Pakistan's Islamic girl schools

Islamabad, Pakistan - In the Jamia Hafza Madrassa (religious school) in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, hundreds of girls are taking their exams.

But although they are taught subjects like maths and geography, they are not tested on them. Their exams are only on matters relating to Islam.

Many of the 2,000 girls here are draped in black from head to toe. Others cover their hair with brightly coloured scarves.

International concern about madrassas breeding Islamic militants has quite naturally focussed on madrassas for boys.

In any case, Islamic radicals have in the past objected to girls' education. In Afghanistan, the Taleban banned girls from going to school.

But now, some groups ideologically close to the brand of austere Islam preached by the Taleban appear to be changing their strategy. Islamic clerics in Pakistan are expanding the number of madrassas for girls.

This is partly to counter criticism that they neglect girls' education, partly to widen the influence of Islam in Pakistani society, and partly because the madrassas are very popular with some Pakistani parents.

Change of thinking

Gul Shaida, an earnest-looking young woman in black, who has been studying at the madrassa for five years, told me she enjoyed her studies.

"I want to read and what I want I can find here," she said. "After I graduate I want to teach all over the world and I want to tell the world what is Islam and what is Muslim."

The madrassa teachers claim the girls diplomas are equivalent to a master's degree, and that they can go to other more secular institutions.

In reality, very few girls get jobs outside the madrassa system. The hope of the clerics is that some of them will go back to their villages and set up madrassas there.

The teachers were eager to show me the computer room. With five computers, they have one for every 400 girls.

When I ask if they have access to the internet, the teachers laugh. "No, that is not possible for us," says Binte Rafiq.

"[We teach them] just only how to shut down the computer, and how to start it. Basic IT."

The teachers say they cannot afford more computers because the madrassa relies completely on private donations.

But at the same time they showed me construction work to add extra rooms, so they can take in even more students.

The teachers say much of the money they get comes from people who visit the madrassa, and are impressed by the work they're doing.

The madrassa's vice president, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, says there has been a change of thinking among religious leaders about girls education.

"We are told that we, religious people, are against women's education. But we have proved that we are not."

Asked about the curriculum, he said, "Islam is enough. It is a complete code for modern life."

Changed views

But women's rights activist, Tahira Abdullah, argues that the madrassas' aim is not to educate but to promote a narrow, intolerant world view.

"It stifles the spirit of inquiry, it stifles the powers of reasoning and logic," she said.

"Just like these girls look like ninja turtles - in that all encompassing veil, just like they look like that, their brains are like that. They're atrophied. Totally rusted.

"The IQ levels must be going down all the time if someone was to do tests on them. They're not allowed to think for themselves, to question, they're not allowed to reason. Their spirit of inquiry is stifled."

The Jamia Hafza Madrassa was raided by police in July as part of an operation to round up militants after the suicide bombings in London.

At least one of the bombers had visited a madrassa in Pakistan a few months before the attacks.

But after the raid, in which a pregnant woman was hurt, the authorities ended up apologising for "heavy-handed" behaviour by the police.

Mr Ghazi says Pakistan's madrassas are being unjustly targeted.

"When these blasts took place in London, we condemned that," he said.

"But they immediately said that Pakistani madrassas are involved in that. It was just like that when the 9/11 attacks took place. We were the first ones here in Pakistan who condemned those attacks very forcefully.

"But immediately after that we heard that the blame was put on the Muslims and so we changed our point of view."

And the clerics claim they have also changed their views about girls' education.

They seem to have concluded that what they teach a girl, she will teach her children. And many parents are keen to send their daughters to madrassas because they offer free lessons, food and lodging.

Others, however, send their children there because they do not want them to lose their Islamic identity.

For the girls learning to recite the Koran at the Jamia Hafza Madrassa, there seems little risk of that.