Nusaybah Yusuf *
Dhaka, March 27th, 2014 (Alochonaa) – The religious influence of madrassas within Bangladeshi society must be explored to give a holistic analysis of the impact of such institutions upon the society. In defining the role of madrasas in the overall education system in Bangladesh the achievements and the limitations of the sector must be analyzed.
To begin with, one of the Millennium Development Goals for education – gender parity in primary and secondary education has already been achieved by Bangladesh. In the early 1990s when the share of girls in secondary level was slightly above 20 percent (World Bank ESR, 2013) the Government of Bangladesh with support of the World Bank launched a gender-targeted stipend program for girls that led to a fourfold increase in female enrollment in secondary education within a decade. While it was the nature of the cash support that helped drawing girls to school Asadullah et al. (2009) suggest that the proliferation of madrasas in response to a combination of subsidies had also contributed to this expansion of female schooling.
Drawing upon administrative data Asadullah et al. (2009) show that many formerly unregistered madrasas responded to this stipend scheme by converting to state registered madrasas. To make the most out of the scheme, Aliya madrasas along with the newly converted madrasas set up considerable numbers of all-female madrasas and expanded their existing coeducational facilities. This is an impressive development considering the fact that madrasas have historically been a male institution in the sub-continent. In order to derive the extent to which madrasas contributed to the increase in female enrolment one must have an understanding of who attends Aliya madrasas in Bangladesh. Traditional parents who wish for their children to obtain marketable skills but at the same time develop proficiency of the Quran and Hadith form the majority of those who are sending their children to Aliya madrasas.
This ideology is particularly applicable for those communities where religious schooling is the only socially acceptable form of education for adolescent girls. It implies that these communities will be reluctant to send their daughters to secular schools despite the provision of cash or food subsidies. Marriage-related motivations also influence parental choice of schooling for girls since it is perceived that madrasa education instills traditional values that make their daughters more prospective in the marriage market (Asadullah et. al, 2012). Most madrasas in Bangladesh are thus catering to this category of households; hence, children belonging to such background can only be attracted and retained in the education system through the madrasa framework.
Secondly, and more importantly, the economic status of the families of the madrasa students should guide the analysis of the role of madrasas. An overwhelming majority of 82 percent of madrasa students belongs to poor families of rural areas and small towns concentrated in Sylhet, Chittagong, Jamalpur, Tangail and some of the northern districts of Bangladesh (BEI, 2011). These are hard-to-reach impoverished areas where state run education programs are not widespread due to geographical and infrastructural limitations. Quomi madrasas that provide education, housing, and food facilities free of cost are benefitting the locals of these areas because in many of these places there are no alternative forms of schools. Unlike government formal schools that require basic infrastructure to be developed in order to run, Quomi madrasas are able to operate informally within local settings. The informal characteristics of Quomi madrasas such as (i) no fixed curriculum or textbooks; or (ii) flexible classroom organization that do not mandate the use of chairs and tables can help to elucidate this point. It has been observed from case studies on madrasas that the Ebtedayee section of the Alia stream had a relatively low number of students compared to the other levels of madrasas, possible due to the existence of government primary schools in close proximity (BEI, 2011). Thus, the lack of physical access to a secular school also acts as a factor in rural areas for attending madrasas.
This is consistent with the findings from the study by Asadullah, Chakrabarti and Chaudhury (2012) where they have pointed out that religious schools appeal to relatively poorer households as they present cheaper but lower quality alternatives to non-religious schools, and because non-religious schools in rural areas are not of sufficiently high quality they are unable to attenuate the overall demand for madrasas. Therefore, the learning premium from attending mainstream non-religious schools is not large enough at present to divert the choice from madrasa schooling. The results from their data set have also indicated a negative correlation between parental income and madrasa attendance. Therefore, in a country where almost 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, madrasas that are free of cost or charge lower fees in comparison with government schools are obviously more attractive. School related expenses such as private tuitions, books and stationeries, and travel expenses also dominate in the decision making process; so households who cannot afford such expenses find the nearest madrasas are the only option available to them.
