Students of Madrassahs (Islamic schools) in Bangladesh are furiously protesting rampant sexual exploitation by teachers and senior pupils, turning to social media to expose their silence on an issue long considered taboo.
Child abuse in madrasas has long gone unreported in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation where hard-line Islamist groups draw their support from the tens of thousands of schools across the nation of 170 million people.
Some of these groups like Hifazat-e-Islam are pushing for blasphemy laws and those adhere to Shariat. In recent weeks, they have agitated for stopping installation of statues of the country’s Founding Father Sheikh Mujuibur Rahman .
They say statues are ‘un-Islamic’ but the country’s ruling Awami League and secular Bengali nationalist groups say statues are the ‘best way to honour’ the great leader.
As the battle between the League and its secular allies and the Islamist radicals spills over on to the streets, thousands of moderate Bengali Muslims have joined ‘victim’ students in demanding punishment for teachers and senior pupils accused of rape and serial sexual exploitation of madrassah students.
The issue started to boil over in April and attract national scrutiny after the brutal murder of a teenage girl who was burnt to death after accusing her headteacher of sexual assault.
In July alone, at least five madrasa teachers have been arrested on rape charges against boys and girls under their care.
Several senior students were also held by police over the rape and beheading of an 11-year-old orphan, while a Dhaka cleric and seminary teacher was charged with sexually assaulting a dozen boys aged between 12 and 19.
The accusations reveal how students from poorer and rural backgrounds, whose parents send them to madrasas as they are more affordable than secular schools, are disproportionately affected by the abuse.
Rights activists said the assaults — which range from violent rapes to forcible kissing — are so pervasive that the cases reported in the media are just believed to be the tip of the iceberg.
“For years these crimes eluded the spotlight due to sensitivity of the subject,” Abdus Shahid, the head of child rights’ group Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Forum, told mediapersons recently.
“Devout Muslims send children to madrasas, but they don’t speak up about these crimes as they feel it would harm these key religious institutions.”
Hojaifa al Mamduh, who studied in three madrasas in the capital Dhaka, fired a series of posts on Facebook in July detailing the abuses that he and other students had to put up with.
The assaults were “so widespread in the madrasas, every student who has studied there knows about it”, Al Mamduh, now a journalism student at a Dhaka University, told mediapersons.
“Many madrasa teachers I know consider sex with children a lesser crime than consensual extramarital sex with women.
Since they live in the same dormitories, the perpetrators can easily hide their crimes and put pressure on their poor students to keep mum.”
The 23-year-old’s posts generated heated debate in the country, and he was personally threatened.
He was accused of being “an agent of Jews and Christians” and smearing the “sacred image” of a madrasa by one social media user.
Another reminded him of the fate of Avijit Roy, a top Bangladeshi atheist blogger and writer who was hacked to death by Islamist extremists in 2015.
But his posts encouraged others to share their own experiences of alleged sex crimes.
Mostakimbillah Masum, who published his story on a feminist website, said he was “first raped by an elder student in my madrasa when I was just seven”.
The 25-year-old claimed that another one of his rapists was “a teacher who made me unconscious and raped me. It traumatized me permanently”.
“Dozens of madrasa students I know were either raped or witnessed rapes and sexual assaults of their fellow students,” he added. “It is so rampant that almost every madrasa has a fair share of such stories.”
Madrasa teachers have strongly denied the allegations, calling them “negative propaganda”.
Mahfuzul Haq, a principal of a madrasa in Mohammadpur where Al Mamduh studied, told mediapersons “one or two isolated incidents can happen” as there were 20,000 madrasas in Bangladesh.
“Those who don’t like to study in madrasas are spreading these stories,” he claimed.
A spokesman for hardline Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islami, which represents a coalition of thousands of madrasas, said his organisation told a recent conference of 1,200 principals to take “tough stand against any sex crimes”.
However, there has been growing acknowledgment of the alleged offenses.
Pro-Islamic website Fateh24.com, viewed as a voice for the madrasas, pointed out in a report that children were at risk in smaller seminaries run by just one or two teachers without any oversight from governing bodies.
Editor Iftekhar Jamil, a former madrasa student and teacher, added that the cases were “not isolated” incidents and called for closed-circuit cameras to be installed in students’ dormitories where they slept.
