Thoughts on a Female Madrassa

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef

Aravan's mosque, established in 2006.

Aravan's mosque, established in 2006.

We visited a female madrassa in an area outside of Osh called Aravan. We met with two teachers and 17 young girls, and talked with them as a group. We weren’t allowed to film, photograph, or even record their voices as we sat around their classroom. Instead we just talked to them. We explained who we are, why we were there. They were all smiling and so excited to meet us, three young American women who wanted to learn more about them.

We sat on long rectangular pillows with colorful floral patterns around low tables formed in a U-shape. Every single girl wore a headscarf. One girl wore a niqab, which she eventually took off. We went around the table and each girl introduced herself. The teachers called on some girls to recite from the Quran for us.

Later on, we asked what they want to be when they grow up. Some want to be teachers, and others want to be doctors. One 15-year-old girl wants to be a dentist. The English teacher at the madrassa told us she wanted to be a journalist as a child but she got married when she was 18. She always enjoyed learning foreign languages, but put that interest aside when she married and started carrying other responsibilities. It sounds tragic to us, right? But she was telling us all this with a smile on her face. Why should she be sad? She now teaches English at this madrassa to young girls she obviously has grown to love and care for.

And yet, I still have a lot of weird feelings about this place as a Muslim. I walked in thinking, “Holy crap this is a completely different world.” The worst part is I walked in feeling a little sorry for them, for the fact that they’re so isolated from the rest of the world and they’re missing out on so many things. At this school, they provide the girls a religious education but they also give them practical skills like sewing, cooking, family budget planning (yeah that one surprised me too).

Is it really such a bad thing to provide an education that prepares these girls for the reality they live in? Yes, most of them will be married by the time they are 20 years old. No, it doesn’t seem like many of them will go on to university. But they are still given an education. And the teachers assure us that there is no resistance from parents or anyone in their communities for these girls to study or eventually attend university.

But I go back and forth on this.

The girls asked us questions too. They wanted to know more about what we studied, what faith we believe in. They asked us about our dreams too. I feel as if they are missing out on so much. They could be doctors, lawyers, dancers, chefs, engineers, architects, anything. Will they have regrets in life? Sure, but then so will I. Just because I have dreams outside of the box doesn’t make me any better than them. It doesn’t make me superior. And there is no shame in having so-called smaller dreams. It is no small thing to want to get married, raise a family, and be happy. Happiness is a big dream that few of us attain.

They’re the rebels.

One of our last questions to them was, “what is the most important thing a woman can do in her life?” The girls thought about it for a few seconds. To get a good education, they said. Including a religious one and to raise your family well. It was a specific enough response for us to understand their worldview, while still leaving room for interpretation.

We live such different lives. We are worlds apart. But what’s important is that every girl, every woman gets to choose how she lives her life. So if she wants to dedicate herself to raising a family that’s healthy and educated, then that is her choice. The only thing I want an education to do for a girl is lay out all the options she has. That’s the point. Education should lead to opportunities. Education should lead to her freedom.