The Day We Went Inside a Girls’ Madrassa in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh

Getting access to a girls’ madrassa is not an easy task.

Over the past few months, my friend and I travelled to many places in Delhi to get access to an Islamic girls’ religious seminary (madrassa) to understand and document what life is like inside them.

We failed. Umpteen times. And more.

After nearly giving up, one fine morning, as luck would have it, I bumped into my college friend Mohd Zakariya whose father runs a girl’s madrassa in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi.

We thought we had covered all our bases, but there were some conditions before we could meet the girls.

“Only a girl would be allowed inside the madrassa for meeting students. You can only capture veiled faces,” explained Zakariya, fearing opposition from the administration.

Madrassas impose an assortment strictures on female students.

They have to stay within the confines of the madrassa and are not allowed to go out alone or with anyone except their family. At least one member of the family has to accompany the girls when they do go out. Also, they are not allowed to have mobile phones.

The madrassas mostly teach subjects related to Islamic theology and philosophy besides the Holy Quran and sayings of the Prophet (Hadith).The absence of modern, secular or scientific curriculum limits career options for girls towards the end of the course. And, even those who wish to explore alternative modes of education, don’t have it easy.

For instance, a few girls do make it to universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University after they graduate from madrassas. However, due to a lack of background knowledge, their choices are mostly restricted to a few courses in the humanities and languages.

When we entered the madrassa, the girls were initially reluctant to speak to us. We were outsiders for them.

When our repeated efforts of striking a conversation went in vain, we thought of approaching it in another way.

We gave them blank sheets of paper and asked them to write whatever they wanted to share with us.

And then we got stories. Stories that smelled of craving. Cravings for a better future. Cravings for freedom. Cravings for life.

Below are some of the letters they wrote:

Hina Malik, Age 18

I am Hina Malik. I am ambitious and hard working. My hobbies are reading novels, travelling and sleeping. I don’t like people who are sad. I want to be a lawyer and an Alima – an Islamic scholar.

Freedom, what is freedom? They say it is about loitering and roaming around. According to me, freedom is to have choices to do whatever you want. … India became free a long ago, but I see many girls not being free even today.

Life is a very weird thing. They say we can do nothing. However, I spend my life according to my choices. I want nobody to stop me. Tell me one thing, will this life come again? Will it? God has bequeathed us with just one opportunity to live. So, do whatever you want.

My life is very interesting. Many have tried to stop me, but I didn’t pay attention to them. If someone asks me, what do you like the most? I give them one single answer: that I like myself and my freedom. I can’t compromise my freedom. I love it.

Muskaan, Age 14

I am Muskan. I like English. I would love to speak English. I want to travel to faraway places. I want to become a doctor and help people.

I used hop from one school to another during my childhood. I changed school every month. I was not interested in studying. I used to go to school with dolls and other toys and play there.

When I was ten-years-old, I insisted on getting enrolled in a madrassa because I thought it would have an easier curriculum than schools. Only the Qura’an sharif would be taught there. My father, who is a policeman, tried to stop me. But then he bowed down to my constant insistence.

Five years ago, I was enrolled in this madrasa along with four other girls from my neighbourhood. But all of them have left now. I am the only person living inside the madrassa.

I was tired of changing schools and that’s why I settled in here. I will learn English after passing out from the madrassa.

Iram Ansari, 13

My hobbies include reading books, playing games and exercising. I want to be a teacher.

I am from Delhi. I am the youngest of five siblings. My oldest sister is a CA (Chartered Accountant). Another sister is preparing for the judiciary exam. One of my brothers is a businessman and another one is a mechanical engineer.

I am doing the Alima course in this madrassa. I could not appear for my high school examination due to my admission in Jamia (the madrassa).

I miss my home. Badly. I enjoy it very much when I am at home. There can be no feeling better than being home. That is something extraordinary.

I am excited. My eldest sister is about to get engaged. What a feeling it would be to attend the first marriage function in my family!

Ila Kazmi and Hasan Akram are pursuing masters in convergent journalism at AJK, MCRC, Jamia Milia Islamia. 

Featured image credit: Reuters