“Instead of looking for conspiracies, these madrasas must take up responsibility and adopt an action plan to tackle these crimes,” Jamil told mediapersons.
Jahid (not his real name), a nine-year-old boy from Mohammadpur of Magura district, was admitted to Panihata Hafizia madrasa by his father Abdul Aziz. He wanted to make his son a hafiz, a person who memorizes the entire Holy Quran. Unfortunately, his only son is now under treatment in Mymensingh Medical College Hospital.
Jahid has been groaning in pain and cannot even fully recognize his parents due to the traumatic experience he went through in the madrasa. He was allegedly raped by his teacher, Alauddin, the principal of the madrasa.
According to Jahid’s father, Alauddin threatened his son that if he told anyone about the rape, he and his family would die from vomiting blood.
However, seeing Jahid’s disastrous condition, one of Jahid’s friends called his father and after much persuasion, Jahid described what had happened to him.
Alauddin was arrested by the police who later found that Jahid was only one of Alauddin’s many victims. He confessed to the police that he had raped two other children in the same week he raped Jahid.
Students of Panihata madrasa, most of whom are eight to 15, also revealed accounts of inhuman corporal punishment by their teachers.
Lashing mercilessly with two or three sticks bundled together, shackling kids for a full day, slapping them on the face and frequent sexual molestation—these are the ways Alauddin and his colleagues used to treat their infant students who, according to Islam, are free from sin and cannot be held accountable for their wrongdoings.
Recent reports published in the media about brutal punishment and sexual abuse in madrasas indicate that Jahid’s fate in Panihata madrasa is probably not an isolated incident.
Students of madrasas, many of whom are from poor families or even orphans, who have to spend their entire student life in the enclosed, residential premises of the madrasas, rarely get the chance to inform their guardians in case of any abusive treatment.
Around 50 cases of rape and molestation have been reported every year in madrassahs of Bangladesh but that may shoot up drastically this year.
This indicates that these reports of molestation in madrasas is the tip of a much bigger problem. But why in madrasas, where children are supposed to live in a sacred environment, do they sometimes face the most traumatic experiences of their lives?
The answer may lie in the current administration system of the madrasas which lacks accountability and are extremely prone to political influence and corruption.
There are various types of madrasas in Bangladesh that operate independently. They don’t even follow the rules of the central and regional boards of Qwami madrasas.
They provide non-formal Islamic education, run entirely on donations and do not follow any standard curriculum or academic process.
Since there is no central administrative body to supervise these madrasas, their actual number cannot even be confirmed.
The standard of education imparted by the madrassahs are poor.
Nurani and Furqania madrasas provide elementary level Islamic education and Hafizia madrasas are residential madrasas where children are sent to complete Hifz course, a traditional method of memorising the entire holy Quran.
Usually, the donor(s) who establish or support these madrasas also recruit teachers and such recruitments depend on their whims.
For instance, Alauddin of Panihata madrasa used to teach his students how to memorise the Quran.
However, it was later found that Alauddin did not have any academic qualification. He never completed a Hifz course. According to Jahid’s father, “He only had a skullcap, Punjabi and beard to prove his Islamic knowledge.”
He was recruited by the secretary of the madrasa managing committee. There is a madrasa education directorate, madrasa education board and Qwami madrasa education board (Befaqul Madarisil Arabia) in Bangladesh but none of these bodies could develop a mechanism to recruit qualified teachers for these institutions.
As a result, the education and upbringing of a huge number of children, mostly from the marginalized part of the society, depend on teachers and institutions whose educational standards are questionable and whose ethical standards are not clear.
Many of the Nurani and Furqania students get enrolled in higher-level Qwami madrasas for further education where they enter into an even stricter environment. For the rest of their academic life up to Dawra-E-Hadith (Master’s level degree), they learn mostly Islamic theology and Urdu, Arabic and Persian literature.
In fact, they have to learn Urdu, Arabic and Persian languages to study the traditional Islamic books which are mostly written in these three languages. The teachers of these madrasas follow instructions only given by their respective regional boards and these boards are beyond the purview of any type of government monitoring.
They have been rejecting all efforts of curriculum reformation supposedly to protect the “sanctity” of their traditional syllabus which has been producing a huge number of jobless youths.
