From Behind the Curtain: A Study of a Girls’ Madrasa in India

In the aftermath of 9/11 Islamic seminaries or madrasas received much media attention in India, mostly owing to the alleged link between madrasa education and forms of violence. Yet, while there is some information on madrasas for boys, similar institutions of Islamic learning for girls have for the greater part escaped public attention so far. This study investigates how madrasas for girls emerged in India, how they differ from madrasas for boys, and how female students come to interpret Islam through the teachings they receive in these schools. Observations suggest that, next to the official curriculum, the ‘informal’ curriculum plays an equally important role. It serves the madrasa’s broader aim of bringing about a complete reform of the students’ morality and to determine their actions accordingly.

There is a discussion on the Purdah: being physically present but socially absent? The Habermasian notion of the public sphere is severely criticised. Fraser, for instance, proposes to employ the term ‘subaltern counterpublics’, that is ‘parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circu- late counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs’ (Fraser 1992:123). Although the Madrasa is not so much an arena for debate than a space for the enactment of particular identities, it can be seen as a counterpublic. Such counterpublics are particularly likely to emerge in stratified societies, which are defined as ‘societies whose basic institutional framework generates unequal social groups in structural relations of dominance and subordination’ (Fraser 1992:122). Warner defines a counterpublic as a public that maintains awareness of its subordinate status and sets itself off against a dominant public (Warner 2002:86)

There is another line of criticism of the Habermasian notion of the public sphere that is relevant to the discussion on the Madrasa. As Moors (2005) has pointed out, this notion is also limiting in its exclusive focus on rational debate as the only legitimate form of participating in the modern public sphere, for this means that other forms and styles of communication are a-priori seen as ineffective and undesirable. If, however, the public sphere is recognised as an arena wherein group identities and interests are always at stake, then there is a need for a more all-encompassing ‘politics of presence’ that allows for the inclusion of other forms of critical expression and non-verbal modes of communication. Such a ‘politics of presence’ becomes especially relevant when discussing contributions of subaltern groups that may be less well versed in effectively presenting their points of view in normalised and hence acceptable formats of ‘rational argumentation’. Forms and styles of presentation may include, for instance, bodily comportment, appearance, and dressing styles. Wearing modest dress can be an act of participation in the public sphere, because it may be perceived as a statement by the public, even though making a statement may not be the (primary) intention of the wearer.

Haroon Ibn Ebrahim Sidat


Fraser, Nancy 1992, ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy’, in Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen 1994, ‘The Emergence of the Public Sphere’, in Giddens, A. (et al.) (eds.), The Polity Reader in Cultural Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moors, Annelies 2005 (forthcoming), ‘Families in Public Discourse’, AFWG (ed.), Framings: Rethinking Arab Families, 1-16.

Warner, Michael 2002, ‘Publics and Counterpublics’, Public Culture 14 (1), 97-114.


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