The Afghan madrassa accused of radicalising women

Female students in full body veil at the  Ashraf-ul Madares madrassa Female students in full body veil at the Ashraf-ul Madares madrassa

An unregistered religious school in northern Afghanistan has been accused of radicalising thousands of women.

A BBC investigation has found that the Ashraf-ul Madares madrassa in Kunduz province preaches that listening to radio, watching television and taking photos are un-Islamic activities and that women should not work outside their homes.

Activists say the school undermines women's rights, but the founders say they are providing badly needed religious education.

About 6,000 women and young girls are studying at the madrassa which was established by two influential mullahs in Kunduz four years ago.

Students from the madrassa are instantly recognisable because of their strict Islamic clothing.

'Tent wearers'

The older students cover their heads, faces and eyes, and they also wear gloves and socks. Some wear a full body black chador, which has led to them being dubbed "tent-wearers" by some residents.

Kunduz city officials say the radical interpretation of Islam taught in the school - particularly over dress codes - is causing tension between seminary students and other local people.

Women walking in front of the Ashraf-ul-Madares madrassa in Kunduz province Teachers at the madrassa say religious instruction in state schools is insufficient

"They tell them 'you are an infidel - why is your clothing un-Islamic, why don't you know how to pray?'" says an official from the Kunduz Women's Affairs Directorate.

Some of the seminary students also attend local government-run schools, and here too there have been confrontations.

"When [they] see students or teachers of ordinary schools wearing normal clothes or with their hair visible, they stop them and openly tell them: 'You have committed a sin by not wearing clothing to cover your entire body'," says Wazhma, a teacher at a government-run school.

The head of the madrassa, Mawlavi Abdul Khaleq, rejects the criticism.

He told the BBC the school's goal was to help young women achieve their full potential by understanding the history and basic teachings of Islam.

"In the beginning of Islam, Muslim girls used to take part in religious activities," he said. "They even used to participate in wars… but we Muslims have now lagged behind."

Strict separation

So what do the students themselves think? Although they've been warned not to talk to the media, one young woman agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

"If a chocolate does not have a wrapper, every fly can sit on it, but if it has a wrapper, it can be protected better," she said. "So the hijab for women is like a wrapper for them."

She told the BBC that she had grown up as a refugee in Pakistan, and had previously attended a private university.

"I used to wear short, tight clothes which are not appropriate for a Muslim woman," she said. "But now I have been informed about the truth of Islam and I know it is not appropriate for a Muslim girl to laugh and joke at any party."

A madrassa teacher instructs pupils from behind a curtain A madrassa teacher instructs pupils from behind a curtain

In government-run seminaries in Afghanistan, male teachers can instruct girl students face to face - as they do in ordinary schools and colleges.

But at Ashraf-ul Madares, male staff have to teach their girl students from behind a curtain or from inside a booth in order to avoid eye-contact.

"There should be partitions so that the male teacher can't see the girls, even if they wear hijab, because their eyes are open during reading," says Abdul, one of the seminary teachers.

The rules are less strict for the 200 girls under 10 who also study at the Ashraf-ul Madares.

Here the teachers sit among the children, wooden ruler in hand to enforce good behaviour.

"The madrassa discipline is military-style, and children will be punished if they don't learn well or are noisy," Abdul says.

So why go to an unregistered madrassa when there are more than 30 similar schools in Kunduz run by the Ministry of Education and already catering for some 2,000 female students?

Officials at the Ashraf-ul Madares argue that the curriculum provided by the Ministry of Education is not fully Islamic. They say they offer different teaching based on books brought in from Iran, Pakistan and some Arab states.

Afghanistan's deputy education minister Shafiq Samim, declined to comment specifically on the Ashraf-ul Madares madrassa, but acknowledges there is a problem in Kunduz.

A wooden booth used by teachers in class to avoid direct contact with female students Teachers use a wooden booth in class to avoid direct contact with female students

"Students are told people who don't pray are infidel, while in Sharia law only unbelievers are called infidel," he said. "One madrassa student even told her mother that she was infidel because she did not pray for a few days."

Mawlavi Abdul Khaliq, the head of Ashraf-ul-Madares takes issue with this.

"Those who oppose this seminary are actually unaware of Islam or are influenced by countries that support non-Islamic ideas and values in Afghanistan and want a decline in Islamic values", he says. "In general, these kinds of people are provoked by outsiders."

Expansion plans

Many of the school's critics also want to know how it is funded.

Mawlavi Abdul Khaliq says some costs were covered by donations from students.

"They sell their earrings, rings and gold to help," he said. "Once we were even able to buy land for around $20,000 and build on it, all paid for by these girls."

The madrassa has expansion plans, hoping to open branches in other Afghan provinces.

The Ministry of Education has confirmed that there are about 1,300 unregistered religious schools operating in the country, as opposed to 1,100 state-run madrassas.

Shahrzad, a civil society activist in Kunduz fears that the growing influence of conservative establishments outside government regulation could cost women in particular dear.

"When religion is misinterpreted, the first and biggest victims will be women," she says. "Their Islamic and legal rights, their rights to work, learn, train and join politics and their civil freedom will be restricted."

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