According to Political Economy of Madrasa Education in Bangladesh by Professor Dr Abul Barkat, every three of four Qwami madrasa students remain jobless after their graduation.
Many of these Qwami graduates ultimately have to rely on their teachers to get jobs in different mosques and madrasas which makes them even reluctant to raise their voice against their teachers in case of abusive treatments.
The situation in Alia madrasas is no better. There are more than 10,000 Alia madrasas in Bangladesh which are administered by the government’s madrasa education board.
Most of these madrasas, particularly the government ones, have become a hotbed of partisan politics like all other government colleges.
When Nusrat, a student of Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Madrasa (an Alia madrasa), was killed allegedly by the order of the principal of the madrasa for protesting against his sexual abuse, local Awami League leaders supported him and tried their best to protect the killers.
In fact, reports revealed that he was hand-picked by the local ruling party leaders who hold key positions in the madrasa management committee despite his previous records of financial and sexual misconduct.
In Bakerganj upazila of Barisal district, when a madrasa teacher protested against the illegal use of the madrasa’s property by local influentials, their supporters poured feces on his head in broad daylight.
Shortage of qualified teachers, lack of students in the science discipline, shortage of resources has crippled many of these madrasas whose students just attend the exams to keep their studentship.
But in Bangladesh’s neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal, where Muslims constitute 28 percent of the population , the madrassahs present a huge contrast.
The more than 500 state-run madrasahs teach a modern curriculum, which is why it has attracted students from the majority Hindu community.
20 percent of the students in West Bengal’s government-run madrassahs are non-Muslim pupils.
In these modernised madrasahs, young students are being groomed to become future engineers, doctors, scientists, bureaucrats and other professionals – rather than mullahs.
Aged 10 to 18 years, the children take an oath that they will study well, become good citizens and serve their country patriotically.
The morning assembly ends not with an Islamic prayer, but with the pupils and teachers together singing India’s national anthem, which was written by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.
The Nobel laureate also wrote what later was adopted as Bangladesh’s national anthem.
At the Chatuspalli Madrasah in Orgram village, about 160 kilometers north of Kolkata, students scurry to an assembly. Wearing blue and white uniforms, more than 1,000 boys and girls stand in rows facing their teachers.
“Ordinary people believe that a madrasah is a place where pupils are taught religious subjects and it has no connection with modern education,” said Anowar Hossain, who heads the Chatuspalli Madrassah. “But we prepare students for a bright career.”
“After graduating from this madrasah, many pupils have ended up as doctors, engineers, management professionals, and so on,” Hossain said.
In fact, including Orgram, all 611 state-run madrasahs in West Bengal have introduced a modern school curriculum in recent years, and male and female students study together.
Unlike in traditional madrasahs, no pupil has to practice any Islamic ritual.
However, for all students, including the non-Muslims, Arabic and Islamic Studies are compulsory.
“Before attending this madrasah, non-Muslim students usually have wrong ideas about this place and Islam,” Hossain said. But after their studies, he said, “they completely change their minds and they return from this madrasah with a good impression about this place, Muslims and Islam.”
Headmaster Hossain says that the schools give non-Muslim pupils the chance to correct their stereotypes about Islam.
Orgram madrasah is one of only five madrasahs in the state of West Bengal where non-Muslim pupils outnumber their Muslim counterparts.
More than 61 percent of Orgram madrasah’s 1,178 students are Hindus, Christians or tribal animists. And 10 of the 30 teachers are Hindu.
Teachers and students get on well, sometimes even playing volleyball together after classes.
In recent years, communal conflicts have often been flaring up between Hindus and Muslims in India.
Some Hindu students say their madrasah education has brought them closer to their Muslim counterparts, helping to at least partially bridge the historical divide between the two communities.
Uttam Mistry, an 11th grade Hindu student at Orgram madrasah, said he, for one, has changed his mind.
“I thought that Muslims are bad people and they could not be friends of Hindus. But after joining this madrasah I have found that this notion was completely incorrect,” Mistry said.
Mistry added that he thinks if Hindu students continue to study with Muslims, they’ll start mixing better.
The West Bengal model provides a contrast to both Assam, where the BJP-led government intends to close down all madrassahs and Sanskrit tells to ‘ secularise and modernise education’, and Bangladesh, where the madrassa curriculum has remained outdated.