India's madrassa schools refuse to teach math, science

By UZMI ATHAR, Written for UPI

BANGALORE, India, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- Shabana Rizvi, 17, nervously shakes her legs as she talks. She is overshadowed by her eldest brother, Meer, and appears apprehensive to voice her opinion in his presence. She glances in his direction after every sentence she speaks, awaiting his reaction.

When he disapproves, Rizvi is quickly warned to choose her words more carefully.


This isn't unusual for young Shiite Muslim women living on the Arab Lane in the Johnson Market in Bangalore, India.

In a rare moment apart from her sibling, Rizvi expresses a lifelong desire for a formal education and a career in fashion design.

The men in her family, however, decided long ago that she wouldn't learn how to read and write or solve mathematical equations. Instead, she was forced to join an Islamic school, called a madrassa, for girls, where she learned about Islam, along with cooking, cleaning, sewing and how to prepare for important religious festivals.


Her mother, Marsia Fathima, supported the decision.

"I am proud of the fact that my daughter never stepped inside a school," Fathima said. "She went to madrassas and attained her religious education there."

India's Ministry of Minority Affairs counts more than 1 million children who study solely at madrassas. The schools are partially funded by the Indian government but they don't offer education in math, science, English or other standard subjects. This exacerbates already high unemployment rates among Muslims throughout India.

A report prepared by the ministry stated that 25 percent of Muslim children between the ages of 6-14 have either never attended school or drop out. Many Muslim children who do attend school go to madrassas instead of mainstream schools.

The Indian government wants to modernize madrassas and has asked them to include core curriculums of reading, writing, arithmetic and science, along with technical skills to help Muslim children compete in the job market.

The government earmarked nearly $60 million to modernize madrassas as outlined in a five-year plan. But the changes aren't required so most of the schools rejected them. Many madrassa leaders said they would rather close their schools than implement the changes.

"Modernization is not at all necessary," said Ummat-e-Tahir, head of Madrassa Islahul Banat, which teaches Urdu and Arabic, in addition to religious studies based on the Koran. "We have to concentrate on our religion and not on anything else. We have come to the world to spread Islam. We have to overcome the attractions of the world."


Zubair Ahmed, a teacher at the school, agreed.

"Government schools are in very bad condition, it is a reflection of what is taught there," he said. "What is the point of modernizing the madrassa when we know that studying subjects like science and mathematics are going to take us nowhere?"

Munshi Muhammad, an associate of Madrasa-e-Rahmania, a madrassa for boys, said children can only master one subject, so they need to concentrate on Islam.

"There is no place for other distractions," he said. "Our students are working as imam and ulma. We are happy in our present situation."

An imam is a mosque leader and an ulma is a teacher of Islamic subjects.

Not every Muslim shuns the education proposal. The Waqf Board, the governing body representing Muslims in the central Indian government, strongly supports a broader education for the students attending madrassas.

"If the committees don't agree with modernization, we will remove them," said Waqf Board leader Mirza Akbar. "We support modernization. You need worldly knowledge along with religious knowledge to survive in this world."

As with many other women in her position, Rizvi said she is resigned to her fate. Still, she maintains a deep yearning for more education, more responsibilities and a way to prove her worth in the world.


"It would be nice to learn science and mathematics," she said. "What all I studied in madrassa was about religious subjects. We need mathematics calculation in our day-to-day life."

It may be too late for Rizvi. She is too old to take advantage of India's Right to Education Act, a law implemented last year that requires children ages 6-14 to attend school.

Rizvi said her only hope is in believing that the government will uphold the law by helping the madrassas find an effective way to provide a well-rounded education to her children.

"I am going to send my kids to school where they can get the education I never could get," she said.

She isn't alone.

Inayet Ali Zaidi, a history professor at India Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in New Delhi, said teachers in Islamic schools are afraid of the changes because they may not have the skill sets to bring the schools into alignment with the government's proposal.

Zaidi said they are also scared that more well-educated students will choose to give up Islam.

"The teachers of madrassas fear that modernization would make students leave their religion," he said. "What they don't realize is that modernization would bring them closer to Islam."


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