like any other school principal, pacing the corridors with a slightly worried expression on his face. The girls, despite their close confinement, seem at ease in their environment. They have an air of dignity about them, and they always, whenever I ask, tell me how eager they are to pass their exams and find work. I had ambitions of finding a different sort of madrasa, one in which images are banned and there are no singing competitions. The Rehmat Ali School is an Alia madrasa, and because it is monitored by the state, its activities have to be somewhat transparent. I want to find a Quomi madrasa, but my efforts seem jinxed; one visit after another is cancelled.

Weeks later, I find myself in a rough part of Old Dhaka, not too far from the riverbank where the city was first built, waiting for a man to take me inside a building with a locked gate. The man, called Mithu, doesn’t show up. Snigdha and I wait in the heat. Finally, we decide to venture out and find a madrasa that might let us inside. They’re practically on every corner, and as we walk we find three or four within a few minutes.

We knock on doors and get turned away. Many of the schools are closed because of

Ramadan. Without an introduction, it is impossible to find anyone who will allow us to enter. We finally persuade the principal of a new madrasa to speak with us. His students haven’t arrived yet, but he grants us permission to look around. His office is in a newly constructed building, the walls and floors unplastered. We climb a set of rough concrete stairs to his office on the top floor. He is sitting behind a computer. His room is air-conditioned and smells sweetly of rosewater.

The meeting starts well. Huzoor Mansur has invented a new kind of teaching method, one that combines state education with madrasa education. He believes there should be a balance between the two; he complains that secular education does not have enough of an Islamic component. And madrasa students need to be able to get jobs, to operate in the larger social world. Then I ask what he thinks of girls’ education, and why he is planning to allow women to attend his madrasa.

“Women are required for certain jobs,” he begins. “When women ask me, about the color of menstrual blood, I have to reply. When they ask, is it supposed to be reddish, or the color of mud, what am I supposed to say? I can only tell them what I have read. That is why more women need to be educated. Women are falling behind.”

The institutions themselves were mysterious and closed to me, each visit closely monitored and controlled. But they did not contain the seeds of change I had feared (and, yes, morbidly expected) I would find.

He tells us a bit more, about the seven colors of menstrual blood. Apparently there are books dedicated to this subject, all of which he has read. The Huzoor spends another five minutes explaining, in exacting detail, the need for women gynecologists. He’s polished and articulate, and I can’t exactly disagree with what he’s saying, bemoaning the lack of facilities, the dearth of good female teachers. But there’s something menacing about the way he’s talking, and I wonder if he’s secretly having a laugh at us, Snigdha and I, both of us with our heads covered, our shoes removed, being savaged by the mosquitoes that swarm under his desk. We wait patiently until the Huzoor has finished, then we take our leave as quickly as we can. We make haste down the steps and into the street, but not before we catch a glimpse of the dormitories – dark, cramped rooms stacked high with bunk beds. Whatever the Huzoor will teach, whatever his mix of Islamic and secular, the children in his charge will have little means to challenge it. After all, he’ll be feeding them three meals a day.

As we wind our way through the small roads of old Dhaka, we pass a street of shops selling large vats of chemicals, destined for the tanneries that line the riverbank. Then we catch a glimpse of the river itself, the mighty Buriganga on which Dhaka was originally built, and we come upon an arched walkway leading into a courtyard. I recognize the building as none other than Bara Katara, the oldest building in Dhaka.

On the face of it, Bara Katara is a symbol of everything that is wrong with Bangladesh.

Although it is more than 500 years old, it has long been neglected by authorities. Its

Mughal architecture—arched columns, sweeping courtyards, a grand gated entrance—has all but disappeared. The riverbank on which it sits once boasted palaces and mansions, but is now the place from which leather factories deposit their toxic chemicals into the river. And, though Bara Katara was built to house the sailors and merchants who came to Bengal to trade, it is no longer a way station for wanderers from afar—it is now home to one of Dhaka’s largest madrasas. I look at the building and feel a mixture of things; sadness at the sorry state it is in, anger because I don’t want it to turn into another madrasa; yet I know the building is alive because children walk its hallways and corridors, and without them, perhaps it would have crumbled away altogether, sliding into the murk of the river.

The madrasas I visited were both like and unlike what I had imagined. There were all the things my cousin had described—the rote learning, the squalid conditions, the lack of facilities. There was even, in the face of Huzoor Mansur, more than a hint of darkness.

The institutions themselves were mysterious and closed to me, each visit closely monitored and controlled. But they did not contain the seeds of change I had feared (and, yes, morbidly expected) I would find. They were not places that threatened to educate a generation of scholars who would challenge my secular freedoms. I believe now that the Rehmat Ali mission is the product of what is really the main story in Bangladesh: poverty. Rabeya and Ayesha are at the mission because they are poor, because the mission is the only place where they are sure to be safe, from hunger, from abandonment, from predators.

Just down the road from where we were parked in Old Dhaka is one of the biggest brothels in the city, home to countless young girls who have fled or been lured from their rural homes. Missions such as Huzoor Saleh’s remain among the few places where a poor young woman can rise above the circumstances of her birth. It is no coincidence that the madrasa reminds me of Brontë; the gothic, in all its darkness and horror, is still a reality here. Huzoor Saleh’s girls marry well; they take jobs at colleges and universities. Some even become scholars. There is something in my spirit that rebels when I walk through those dark-green corridors, but it is a rebellion against the fact that this place needs to exist at all, because, for so many in Bangladesh there is no alternative.

I did not find the cradle of fundamentalism at the Rehmat Ali School. Perhaps it is precisely because the school is dedicated to the education of girls that, as an institution, its aims are not political, nor even particularly religious, but simply humanitarian. While the threat of radical Islam, though distant, is still real in Bangladesh, it is overwhelmed by the pressing challenges of poverty. And this, ultimately, is the most dangerous thing about Bangladesh. Not the threat of suicide bombers, but the everyday cruelty—the very radical, the very extreme cruelty, that its citizens have to survive, and bear, and overcome.

Eid is approaching. Every day after sunset, the stores and malls in Dhaka are heavy with frantic shoppers; billboards display the latest in Eid fashion. At the Rehmat Ali madrasa, Huzoor Saleh is sorting through his donations. Twice a year, his students are given a new set of clothes and a special Eid meal. If he can afford it, he gives the poorest students a bar of soap and a small bottle of hair oil. I have come to take my leave, and I offer him a small donation, saying, as is customary, that he should use the money to buy mishit, or sweets, for the children.

“I’ll buy some guava,” he says, smiling. “Fruit is better for them.”

Tahmina Anam

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975. She was raised in Paris, New York City, and Bangkok. Her first novel, A Golden Age, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Costa First Novel Prize, and was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. It was translated into 22 languages.

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