Bangladeshi students speak up about shocking rapes in madrasas

Former Bangladeshi students broke their silence by sharing their ordeal on social media over allegations of “rampant” sex abuse at the hands of teachers and older pupils in Islamic schools.

Child abuse in madrasas has long gone unreported in the country, a Muslim-majority nation where uncompromising Islamist groups draw their support from the tens of thousands of schools across the nation of 169 million people.

Credits: Deccan Chronicle

But after brutal murder of a teenage girl who was burnt to death in April after accusing her headteacher of sexual assault, such shocking incidents have been subject to national scrutiny and debate for the very first time.

In July itself, at least five madrasa teachers were arrested on rape charges against boys and girls under their care.

Also, several senior students were also arrested by police over the rape and beheading of an 11-year-old orphan, while a Dhaka cleric and seminary teacher was charged with sexually assaulting a dozen boys (aged 12 and 19 years old)

The accusations also disclose how students from the economically backward sections of the society whose parents send them to madrasas as they are more affordable than secular schools, are affected by the abuse.

Rights activists added that assaults which range from violent rapes to forcible kissing are so pervasive that the cases reported in the media are just the tip of the iceberg.

“For years these crimes eluded spotlight due to sensitivity of the subject,” Abdus Shahid, the head of child rights’ group Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Forum, told AFP.

“Devout Muslims send children to madrasas, but they don’t speak up about these crimes as they feel it would harm these key religious institutions.”

Hojaifa al Mamduh, who studied in 3 madrasas in the capital Dhaka, published a string of posts on Facebook in the month of July explaining the abuses undergone by students including himself.

The assaults were “so widespread in the madrasas, every student who has studied there knows about it”, Al Mamduh, who is now a journalism student at a Dhaka University, told AFP.

“Many madrasa teachers I know consider sex with children a lesser crime than consensual extramarital sex with women. Since they live in the same dormitories, the perpetrators can easily hide their crimes and put pressure on their poor students to keep mum.”

The 23-year-old’s posts generated heated debate in Bangladesh and he was personally threatened.

He was later accused of being “an agent of Jews and Christians” and smearing the “sacred image” of a madrasa by a social media user.

Another one reminded him of the fate of Avijit Roy, who was a top Bangladeshi atheist blogger and writer who was hacked to death by Islamist extremists in the year 2015.

But, his posts pushed others to share their own experiences of alleged sex crimes.

Mostakimbillah Masum, who had published his story on a feminist website, added that he was “first raped by an elder student in my madrasa when I was just seven”.

The 25-year-old told news agency AFP that another one of his rapists was “a teacher who made me unconscious and raped me. It traumatised me permanently”.

“Dozens of madrasa students I know were either raped or witnessed rapes and sexual assaults of their fellow students,” he added. “It is so rampant almost every madrasa has a fair share of such stories.”

Madrasa teachers also strongly denied the allegations, calling them “negative propaganda”.

Mahfuzul Haq, who is a principal of a madrasa in Mohammadpur where Al Mamduh studied, told news agency AFP “one or two isolated incidents can happen” as there were 20,000 madrasas in the South Asian nation.

“Those who don’t like to study in madrasas are spreading these stories,” he added.

A spokesman for hardline Islamist group Hefazat-e-lslami, which represents a coalition of thousands of madrasas, added that his organisation told a recent conference of 1,200 principals to take “tough stand against any sex crimes”.

Nonetheless, there has been an increasing acknowledgement of the alleged offences.

Pro-Islamic website identified as, viewed as a voice for the madrasas, cited in a report that children were at complete risk in smaller seminaries run by just 1 or 2 teachers and that had no mistake from governing bodies.

Editor lftekhar Jamil who is a former madrasa student and teacher said that the cases were “not isolated” happenings and had also called for closed-circuit cameras to be installed in students’ sleeping quarters.

“Instead of looking for conspiracies, these madrasas must take up responsibility and adopt an action plan to tackle these crimes,” he told AFP.