Additionally, in light of the overarching issue of relatively low public spending on education in Bangladesh, the privately funded madrasas operating in hard-to-reach poor areas stand tall. Al-Samarrai (2007) informs that 13 percent of poor Class 7-10 students attend registered non-government madrasas in contrast with only 5 percent non-poor. The expenditure on education as a share of GDP in Bangladesh has been staggeringly lower than other developing countries in the region at similar stages of development, particularly in secondary and higher levels of education (Al-Samarrai, 2007). While the government spending starts off as pro-poor in the primary subsector it becomes highly regressive for the poor students in the higher secondary and tertiary levels (World Bank ESR, 2013). Therefore, the increasing share of madrasa enrolment from the secondary level onwards is indicative of the fact that madrasas, to a large extent, are filling up the gaps where the state intervention has been deficient.
Thirdly, in terms of employment, the religious sector in Bangladesh generates a total of about 950,000 positions which is almost equal to the number of public sector employees in the country. These positions consist of teaching and other staff in approximately 37,500 madrasas and another 50,000 maktabs, centers for teaching Islamic knowledge and rituals (BEI, 2011: 45). Roughly the total number of mosques in the country lies between 250,000 to 300,000 where each of them requires at least two employees – the imam (head cleric) and a muazzin (one who calls out for prayers). In addition, most urban mosques appoint a khadim to service premises and facilities. Nearly 78,000 secular schools and 16,500 secondary schools in the country need at least one religious teacher each. On top of that, 100,000 positions are there for qazis (marriage registrars) who register marriages and divorces. A much higher estimate of 4.3 million jobs within the religious sector has been provided by Mumtaz Ahmed (2005a). These estimates, however, are not inclusive of general and private sector jobs.
Quomi madrasas clearly have an edge over the religious jobs as they specialize in Islamic studies so they are preferred over Aliya madrasa graduates when it comes to positions in the religious sector not only in Bangladesh but also in Middle Eastern countries. On the contrary, they are ineligible to apply for public sector positions as the government does not recognize the degree of the Quomi Board which also causes private sector employers to be less eager to employ them due to the perception that they have not gained the modern skills required for secular jobs. Aliya graduates, on the other hand, generally acquire skills and competencies comparable to the public sector graduates that qualify them to compete for general labor market as well as in the religious sector. Madrasa graduates also account for 32 percent of all university teachers in Bangladesh (Ahmed, 2004 cited in BEI, 2011). The study conducted by BEI (2011) identified jobs in the banking sector, NGOs, private firms, Government Colleges and in the Army that Aliya graduates have successfully secured.
Needless to say, Quomi graduates are eligible for unskilled lower end jobs, which Aliya or other general graduates do not tend to take up. Although these are low-paid jobs the positive side to Quomi graduates taking them is that they do not remain unemployed even if they are underemployed. Therefore, madrasa education as a whole is producing graduates who specialize on skills required by a substantial sector of the economy, the religious sector, the needs of which cannot be satiated by the graduates of any other provider of education.
While there is no denying of the inputs that the two streams of madrasas have provided towards enhancing the access to education in Bangladesh they have been a cause of serious concern in the evaluation of the quality of the education system of the country. The central limitation of madrasa education is its inability to promote skills that are compatible with a modern economy especially in the wake of Bangladesh competing with many other developing countries in the international market today. Data analysis of Bangladeshi labor market earnings reveals that there is a negative correlation between madrasa attendance and wages (Asadullah et al., 2009). This defies the principles of the human capital theory of education that is based on the notion that education is directly linked to the labor market as better educated workers earn higher wages (Belfield, 2000).
