When ethnic riots erupt in Karachi, Qasba Colony is usually the worst affected: The violence has taken a dramatic toll on education and the main beneficiaries are Islamic religious schools, or madrasas.
Since June 2011 when the first wave of targeted killings and ethnic violence hit the area (deeply divided between Pashto-speaking Pathans and the Urdu-speaking Muhajirs), 30 government schools have closed permanently, some 400 teachers have stopped coming to the area, and the lives of 25,000 students are hanging in the balance.
Madrasas, are taking up the slack in this deprived area.
The road leading to Qasba suggests all is not well: A drugs den where teenagers flock to buy heroine or hashish here; a school wall pock-marked with bullet holes there; and three schools in ruins, with one of them used as a rubbish dump.
There was a time when Muhajir teachers could travel to Pathan localities and vice-versa, but not any more. Turf wars between two political parties, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM - dominated by Urdu-speaking Muhajirs) and the Awami National Party (ANP - dominated by Pashto-speaking Pathans) have spread to this area too.
Largely unoccupied youths are resorting to crime. Every week 10-12 crimes are recorded in Qasba, according to a police official who preferred anonymity. "The closing down of schools may be one of the reasons for the increase in youth offenders," the officer told IRIN.
"Students who once went to school now roam the streets, waiting for a riot to erupt, for this is when they can pick pockets and indulge in petty crimes," said Sajid Hussain, a school teacher from the area.
Local people are being left with two educational options: a costly private school or madrasas. The latter are popular because they provide two meals a day and a place to sleep during the night.
"The madrasa is an umbrella of sorts; the person who finds no shelter seeks shelter here. For this is where he finds food, education and a place to sleep," said Abdul Waheed Khattak, a civil society activist who lives in the area and has been campaigning for madrasa reform since 1996.
Khattak's tactic is to get into the madrasas as a volunteer and enter into dialogue with teachers to try to get them to run courses specified by the government. He also encouragesthe hiring of women teachers and the attendance of girls, but most schools are dominated by hardliners who endorse only the Darse Nizami, an 18th century syllabus.
|The madrasa is an umbrella of sorts; the person who finds no shelter seeks shelter here.|
"There is a madrasa in every other lane in Qasba and, except for one or two, all are unregistered. An estimated 15,000 students attend these institutions in Qasba alone," said local reform-minded teacher Ali*.
Unregistered madrasas risk closure and do not get any government funding.
In 2002, during Pervez Musharraf's premiership, the government attempted for the first time to regulate these religious schools, after Pakistan decided to support the USA's "War on Terror". The Madrasa Registration Ordinance (MRO) was passed.
"It was done to limit foreign control in madrasas which may lead to breeding terrorism," said Shakeel Auj, dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at Karachi University.
Under MRO, all madrasas have to add English, Urdu, Maths and Science to their curriculum which normally consists of religious education only. Students and teachers from abroad are barred from entering a registered madrasa without a No-Objection Certificate from the Interior Ministry.
However, today, it is widely believed that some of the madrasas are funded by countries like Saudi Arabia to promote more radical interpretations of Islam, like Wahabism.
Police say banned groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have been infiltrating some of the unregistered madrasas in Qasba.
In the 2011 Education Emergency Report, the Pakistan Education Taskforce, a group of governmental and NGO experts, said the increased influence of madrasas in the education system was a myth. According to them, only 6 percent of all Pakistani students attend madrasas.
Others see things differently: "Six percent of students enrolled in madrasas amounts to several hundred thousand students who are actually stationed inside these regimented institutions 24 hours a day. They grow up to lead a certain lifestyle. Enrolment in madrasas has increased by 2.1 percent in 2011 compared to previous years," said Jaffar Ahmed, chairman of the Pakistan Study Centre at Karachi University.
According to a report by the government and the US Agency for International Development, 1.7 million people were enrolled in madrasas in Pakistan in 2011.
The reason for the expansion of madrasas, Ahmed believes, is the vacuum left by the state in terms of the provision of food, shelter and education.
More often than not, madrasa graduates do not acquire the skills needed for a white-collar job. And some graduates do no see this as their goal in any case: "We are taught to serve Islam. Serving Islam means either building a mosque or madrasa, or becoming a teacher in a madrasa," said a graduate from Jamai Binoria, a degree-awarding madrasa in Karachi.
*not a real name