Understanding Hearts and Minds
An Exploration into Some Female Madrasahs in Dhaka
I shall be extremely blunt for once: in the contemporary world, violent extremism has risen at an alarming level.
But more problematic with the rise of violent extremism is the miasma surrounding the phenomenon. Why does violent extremism feel appealing to people? Why do people engage in violent acts to fulfil some ends that seem too good to be true? Why exactly would the idea of killing another life ever serve as a justification for one’s life?
As if matters were not perplexing enough, there are ranges of biased opinion that just enhance the blame game. Take, for example, an old assumption of the educated higher class – who had used to think that the phenomenon of violent extremism attracts only the young generation of the economically poor. This theory ultimately did not hold water when in 2016, a deadly attack in the diplomatic zone of Dhaka revealed the perpetrators to be economically solvent.
So far, the common thread that binds all of the violent extremists is a unilateral, monolithic way of understanding their religion, and literal interpretation of the religious texts without taking the context into consideration.
Unfortunately, this kind of scenario is thought to be very prevalent in madrasahs – or Islamic religious institutions – of Bangladesh. Furthermore, with many of the madrasahs’ inclination to the orthodox interpretation of the religion of Islam, madrasah students are believed to be vulnerable to radicalization. Especially, the female students are thought to be at risk, because the orthodox interpretation of the religious dictums curtails women’s life in many manners which seem implausible to the modern-day humans. Furthermore, the engagement of women in extremism in recent days has revealed that their radicalization is now being used by terrorist organizations in various capacities.
From this viewpoint, the necessity of interacting with madrasah students, especially female madrasah students, has become stronger with each passing day. Moreover, the existence of different educational systems within one country, especially with the religious institutions being divided within themselves (two major branches are divided by dint of strict adherence to orthodoxy and openness to the national set of curricula) provides more reason to explore if there is any requirement for the mainstream society to render their services to the students at risk of being radicalized.
This had set the tone of an exploration of understanding what the female madrasahs of Dhaka might need in terms of educational and psycho-social components. The author of this blog article had undergone on a journey to find out what the female madrasah students need in terms of their interaction with the world.
It was an enlightening experience akin to a dialogue. The students of different madrasahs had different orientations of life, came from different socio-economic backgrounds, and had learned about the same religion from a range of perspectives. But also important was the fact that they are all people living in the 21st century – which, as a result, had meant that they do possess an understanding of the contemporary world and are keen enough to traverse through the journey that life has to offer them.
Knowing that one needs an open mind to delve into this sort of a probe, the author had tried her level best to be free in thoughts. But most of the students had exceeded her wildest expectations in terms of their orientation. Many of the students were acutely aware of their womanhood, their safety and hygiene, and kept a critical mind open for understanding things with reason. Some had expressed the need for a psychological and sociological understanding of their own selves and their surroundings, while others inquired as to why people disseminate aggravating news of violence for exploiting the emotions of mass people. Some had voiced their necessity to learn life skills so that they can shine in life just as much as their compatriots in schools and colleges do. Some wanted to become social workers so that they can serve their communities in a better, coordinated and efficient manner. Many had wished for their creative outlets to be ventured – something which is often stomped down not only in religious institutions but also in a typical setting of the society in general.
The key issue, as acknowledged by all of these students, was the necessity to empathise with the other – for fostering peace and harmony among all. And everyone had agreed upon the conclusion that to bring peace in the broader clime, it is extremely important to have an understanding of one’s self, for inner peace can be manifested in an outward fashion and that outward peace will reinforce one’s inner peace.
This one simple ideation was the author’s biggest takeaway from the entire experience of interacting with the female madrasah students. It was a lucid understanding that had stemmed from reason, a critical inspection of the society and a deep dive by the students into their souls.
And maybe, the world could use this lesson right now, more than ever.
By Mansura Amdad