Large variation in the test scores in English and Mathematics has been found between madrasa students and their mainstream counterparts; madrasa students fared particularly worse in English (Asadullah et al., 2009). Gender gap in learning outcomes prevail across all types of schools in Bangladesh but it is more pronounced in the madrasas. A study on madrasa education by the Bangladesh Nari Pragati Shangha has expressed concerns over the competence of the Madrasa Education Board for fixing an appropriate curriculum. Another observation it has made is the customization of the curriculum content of secular subjects like Geography, Science, Mathematics, General Knowledge by introducing religious concepts and slants. In the Quomi stream general subjects like Bengali and Mathematics are offered only up to Class 8. For these reasons, students are not expected to gain an objective knowledge in those disciplines and as a result many universities namely The Dhaka University and Jahangir Nagar University have recently barred the admission of madrasa-passed Alims into Arts and Science departments. But incidentally Aliya graduates occupied the top 20 positions in the admission test in Janangir Nagar University in that year. The matter was taken up in the High Court and Supreme Court which lifted the bar but many universities are unwilling to admit madrasa graduates in many departments regardless. This has serious implications for madrasa graduates since the loss of opportunity of admission into the top universities curtail their competitiveness in the general labor market.
Besides the lacking in curriculum and pedagogy, the poor quality of teachers has also affected madrasa education adversely. According to a BANBEIS (2006) survey, Aliya madrasa teachers possess lower qualification than general formal school teachers. About a quarter of madrasa teachers have higher secondary certificates or lesser qualification and around 26.5 percent have undergraduate degrees (Bano, 2008:37). In further, training opportunities for madrasa teachers are rare. The Bangladesh Madrasa Teachers Training Institute in its limited capacity conducts short training courses of 3 weeks where only 10-14 percent of madrasa teachers are trained (BEI, 2011:38). One fifth of madrasa students interviewed by BEI (2011) regarding the quality of madrasas mentioned that teacher deficiency was the root cause of why general subjects were not taught properly. The quality of teachers being an integral part of the overall quality of schooling is thus lowering the ranking of madrasa education.
A frequently made allegation of the madrasa sector is its involvement with religious militancy. The Quomi madrasas are most often implicated in this debate because of the continued resistance to state reforms. Due to their unknown sources of funding and the use of a 300-400 years old curriculum the Western Media perceives them as the breeding ground of terrorists. Many local and international agencies have labeled certain Quomi madrasas for having links with extremist groups but have not been able to produce concrete evidence of any such nexus. Mumtaz Ahmed (2005) has argued against the correlation of the madrasa curriculum, which was developed centuries ago by Molla Nizamuddin, with militancy, which has been on the rise since the last decade. He also added that no militancy could be detected before 9/11 in Quomi madrasas. Aliya madrasas have been safe from militancy related connections as they are all registered and regulated by the state authorized BMEB.
Other limitations include the negative perceptions that both the streams of madrasas hold for one another preventing any scope of addressing quality issues in a combined manner, teacher training for example. There are often questions of a merger of the two streams but such proposals have been rejected due to the very polarized ideologies of the two systems and also because they cater to two different sects of the society. The government also limits the success of Quomi graduates by not recognizing the degree on the basis of an outdated curriculum. As Bano (2008) suggested that modern interpretation of Islam within madrasas cannot be attained simply through the introduction of secular subjects but it is only possible if the leadership of Quomi madrasas is successfully convinced of the need for a modern reinterpretation of religious texts and is supported by the state and the society at large in the process. The Quomi madrasa leadership, on the other hand, must also be accommodating of the needs of its students in the contemporary world which will only be possible if they have a clear understanding of the conditions under which the ancestral school of Deoband emerged – it was in defiance of the colonial rule, a phenomenon that no longer prevails.
From the human capitalist perspective the madrasa education system in Bangladesh may not have played an instrumental role in enhancing the labor market productivity of its graduates but, nevertheless, it will not be naive to deem it successful based on the theories of the capability approach to education in which an ideal education system is one that equips students with the informed choice to pursue what they value the most. As a whole, the streams have contributed to the increased access in education but individually they have also added value to the quality. If the Quomi madrasas are judged intrinsically then they have done a good job in preparing graduates who excel in Islamic studies and jobs. However, both Aliya and Quomi is faced with challenges that can be addressed if there is mutual understanding of the two streams and support from the state.
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*Nusaybah is currently pursuing a masters degree on Education and International Development from Institute of Education, University of London. She has worked in the Education unit of the World Bank Office Dhaka for two years. Prior to that she was a Research Assistant at Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies after completing her first degree in Economics and Statistics from the University College London. She is interested in Education and Development.
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