Black Crows: Saudi’s Veil over Education in Afghanistan

In the 19 December 2014 broadcast of a special series titled “The Girls of the Taliban” (watch the full documentary here), Najibullah Quraishi and Jamie Doran from Al Jazeera raise an alarming concern that the new wave of religious teaching across Kunduz, Afghanistan, will put women’s rights groups under threat. According to Al Jazeera (see link), there are 1,300 unregistered madrasas — servicing more than 4,000 students under eleven years of age — that enforce an arguably stricter code than the Taliban, hence their controversial and, perhaps, misleading title.

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 11.58.54 pm (Screenshot from Al Jazeera video)

Female children and teens in the madrasas wear the black veil, identical to those worn by Saudi women, which is different from the blue burqa or the hijab headscarf (see Infographic 1).

HeadgearOfMuslimWomen1 Infographic 1: Names of Muslim Veils (see image source)

In a separate article, the Telegraph published a piece of research by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, analysed by the Pew Research Centre, in January 2014. They conducted a survey to identify the attitudes towards covering by women across 7 Muslim countries, namely Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt. Respondents were given 6 visual cards of women’s dressing (as seen in Infographic 2 below) and were told to choose their veils. The University discovered these findings:

The most conservative responses were displayed in Saudi Arabia. Sixty two per cent of respondents there said that women should wear the niqab, the headdress that allows over a narrow slit over the eyes. In Iraq and Pakistan, 32 per cent and 31 per cent of respondents respectively judged the cloaklike hijab (3rd from the left in the graphic), which reveals the full face, to be most appropriate. (Source)


Infographic 2: Attitudes of Muslim Women Towards Veil
(Source: The Telegraph; see article)

In the same study, the question was asked whether Muslim women should be given a choice to choose their own clothing, the respondents from Saudi Arabia revealed a 47% yes, compared to a 14% yes in Egypt, or a 22% yes in Pakistan, or a 27% yes in Iraq. This means, by inference, that almost half the Saudi women (on the assumption that the respondents were all females) have chosen to wear their full veil, rather than being forced by external authorities to wear them.

What is interesting about the Al Jazeera documentary is the migration of the black niqab to Kunduz as evidence of conservatism. If religious dogma has decreed that women in Afghanistan (or Muslim women in general) should don full veils, why aren’t they wearing the blue ones that are already in existence? Is the black veil a visual symbol of high power and status, compared to the pale blue burqa? Or is this an insidious fashion trend from Saudi Arabia, masking a transnational movement of terror networks?

From the video, some Afghan girls who did not follow this brand of schooling have called their friends who donned the Saudi veil “black crow”. I do not know if the symbolism of crows is universal, but the negative connotation does suggest death, at least in the field of literary analysis.

Here, I want to focus just a little on education matters. The video shows that their curriculum comprises the full-time study of the Qur’an, and nothing else. They recite and memorise the Qur’an, study the Sharia law, as well as the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad by heart over the years, with a male teacher giving an exegesis of theology in a veiled part of the classroom or in a separate cubicle. In other words, rote learning and regurgitation is the only form of assessment. Furthermore, there is no physical (eye) contact and social interaction between the male teacher and his female students, a pedagogical approach that contradicts constructivist theories of student learning espoused by John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Lev Vygotsky, for example, where meaning-making is a process, co-created together as new experiences and mental models form into place. This madrasa’s particular model of teaching and learning stems from behaviorism, a theory of learning that focuses only on observable behaviours, a form of conditioning much like training an animal, for example, where Ivan Pavlov taught a dog to salivate on command, or B. F. Skinner training a rat to press a lever for food. Pavlov’s theory is understood as “classical conditioning”, where an existing behaviour is shaped by associating it with a new stimulus, while Skinner’s “operant conditioning” is the rewarding of an act that forms a newly desired behaviour.

