Sexual abuse is pervasive in Islamic schools in Pakistan

Sexual abuse is pervasive in Islamic schools in Pakistan

The Hindu, November 21, 2017

Kausar Parveen struggles through tears as she remembers the blood-soaked pants of her 9-year-old son, raped by a religious cleric. Each time she begins to speak, she stops, swallows hard, wipes her tears and begins again.

The boy had studied for a year at a nearby Islamic school in the town of Kehrore Pakka. In the blistering heat of late April, in the grimy two-room Islamic madrassa, he awoke one night to find his teacher lying beside him.

“I didn’t move. I was afraid,” he says. The cleric lifted the boy’s long tunic-style shirt over his head, and then pulled down his baggy pants.

“I was crying. He was hurting me. He shoved my shirt in my mouth,” the boy says, using his scarf to show how the cleric tried to stifle his cries. He looks over at his mother. “Did he touch you?’ He nods. “Did he hurt you when he touched you?” “Yes,” he whispers.

“Did he rape you?” He buries his face in his scarf and nods yes.

Parveen reaches over and grabs her son, pulling him toward her, cradling his head in her lap.

‘Infested’ with sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is a pervasive and longstanding problem at madrassas in Pakistan, an AP investigation has found, from the sunbaked mud villages deep in its rural areas to the heart of its teeming cities. But in a culture where clerics are powerful and sexual abuse is a taboo subject, it is seldom discussed or even acknowledged in public.

It is even more seldom prosecuted. Police are often paid off not to pursue justice against clerics, victims’ families say. And cases rarely make it past the courts, because Pakistan’s legal system allows the victim’s family to “forgive” the offender and accept what is often referred to as “blood money.”

The AP found hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clerics reported in the past decade, and officials suspect there are many more within a far-reaching system that teaches at least 2 million children in Pakistan. The investigation was based on police documents and dozens of interviews with victims, relatives, former and current ministers, aid groups and religious officials.

The fear of clerics and the militant religious organizations that sometimes support them came through clearly. One senior official in a ministry tasked with registering these cases says many madrassas are “infested” with sexual abuse. The official asks to remain anonymous for fear of retribution; he has been a target of suicide attacks because of his hard position against militant groups.

“There are thousands of incidences of sexual abuse in the madrassas,” he says. “This thing is very common, that this is happening.”

Pakistan’s clerics close ranks when the madrassa system is too closely scrutinized, he says. Among the weapons they use to frighten their critics is a controversial blasphemy law that carries a death penalty in the case of a conviction.

“This is not a small thing here in Pakistan I am scared of them and what they can do,” the official says. “I am not sure what it will take to expose the extent of it. It’s very dangerous to even try. That’s a very dangerous topic,” he says.

A tally of cases reported in newspapers over the past 10 years of sexual abuse by maulvis or clerics and other religious officials came to 359. That represents “barely the tip of the iceberg,” says Munizae Bano, executive director of Sahil, the organisation that scours the newspapers and works against sexual abuse of minors.

In 2004, a Pakistani official disclosed more than 500 complaints of sexual assaults against young boys in madrassas. He has since refused to talk, and there have been no significant arrests or prosecutions.

Religious Affairs Minister Sardar Muhammad Yousaf dismisses the suggestion that sexual abuse is widespread, saying such talk is an attempt to malign the religion, seminaries and clerics. He says he was not aware of even the cases reported in the newspapers, but that it could occur occasionally ‘because there are criminals everywhere.” Mr. Yousaf says the reform and control of madrassas is the job of the interior ministry.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees madrassas, refused repeated written and telephone requests for an interview.

The case of Ms. Parveen’s son was one of at least three within a month in the towns of Kehrore Pakka and Rajanpur in Punjab province’s deep south, according to police reports. Another incident involved the drugging and gang rape of a 12-year-old boy asleep on his madrassa rooftop by former students. And the third was of a 10-year-old boy sodomized by the madrassa principal when he brought him his meal. The cleric threatened to kill the boy if he told.

The AP is not naming the children because they are victims of sexual abuse.

The fear of clerics was evident at the courthouse in Kehrore Pakka, where the former teacher of Ms. Parveen’s son waited his turn to go before a judge. A half dozen members of the radical Sunni militant organization Sipah-e-Sahabah were there to support the teacher.

They scowled and moved closer when an AP reporter sat next to the teacher, who was shackled to a half dozen other prisoners. The whispers grew louder and more insistent.

“It’s too dangerous here,” said one person, looking over at the militants nearby. “Leave. Leave the courthouse, they can do anything here.”

The teacher had already confessed, according to police, and the police report said he was found with the boy. Yet he swore his innocence in court. “I am married,” he said. “My wife is pretty, why would I do this to a kid?”

Fear governs

There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas or Islamic schools in Pakistan. The students they teach are often among the country’s poorest, who receive food and an education for free.

Many more madrassas small two- or three-room seminaries in villages throughout Pakistan are unregistered, opened by a graduate of another madrassa, often without any education other than a proficiency in the Quran. They operate without scrutiny, ignored by the authorities, say residents living nearby. Parveen’s son, for example, went to an unregistered madrassa.

Madrassas are funded by wealthy business people, religious political parties and even donors from other countries, such as Saudi Arabia. The teachings of the madrassas are guided by schools of Islamic thought, such as Shiite and Sunni.

“Basic responsibility, when something happens, is with the head of the madrassa,” says Mufti Mohammed Naeem, the head of the sprawling Jamia Binoria madrassa in the city of Karachi.

There are between 2,000 and 3,000 unregistered madrasses, Naeem says, which makes central oversight even harder. The government has launched a nationwide effort to register madrassas.

The “keepers” of madrassas are also notoriously reluctant to accept government oversight or embrace reforms, according to I.A. Rehman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which makes sexual abuse harder to prevent.

“This is one of those things, you know, which everybody knows is going on and happening, but evidence is very scarce,” he says. He adds that the power of the people who run the madrassas has increased over the years.

As the religious right has grown stronger in Pakistan, clerics who were once dependent on village leaders for handouts, even food, have risen in stature. With this rise, reporting of sexual abuse in madrassas has trickled off, said human rights lawyer Saif-ul Mulk. Mr. Mulk has police protection because of death threats from militants outraged by his defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death for insulting Islam.

“Everyone is so afraid of the mullahs today,” he says.

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