Many students at the 2,000 or so registered madrasas are university students or graduates looking for greater understanding of Islam, as well as housewives.
Pakistani women join radical madrasas as conservatism grows
ISLAMABAD // Varda is an accountancy student who dreams of working abroad. Dainty and soft-spoken, the 22-year-old aspires to broaden her horizons, but when it comes to Islam, she refuses to question the fundamentalist interpretations offered by clerics and lecturers nationwide.
Varda is among more than a quarter of a million Pakistani students attending an all-female madrasa, or Islamic seminary, where legions of well-to-do women are experiencing an awakening of faith, at the cost of rising intolerance.
In a nation where extremists are slowly strengthening their grip on society, the number of all-female madrasas has boomed over the past decade, fuelled by the failures of the state education system and a deepening conservatism among the middle to upper classes.
Parents often encourage girls to enrol in madrasas after finishing high school or university, as an alternative to a shrinking, largely male-orientated job market, and to ensure a girl waiting to get married is not drawn into romantic relationships, says Masooda Bano, a research fellow at the British-based Economic and Social Research Council.
But, like Varda, many students at the 2,000 or so registered madrasas are university students or graduates looking for greater understanding of Islam, as well as housewives.
"I listened to what they said and I thought this is the correct thing to follow, and I wanted to learn more about my religion", said Varda, signed up to a part-time course at the Tehreek-I-Islami madrasa.
Asked about the killing of a governor earlier this year because he opposed the country's controversial blasphemy law, Varda, without hesitation, said Salman Taseer's murder by his own bodyguard was the right thing to do.
"If people call themselves Muslims and they are members of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, then they should not be criticising this law," she said. "I am sorry to say this, but this is what he deserved."
Pakistan has been drifting towards religious militancy since the 1980s under the rule of the then president, General Mohammad Zia ul Haq.
Zia, who enjoyed enthusiastic support from the United States against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, nurtured Islamist militants and used American cash to turn a society that had previously been moderate and tolerant towards hardline Islam inspired by Saudi Wahhabism.
Female madrasas "targeted women because they know that is the place to plant the seed, because it will go far", said Kamran Bokhari, the Middle East and South Asia director for the global intelligence firm Stratfor.
"Women will get married, women will raise children. It will create a norm within society over time."
At the male madrasas, boys can live and eat for free, or for a very small fee, which means the bulk of the students are often very poor and from remote or rural areas. They memorise the Quran all day and listen to lectures from their teacher, who often lacks any sophisticated understanding of the faith.
Female madrasas charge a flat rate of 3,000 to 4,000 rupees a month (Dh130 to Dh170), almost the price of a private college. Courses usually last four years and in addition to memorising the Quran, the women study Islamic texts on morality and piety.
Haider Mullick, a policy analyst and fellow at the US Joint Special Operations University in Florida, said: "There are serious problems related to these types of schools. Some of them will develop tolerance, but not participation, towards the sort of attacks or killings that we've seen."
Al Huda, founded in the 1990s by Farhat Hashmi, is one of the most well-known female madrasas in the country, and most of its students hail from the middle and upper-class.
At the school's vast new headquarters on the outskirts of Islamabad, students in black or grey robes walk past a colourful classroom where children take lessons, and through a sunlit lobby where leaflets explain aspects of Islam.
While precise numbers are not available, an estimated 15,000 students have gone through al Huda's programme, writes Faiza Mushtaq in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Journal.
Sadaf Ahmad, an assistant professor of anthropology at Lahore University of Management Sciences and author of a book on women and Islam, said al Huda and female madrasas spread their ideas further into mainstream society through religious study groups held in members' homes.
Hidden in a warren of narrow lanes across town is another renowned female madrasa, the Jamia Hafsa, which educates around 550 students under founder Um-e-Hassan. Small groups of girls in headscarves sit at low tables, reciting the Quran late into the night, asking questions of attentive teachers.
Mrs Hassan's students come from a range of social backgrounds, she says, with many travelling from towns and villages to live at the school in Islamabad.
Mrs Hassan is married to the imam of Islamabad's Red Mosque, which her students helped take control of in 2007 in a campaign for the imposition of harsh Islamic law in Pakistan.
Her roving bands of stick-wielding women terrorised Islamabad neighbourhoods before a commando assault on the mosque took it back. More than 100 people died in the attack.
"We should pass on what we know about Islam to our children, to girls," Mrs Hassan said. "Here they don't think about fashions, or how they look. They don't worry about not having things. They concentrate just on their studies and some will teach girls in their communities when they leave."