The Daily Hustle: Why one Afghan girl decided to open her own madrasa

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon • Roxanna Shapour

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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After the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan closed girls’ high schools, thousands of older Afghan girls were left behind from education. With not much to do except help with the household chores, many families decided to enrol their girls in a madrasa so that they could pursue their religious education. Many older girls, who had already had extensive religious education in their high schools, found the quality of madrasa instruction fell short of the mark. AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon has spoken to one girl who decided to take matters into her own hands and, with her father’s support, establish a madrasa.  

My last day in school

I was a student in grade 11 when the Taleban took over Afghanistan. My school was one of the few co-educational government schools in Kabul, where both boys and girls attended but not in the same classrooms. Sadly, there were far fewer girls than boys studying at my school, but we were all hardworking and serious about our studies.

As district after district fell under Taleban control, my classmates and I were busy with our midterm exams, oblivious to the fact that in a few days, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan would collapse and the Taleban would enter Kabul, and our lives would change forever.

On that last day in school, we took two exams, mathematics and physics. Our teacher told us there were rumours that the Taleban might enter Kabul, and that, if that happened, there was a high chance there’d be fighting in the city streets. This would mean we wouldn’t be able to get to school to take our last exam. It was best, she said, for us to take both exams while we were at school that day.

Little did I know that this would be the last day I’d put on my black school uniform with its white headscarf. I didn’t imagine that never again would I see the inside of a classroom.

When I got home from school that day, my mother told my brothers to stay inside. She said it was not a good idea for them to play with their friends on the street outside our house as they usually did after school. She put my sisters and me to work preparing dinner for the family while she kept one eye on the TV and the other on the front door, waiting for my father to get home from work. She was anxious and distracted.

The Taleban entered Kabul that night. We watched on TV as they took over the Arg (the Presidential Palace), their fighters sitting behind desks where, hours earlier, officials of the Republic had been working.

A month later, the new government shut all the girls’ high schools. After that, girls could only go to school until they’d finished grade six.

Going to madrasa is better than not going to school at all

It was supposed to be temporary. The Emirate announced on the news that girls would be able to go back to high school as soon as the new government made the necessary arrangements. But the days turned into weeks and then into months and the high schools stayed closed.

We are three sisters and three brothers. I am the eldest. My brothers are all in school – in grades 11, 7 and 3 – and my youngest sister is eight years old and also in school. But my 12-year-old sister, who should have been in grade 7 by now, is no longer in school. She’s very upset. In the mornings, we help our siblings get ready. We make breakfast and make sure they have everything they need in their school bags and then we watch with envy as they leave the house to go to school. In the afternoons, I help our younger siblings with their homework. The rest of the time, we help my mother with chores around the house and read books.

Finally, after months of waiting to go back to school, my sister and I decided we should start going to a madrasa. We talked it over with our father. We told him we needed something more than chores to occupy our time. We wanted to learn more about our religion, Islam. He thought it was an excellent idea and enrolled us in a madrasa in our neighbourhood that same week. But after only a few days we realised that our knowledge was too advanced for what they were teaching us. So, we talked to our father and asked him to find another madrasa for us.

Over the months, we tried several madrasas, but the curriculum and the quality of teaching were the same in all of them – rudimentary and desperately poor. They taught us the Arabic alphabet and then how to connect the letters to make words, but we already knew how to read and write. They also taught the Holy Quran, a few hadiths and some doa’a [prayers], but only in Arabic, without translating them into Pashto. My sister kept complaining that she didn’t want to merely memorise these verses. She wanted to know what they meant. So, in the evenings, my father and I sat with her and read the Quran with her in Arabic as well as the translation in Pashto.

I’d already studied these texts in school in Arabic and Pashto. In our religious studies classes, we’d learned tafsir (exegesis), the hadith, the history of Islam and other subjects related to our religion. I went to each madrasa for a few days, but I soon got bored and lost interest. I thought these classes were a waste of time. Yes, they were useful for younger learners, but older girls who’d already had extensive instruction in their high school classes needed a more rigorous curriculum.