Here are a few examples of behaviorist teachings from the video, namely in what Skinner has called “negative reinforcement”, which is operationalised here as fear and punishment in Islamic teachings:

Mullah: To disobey parents is what?
Students: A big sin.
Mullah: But not when parents direct us to misleading ways, like not wearing the hijab or failing to pray. In that situation, don’t obey your parents. If parents are against the hijab or ask their daughters not to wear it, isn’t there a clash between two orders?
Students: Yes.
Mullah: One is the order of God, the other is the order of man. Whose order is priority?
Students: God.


Mullah: In the west, when parents become old, they take them in a cart and throw them in an adult care home.
Students: (nod)

Mullah: In Islam, people can only be killed for three crimes. First, if they kill. If someone kills an innocent person then the killer must face retribution. The second person who must be killed is the non-believer. A Muslim in an Islamic country who denounces Islam. He should be given three days and his doubts should be discussed. But if he does not repent after three days, the Islamic government must issue an order and he should be hanged. The third person who must be killed is the adulterer and adulteress. Then the Islamic court must decide to stone them. However, if a young unmarried man commits such an act, or a young girl, when proven, their punishment is lashes. Lashes of the whip.
Students: (nod in silence)

I shuddered when I heard the second crime, the crime of being a non-believer. From the context, it seems like it’s only applicable to Muslims in a Muslim country who had denounced their faith, but the earlier examples of exception (e.g. you do not need to obey your parents when…) suggest that these rules or laws can be interpreted based on what one thinks God has decreed. If respecting parents is the number one rule, then in my humble opinion, there shouldn’t be exceptions. If exceptions abound, then a non-Muslim like me visiting Kunduz could be killed on that same premise, possibly extending to visitors in a Muslim country. That’s the fear I don’t want to embody, and I don’t wish that for anyone as well, Muslims or non-Muslims. As one can see, the Mullah here has also made stereotypical comments about the west and how the elderly are carted off into nursing homes without offering a social, economic, and political commentary. It is simply based on his version of the truth, and that “truth” is indisputable. There can only be black and white, right and wrong, and therefore, the behaviours of a non-sinner and a sinner in a highly religious context such as this.

This next transcript is an example of informal assessment, where new behaviours and thinking of the student are evident:

I was living in ignorance. I used to dress the way other girls dress now because I didn’t know about the Islamic commandments that I must wear the veil. The veil is not an order from the madrasa or the scholar. It is from God. […] Boys study medicine. Girls can as well, on condition that they don’t mix with boys. Having a job is now allowed in Sharia [for women]. God does not permit them to. Women cannot become ministers, kings or work in offices. [4:25-5:13]

This is further reinforced by parents who were speaking to the film crew in front of their daughters on how well behaved their girls have been after attending the madrasas. Public recognition and praise in this case is a form of “positive reinforcement”, and so, the girls (having heard their parents heap praises on them to strangers) will continue to help their mother do household chores, for instance, immediately after school. B.F. Skinner would be so proud of them.

Fortunately, this documentary offers counter-narratives from female students, teachers, governors, and parliamentarians, all of whom shake in disbelief on the state of backwardness in the thinking of these madrasas. Yet the danger of speaking out against them is apparent and real for these women. There seems to be an unknown power, a funding that, I presume based on the colour of the hijab, comes from a Saudi clergy, which again suggests the transnationalisation of terror networks across Islamic countries.

Is behaviorism a form of indoctrination? Is there place for such theories of learning in today’s school? Yes, but not to the exclusion of other subjects.

As an educator myself, I resonate with one respondent’s comments, who is a teacher in a public school:

The problem is that they tell girls not to go to regular school. “The madrassa is enough”. It’s fine to go to madrassas to learn about Sharia, the Quran and Islam. But they keep the girls in total darkness like the blind. They keep them illiterate. [15:39-16:00]

By focusing only on the holy teachings and dismissing the value of other academic subjects such as history, literature, sciences, geography, and mathematics, they are alienating the mind from functioning at its fullest cognitive capacity. Even behaviorist models of learning can work well when students are taught other subjects too, as this expands the mind beyond a singular “reading” of the world.

