The old man holds Syed Mohsin’s hand in both of his, bends low, and touches it to his forehead. Assalamu alaikum, he greets, then backs away. Mohsin is met with similar gestures of respect everywhere in his hometown of Shergar, in Punjab province. The bejewelled and calligraphy-adorned family tomb in which he is standing dates back to the founding of the town, by his ancestors, during the 16th century. Mohsin takes great pride in his ancestral home. And so, he explains, having been successful in running a food-production business, he wanted to give back to the community that nurtured him.
Anjuman Khuddam-e-Rasool Allah (Association in the Service of the Prophet of God), or AKRA, is the fruit of this desire. Set up in 1976 as a small social-welfare organisation, the NGO now runs 31 village schools in Shergar and the surrounding districts, as well as one boys’ and one girls’ secondary school, a central primary school and a teacher-training college. These schools serve almost 4000 students, both literate and illiterate, focusing especially on the education of girls and women. Every student passing through the teacher-training college is a local girl, and most will return to teach in the AKRA schools in their home villages.
At one such school in a dusty village not far from Shergar, rows of teenage girls in identical white robes and mauve hijabs sit on the ground in the schoolyard, working on their lessons. This particular school has two classrooms, both of which are currently occupied by the youngest children, aged four to nine, who sit on the floor around low tables. This school is one of the largest that AKRA oversees, with 172 pupils – all working quietly in an enclosed compound about the size of a tennis court. The rows in the yard do not shift as the stifling sun creeps over the bent mauve heads.
In the nursery classroom, boys and girls sit on different sides of the room. This is not formal segregation, but rather the children’s own choice based on social norms and personal friendships. The villagers have no objections to mixed classes at the primary level, though Mohsin is unsure whether this is due to the liberalisation that has taken place over the past thirty years, or because of the respect he commands as the main local landowner and a Syed – a man believed to be a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. Covering one wall of the nursery classroom is a huge banner displaying a large rainbow and a picture for each letter of the English alphabet. While the lessons are in Urdu, English is also taught here. In the main school in Shergar, two class groups are taught completely in English, an experiment that began two years ago. The English classes are costly, though even AKRA’s Urdu-medium classes are more expensive than government schools.
The trade-off, of course, is that AKRA’s schools provide a significantly higher standard of education than the notoriously inept government schools. Literacy in Pakistan among those above primary-school age still hovers around 50 percent, despite the fact that from 2000 to 2006 a yearly average of 99 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls enrolled in primary school. As the Ministry of Education acknowledged in a report in 2000, “quality of education, especially in the public institutions, remains poor with a shortage of trained and motivated teachers, a high degree of teacher absenteeism and a lack of teaching materials. Management issues and bureaucratic inefficiencies lower effective utilisation of scarce budgetary allocations.” This may help to explain the high primary-school dropout rate, with various authorities estimating that anywhere between a quarter and a third of all enrolled children (skewed towards rural areas) fail to complete the final grade. Parents, therefore, are often wise to the fact that, if they can afford to pay for a better education, they must do so. To further encourage parents to choose a reliable education, the AKRA schools try to offer scholarships to those unable to pay.
Focus on the mosque
The fact that classes are taught in English is not the only unusual feature of the school at Shergar. In the building next to the primary classes, exams are taking place. Again, teenagers – this time boys – sit in immaculate rows, but here they sit on a lush lawn. As well as the boys’ secondary school, this is the courtyard of the town’s mosque. Conducting his school in the mosque building seemed an efficient use of space to Mohsin and his colleagues back in 1981, when the charity and its first school were formally established. There are four small classrooms along one side of the mosque’s premises, opposite the covered prayer hall; but the grass alone provides enough space for an entire age group.
Of course, mosque buildings have long been used for educational purposes. However, to teach an avowedly wide and modern curriculum in the prayer hall itself, with religious study as only one among many subjects, is unique. Mohsin feared angry opposition when he began this practice, but there was surprisingly little trouble over the arrangement when the school was set up. Even the hugely contentious issue of women teaching in the mosque hall, where they are not normally allowed to enter or pray, has been smoothed over after some initial bad feeling. The mosque’s regular visitors – some 40 percent of the town’s population comes to worship on a daily basis – now accept the school’s presence.
This is not exactly a madrassa but is, as Mohsin puts it, “a contemporary way” of offering a madrassa education. The arrangement is a way of using the mosque space for education without necessarily conforming to the norms of religious education that are generally implied by the term. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 and subsequent attempts to root out ‘terrorism’ by Western governments, the madrassa has become a symbol of all that is purported to be conservative, inflammatory and indoctrinatory about society in Muslim countries. As a result, it has become international policy to try to effect change at madrassas, particularly those in Pakistan. For instance, since 2003 the British Council has run several madrassa programmes that aim to build ‘intercultural dialogue’ between madrassas and, effectively, the rest of the world. Now, the organisation is about to embark on a training programme in English, teaching methodology and school management to approximately 1800 madrassa teachers, and indirectly impacting over 25,000 students.