Attempts to improve the instruction

Every day, over dinner, l’d complain to my family about the latest madrasa I was enrolled in. At first, my father would find me another madrasa to attend. But it soon became obvious they were all the same. Finally, my father decided to speak to the people in charge of the madrasa about improving the curriculum, perhaps including fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), tafsir and other more in-depth Islamic studies.

But all his efforts were in vain. Although they were very polite and sympathetic, they always gave a reason for not being able to improve the quality of instructions for the girls. In one madrasa, they told him they operated on a shoestring budget and didn’t have the money to hire more professional female teachers. In another, they said they couldn’t find qualified female teachers, and in yet another, they said there were qualified female teachers, but they lived too far from the madrasa and their families weren’t willing to send them to teach so far from their homes. He tried and tried, but the answer was always the same: This is the best we can do for the girls studying at our madrasa. Whatever reasons they gave, in my mind, they were just excuses. I could not accept there was no way to improve the curriculum for girls.

Finally, I decided to ask my father to help me establish our own madrasa on our street.

Let’s open a madrasa

Several reasons prompted this decision. First, my sister, who finished grade 6 last year and is now at home, is growing more despondent by the day. She’s sinking into a deep depression and everyone in the family is very concerned about her. We could all see how happy she was to be going to her classes at the madrasa, even if the quality of teaching was poor. My mother said that some of the other women in the neighbourhood told her they also had daughters in the same predicament and felt they would benefit from going back to a learning environment. But this wasn’t the only reason. We have a beautiful religion and it’s important for every girl to understand Islam and what it means to be a Muslim.

But many people don’t take the trouble to make sure they have a deep understanding of Islam and its tenets. They stray from the path of faith by believing in superstitions and inventions that have, over time, gained currency and are touted as truths. It’s important for all Muslims to understand the faith, its rules and obligations to God and our fellow human beings. I feel strongly that people in my community, especially women, have the opportunity to learn about Islam from credible teachers and, hopefully, stop believing in myths and superstitions.

I presented my idea of opening our own madrasa to my parents over dinner one night. I was nervous and had been preparing my arguments for days. I told him that we could open a madrasa in our neighbourhood if he’d commit some funds to rent a place near our home and pay a couple of well-qualified female teachers. I thought this might give my sister some hope and a sense of purpose and help her overcome her sadness. It would be good for the community because the madrasa would be free for all girls in the neighbourhood and a place for them to learn not only about our religion but also another language – Arabic.

Starting a madrasa, easier said than done

Both my parents thought it was a good idea. My father has a good position in an international NGO and is also a partner in a small business that he runs with one of his friends. He said he’d contribute some of his earnings to opening a madrasa in our neighbourhood. This kind of thing, he said, is an obligation for all Muslims who have the means to support the community.

He looked into how he’d ask permission to register a madrasa and found it was pretty straightforward and could be easily done when the time came. We’ve also identified two very good female teachers of the Quran and the hadith that we could hire when we open the madrasa. We haven’t discussed this with them, or anyone else in detail yet because we don’t want to raise hopes until we’ve rented a place for the school and secured all the necessary permits from the government.

Finding a place to rent has proven to be easier said than done. My father’s been looking for weeks and there are no vacant houses to be had in our neighbourhood. He put the word out that he’d be interested in renting a house as soon as one becomes available. For now, my sister and I spend our days making plans for the time when we can open the madrasa. We’ve enlisted everyone in the extended family to help us find all the things we need – furniture, whiteboards, exercise books and most importantly, textbooks.

While we wait, we still keep hoping that one day soon, the Emirate will find a way to get girls back into education, so that all Afghan girls can finish high school and even go to university, if they want to.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour


The Daily Hustle: Why one Afghan girl decided to open her own madrasa