The madrasas in Pakistan have been in the news; this time for teaching foreign students. Soon after the September 7, 2005 bombings in London, President Pervez Musharraf had ordered the expulsion of all 1,400 foreign students - of which about 120 are girls - from seminaries. The fact that two of the Britons of Pakistani origin involved in the London bombings had studied at madrasas in Pakistan had caused the government much discomfort.
The seminaries refused to comply. And the Ittehad Tanzeematul Madaris-e-Deeniya (ITMD), a confederacy of five religious education boards, began an intense campaign against the order.
A senior official in the Ministry of Religious Affairs says that the government is now looking at an ITMD proposal suggesting that 'some' major seminaries be allowed to enroll foreign students, instead of a blanket ban on them. He says this could actually work well for the government because the authorities could then keep a vigil on these students.
It does seem, though, that there is a definite increase in the number of foreign students enrolled in Pakistani seminaries. According to Hanif Jalandhari, an ITMD official, there were only 600 foreign students in 1997, as opposed to 1,400 now.
Jamia Binoria is one of the seminaries affiliated to the ITMD. And this is where Rabia Khan, 19, from New York is living and studying.
It is difficult to tell how Rabia is faring, though. Men are allowed only as far as the reception area of the madrasa's Bannat (girls) section. Not even the mufti (the administrator of the madrasa) is allowed further. The rules are so strict that even the cooks are women. Even at the reception, one can speak to Rabia only on an intercom. But the girls are not complaining. These restrictions are not surprising to someone used to a strict interpretation of Islam - which is exactly what brought Rabia here in the first place.
"It's just like home for me here now," she says, adding that she was scared at first but soon settled in. She came to Karachi to acquire Islamic education from a 'quality religious institution'. "I was born in the US, where my parents migrated to from Pakistan. We have some relatives here and my father found out that this was the best place for me to safely learn Islam. He was right," she explains. Thus far, life has been quite simple in Karachi for this New Yorker. "I have not seen much outside the Jamia in the last three years. But this is an abode of peace where people love their religion a lot," she says. There is no official restriction on girls going out to the city - only, they are required to wear the burqa (veil). Most girls, however, prefer not to venture out too much on their own.
In the 27 years since it was established, Jamia Binoria has grown to become one of the three major madrasas in the city. It has 20 buildings spread over 12 acres of land, with residential facilities for families who wish to stay there while their children study Islam. Rabia plans to go back to New York, where she plans to carry the teaching forward. "Muslims are quite happy in the US but they really need some institutions like this one to learn about their own religion," she says.
Of the 600 girls enrolled at Jamia Binoria's Bannat section, about a 100 are international students hailing from 29 countries. A majority of the international students, both boys and girls, are from the US. Most students are teenagers, even as young as 13 years of age, some are between 20 and 22. While most male students are from the Far East and Africa, most of the female students are ethnically Pakistani.
But Pakistani seminaries have a reputation of being breeding grounds for terrorists. Does this worry the girls who come to live and study here? Says Mehreen Safdar, 15, "Prophet Muhammad said that when a person leaves a home in order to seek knowledge, 70,000 angels spread their wings under that person's feet. Besides, there are good and bad people everywhere, so why should Pakistan be called dangerous?"
Her classmate Huda Haque is much more categorical: "I am safe here and do not believe in the propaganda of the western media that our seminaries are breeding grounds for terrorists. It is entirely wrong. Here, we learn religion and not terrorism." And Canadian Hiba Musa, 13, speaks with wisdom beyond her age. She says, "The western media confuses jihad with terrorism, and confuse terrorism with Islamic knowledge. The last thing a madrasa could possibly be is a breeding ground for terrorism."
The girls believe they are lucky to have the chance to learn their religion. Tanzanian Noor Abdur Rehman, 15, in fact, says, "Muslims across the world should complete their Islamic education before adopting a career." Further, she declares, "I am a student here and I can take an oath that its sole purpose is to impart Islamic education. Why would my parents spend thousands of rupees in a place that is a breeding ground for terrorists?"
Mufti Mohammad Naeem, administrator (mufti) of the Jamia Binoria madrasa in Karachi's western neighborhood, says, "I have never gone to Afghanistan, nor have I visited Kashmir. We are here to impart Islamic education to our children and I am a staunch opponent of all activities inside the Jamia that have no relation to education."
These days, all conversation with administrators, teachers and students centre on one issue - the fear of possible expulsion of foreign students. This would explain the vehemence with which these girls defend the seminary. Says Sobia Qayyum, 18, from the UK, "I have a little over one year to complete my studies. I pray that I will be able to."
Naeem says that none of the international students in the seminary have criminal records, and that this could hardly be claimed of those at secular universities. "Only one individual [Musharraf] is worried about foreign students. All the political parties we spoke to are in favor of allowing the students to stay on."
Naeem travels to the US to preach every year, where he claims many American girls have expressed their trust in the Jamia "because it has helped many American girls and boys get rid of bad habits. It is to our credit that we reform many girls. They either come here on their own or after being persuaded by their parents, and by the grace of Allah all of them return home as pious and good girls."