Yet along the way, the ‘intercultural dialogue’ element seems to have disappeared from the British Council’s project plan. When the Council’s madrassa projects were reported in the British press some time ago, critics saw them as an encroachment of foreign policy into a supposedly neutral cultural institution. Conversely, others saw a project bound to fail in countering extremism, as the programme would surely only attract madrassas that were already well-disposed towards British culture, and therefore unlikely to produce terrorists in the first place.
Thus it may be that the British Council – even as it “retreats” (to use Mohsin’s word) behind increasingly impenetrable security at its Pakistan offices – is abandoning cultural exchange to concentrate instead on more-neutral capacity-building activities. Such a high-profile organisation may indeed be finding it judicious, in these worrying times for Pakistan, to shy away from more provocative work in order to maintain standing and some degree of trust in the country. Recent experiences with the forced closure of its Moscow office may have made the Council more cautious in other lynchpin regions for British foreign policy. While there is a significant amount of foreign-policy attention from Britain, and elsewhere, on madrassas, this does not necessarily translate into significant foreign pressure to reform or improve them.
In his 29 March 2008 inaugural address to Parliament, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani included in his long list of progressive promises an intention to impose a standardised curriculum on madrassas, as well as to scrutinise their funding sources. Not unexpectedly, this has since provoked vociferous opposition, especially from the chief of the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. The leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Q), Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein, has likewise objected to the proposed reforms, calling them infringements on an important part of Pakistan’s culture that needs to be “protected”. Gillani’s announcement provoked the ever-present ire of those opposed to Western ‘encroachment’; a year on, none of his proposals have been implemented.
In such a context, the AKRA system is an indigenous example of another way of doing things. Mohsin does not seem to consider his boys’ secondary school an entirely new type of institution; he simply sees it as a good educational model overlaid, with great respect, on available space and resources. He ventures no opinions on whether this could be replicated in other towns. However, mosques are such a central part of many Pakistani communities that it seems foolish not to try to out his model elsewhere. AKRA’s secondary school shows how mosques can be utilised to provide a liberal and useful education without compromising their religious functions. It is also an interesting yoking together of ideas; what ties the school to the mosque is AKRA’s guiding sense of working for one’s community, whether for the village or the Pakistani nation as a whole.
In the prayer hall in Shergar, forty 16-year-olds in two groups are seated in semicircles around their teachers. At one end, chemistry is being taught; at the other, general science. Part of AKRA’s innovative method is to split pupils into arts and science streams at the age of 14, though the latter is more emphasised than the former. Those who do not wish to concentrate on science are encouraged to enrol in arts classes “to get some education”, according to chemistry teacher Youuas Amer. “Inshallah,” he continues, “after two or three years we can eliminate or reduce the arts group.” Science is seen as crucial by the teachers, especially in the context of the race to arm and industrialise against ever-present Big Brother India.
At one in the afternoon it is time for the lunchtime prayer, and the grass empties. Classes are still going on in the mosque’s classrooms, but the main hall is being cleared in preparation for its other role. Boys squat to wash at a row of sinks along one side of the grass. Taking plastic skullcaps from a crate in the corner of the hall – although some have substituted these for fashionable khaki sunhats or designer peaked caps, worn backwards so they can press their foreheads to the floor – they filter in to find a space to stand and begin the ritual movements of prayer. More students pour in from the classrooms, the noise and laughter of young men acting as a reminder that this is just a normal break in the school day. Gradually the noise fades, stragglers join the silent crowd in the hall, and a complete hush descends. Boys and men are standing, heads down, eyes closed, paying no attention to this writer or the photographer standing nearby. Similar prayers would be held in a government school, but the children would be unlikely to be joined by the town imam himself to lead their prayer, nor by some of the town’s adult community, as is the case here. Nor would the town’s mosque, during the busy Friday afternoon prayers, have a blackboard neatly stacked against a wall.
The voice of the prayer leader then punctuates the air, beginning the worship with a resounding “Allahuakbar.” Everyone moves into tight lines, and a hundred men and boys together make the prayer movements. Halfway through, an old man joins the last line, tucking in the end of his turban, and is soon joined by the headmaster. Prayer levels everyone: the headmaster is prostrate on the floor next to his pupils, his pose exactly the same as theirs. Then the chanting stops. Some boys spread out to bend and prostrate one more time, alone; some wander straight out to the classrooms. Prayer for them is clearly just another part of the school day, to be worked through like any other task. The younger boys on the mosque’s front steps start shouting and giggling again, and life in Shergar resumes its bustle.
~ Ella Rolfe is a freelance writer based in London. She is currently working on a political-education project in NWFP.