By Sumna Sadaqat
As a teaching volunteer in Delhi, I came across students mistaking me for a madrasa graduate. At first, they thought that I would hardly be able to teach them but they were surprised to know that I was well versed in the English language, Mathematics and Science. As a few days passed by they said ‘You wear Hijab but you aren’t from a madrasa that’s why you can speak English.’ I was shocked to see the shallow understanding of Madrasas even amongst innocent children. They were not at fault; it is the misconception in the society which has gradually turned into general hate in our society for Madrasas.
Madrasa is an Arabic word, coming from the root letters -da -ra – sa meaning school or any place of attaining education. In the Indian context, it is conventionally used for the Islamic training seminaries, providing religious education to its students. Often portrayed as breeding ground for terrorists and centres of violence, Madrasas are misunderstood for radicalizing young minds. But little was all of this found when I entered Jamea Tus Salehat, an all-girls Madrasa in the obscure city of Rampur located in the western part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Although, cuisine, clothing, religion and most of all politics is what brings Rampur to the limelight, this seminary has been uniquely catering to the needs of Muslim girls for the past 50 years. Since its establishment in 1972, this is one of the many seminaries which have been endeavouring to convey the real meaning and purpose of Madrasa in the Indian society.
It has been revolutionary in providing women with considerable freedom as prescribed in the Qur’an to a certain extent. Even Islamic practices which were and are still considered to be foreign and impressible in the subcontinent such as congregational prayers of women led by women Imams, memorizing Quran with meanings etc. were promoted at Jamea. In the early years, when Qur’anic recitation by women was not much in practice, morning assemblies were graced by Jamea’s students beautiful Qirat (recitation) of Qur’an, which until now remains the norm. Another convention broken by Jamea was that of permitting girls to participate in funeral prayers. The first time was done in late 1970s, after a student’s demise. Jamea was far ahead of time as even in subcontinent’s urban Muslim areas today females hardly offer funeral prayers. Madrasas like Jamea efficiently shoulder the responsibility of instilling the ethos of equality and respect for women rights in religious spheres.
Thinking about madrasas, one often thinks of crooked walls, dysfunctional rooms, no proper electricity, congested living, students sitting on rugs and mats moving in periodic motions continuously. But this seminary located on the Shaukat Ali Road is an exception with a concrete structure, separate hostel and academic buildings. For students here, spacious dormitories and hygienic food awaits them after classes. Separate classrooms, tables and chairs are provided which enable students to concentrate on studies.
Apart from the architecture, education at Jamea is wholesome and enriching. It provides training not just in Qur’anic Studies, the Arabic language, Hadith literature and jurisprudence like any other of its counterparts but contemporary subjects like Mathematics, Science, Social Science and the English language are also taught. The seminary has successfully broken the myth of madrasas being backward and not open to modern education by introducing programs like BBA and BCA. The curriculum at Jamea has at least allowed girls to attain professional education and to be at par with regular school students. The Madrasa is recognized in universities like Jamia or Aligarh, which gives an opportunity to students to explore multiple career and higher education choices later on. Most girls who continue with education either go for BUMS while others opt to continue with Arabic or Islamic Studies. Jamea in Rampur, is only one such example while other seminaries are functioning in alignment with contemporary needs of students for instance Jamia Ayesha Niswan in Delhi and Al Ghaith Wafiyya College down south amongst others.
Girls in the madrasa content themselves with extra-curricular activities as well. Although they are very different from the usual dance, music and dramatics like in regular schools. Students engage in weekly and monthly essay writing, elocution, debate and sports competitions to entertain themselves and boost confidence.
But various stumbling blocks prohibit Madrasa girls in embarking their journeys. Despite all efforts, the standard of teaching modern subjects is low, the repercussions of which are felt later. Students sitting in competitive exams or who are employed through a well-designed process find themselves lacking in command over language and contemporary subjects. Thus, an updated curriculum and new pedagogy must be chalked out. Also, switching from Madrasa to formal education in co-ed institutions becomes difficult.
Jamea is funded by public donations, which makes managing all the affairs, staff allowance and students’ needs cumbersome. Besides, no other girl’s only seminary of such a level exists nearby which deprives students from exposure. Unlike regular schools, no inter school can be conducted which restricts girls to enhance their communication, knowledge, confidence and other abilities later playing a key role in the real world. When the country today is talking about women empowerment, Jamea is struggling with its students becoming financially independent. Most girls aspire to settle down after Madrasa education because of their traditional mindset.
Nevertheless, at its 50th anniversary this year, Jamea’s contribution must be acknowledged for teaching Muslim girls, who would have never made it to coeducational schools and would have probably remained unlettered. As a pocket friendly yet well-organized Madrasa it has generated responsible individuals working in academia, social welfare, medicine and other fields while upholding traditional Islamic values. Jamea Tus Salehat is not just an inspiration for other Madrasas which are either tech-phobic or restrict women education in all domains but is a primary example of Indian Islamic idea of education especially for girls.