Education is all about opportunity, the opportunity to make something of your life, and in many cases to have choices that preceding generations did not have. Nowhere is this more true than in South Asia, where a large population, significant levels of poverty, and a variable government track record in delivering services make education all the more important.
So why is it that, given these conditions, many parents choose to send their children to madrasahs, Islamic schools, where some suggest the quality of education is narrower, employability weaker, and later opportunities in life more restricted? In what ways can the choice to send one's children to a madrasah be a rational one?
Parents that select their children's education are more likely to closely involve themselves in its delivery. Whether rational or not, those who choose madrasahs may be expressing their confidence in a madrasah education, rather than announcing a choice determined by necessity. Only by understanding more about the madrasah system and its alternatives--secular, government, and private--can we arrive at firm conclusions for effective public policymaking. In order to reach these conclusions, evidence is key. Unfortunately, the evidence base remains alarmingly weak, despite the strength of convictions that madrasah politics tend to generate.
Additionally, much of the debate depends on what type of Islamic school we are talking about. It is tempting to assume that all madrasahs are broadly similar: religious schools that prioritize a range of Islamic subjects while failing to offer broad-based curricula that include modern subjects, whether science, the social sciences, or contemporary languages. But the sheer range of madrasahs in South Asia suggests otherwise. To begin with, there are major differences between the majority of madrasahs, which are rural, primary institutions, and the majority, which are urban, often endowed with some financial resources and cover the range from primary to tertiary education.
The former institutions are largely about necessity. Educational choice in parts of rural South Asia can be extremely limited. In Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, government schools often lack the national footprint that their governments seek. Given the pressures of population, competing demands on public sector finances, and the limited ability of states to ensure the effective delivery of public services in rural areas, government schools often fail to meet the mark. It is not uncommon to hear about schools that simply exist in name: a school building, budget, and salaries for teachers that translate into a building being used for other activities and incomes for teachers who do not teach. The first Pakistani National Education Census in 2006 found 12,737 of these so-called "ghost schools" out of a total of 164,579 across the country, for example.
As a result, the choice for many rural parents is between no government school at all or a madrasah that usually offers free (or nearly free) education. Regardless, one often encounters regions in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan where villagers choose to send a child to a madrasah over a local government school. For conservative parents, a religious education for one child, or more, is appealing--particularly given the subsequent opportunities those parents think their children are likely to get to make a living, whether as mullahs or as madrasah teachers. (This happens although jobs within the madrasah system are limited, perhaps explaining the growing number of primary schools set up by former madrasah students.)
Consequently, a number of parents send their children to madrasahs out of choices. Nowhere is this more visible than in the cities of South Asia. From Dhaka to Peshawar, middle-class parents choose to send children--or more often, one child, as Masooda Bano has found in her research--to madrasahs because they offer a respectable, religious education. …