It is a known fact that Arabs and Muslims have contributed to the world in dynamic ways since the early days of civilisation, such as those schooled in mathematics, astrology, and sciences. A quick search on Google will show a list of famous Muslim scholars who had changed civilisation, such as:

  • Al-Kindi (Alkindus), pioneer of psychotherapy and dream interpretation
  • Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari, pioneer of psychiatry, clinical pscyhiatry and clinical psychology
  • Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi, pioneer of neuroanatomy, neurobiology and neurophysiology
  • Abdul Qadeer Khan, nuclear scientist of the Centrifuge Method
  • Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, the “first” anthropologist and father of indology
  • Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of microfinance

I am sure there are Afghans in the annals of history who have also excelled in many areas, but these famous two come to mind, among other random selections from Wikipedia:

  • Rumi, or Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi, the Persian poet, jurist, and theologian (source)
  • Abdul Ahad Mohmand, the first Afghan in space, launched on 29 August 1988. (Source)
  • Avicenna (980-1037), father of modern medicine
  • Zemaryalai Tarzi, professor of archaeology
  • Nake K. Kamrany, professor of economics
  • Mir Ghulam Mohammad Ghobar (1897-1978), historian

So, it is not true that Afghanistan have always been conservative in pedagogical approaches, but those days were shortlived. Modernist ideas were always in conflict with the more traditional ones. In Education in the Doldrums: Afghan Tragedy (2004), S.B. Ekanayake first offers an historical perspective to the traditional learning model in Afghanistan. He states that the madrasas, which were the “traditional centres of learning” (p.11), were more open to new ideas and also contributed to the sciences and arts in the early periods of the Islamic civilisation. However later on, religious leaders decided to focus on traditional studies and adopted a hostile attitude towards sciences and philosophy. He writes:

Learning became sterile and unimaginative. Arabic grammar was one of the more favoured non-religious subjects and students were expected to learn grammatical rules by heart without ever applying them. Besides, students were never taught the art of discussion and rational thinking. Instead they were trained in the ‘art of disputation,’ where skills of discussion and argument were ignored. One would see strong, emotional outbursts of anger, exchange of insults, with occasional physical fighting among rival students as part of the art of disputation. (p.11)

According to the author, he states that the dogmatism and intolerance, especially to anything remotely associated with the modern world, can be traced to the Deoband madrasa in India. This resulted in the decline of the “relatively liberal and secular traditional teaching” in Afghanistan. He also criticised this as “paradoxical in a country, which had remained under the influence of the Gandhara civilization, and promoted aesthetic aspects, arts and crafts” (p. 13).

Ekanayake also traced another objective of education back to the reign of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan (1891-1901), who decided that the sole aim of education was to train “reliable, competent administrators schooled in Islamic law” (p.14). It was observed to be a move towards the “control of state power than towards enlightenment” (ibid.). Amir concluded “that he did not mind about the ignorance of the nation so long as they remained loyal to their ruler and offered combined opposition to the external foe; he preferred barbarism to intelligence, as the former was more useful in war than the latter” (Foreign and Political Department, May 1890, cited in Ekanayake, p.14). This form of state control is akin to Michel Foucault’s idea of the self-policing subject; citizens are so afraid of the law that they regulate their behaviours willingly, even without anyone watching. Except that in the instance of The Girls of Taliban, the foreboding fear is disobedience to God, and the punishments are more severe in the afterlife.

Even as recent as a decade ago, Ekanayake observed that the current educational landscape was still in a state of confusion and disrepair because there were too many advisors and funding agencies from different countries providing different agendas and educational menus, which created more suspicions among the traditionalists who had already rejected a secular education. Nancy Dupree, one of the noted historians has been been in Afghanistan for the last four decades, argues:

Failings within the bureaucracy were responsible for much of the sterility and stagnation that characterized the entire system by 1978. Today exactly the same mind-sets affect the officials, many of whom are holdovers from pre-war days. They stubbornly resist innovations; change is anathema to them. Having survived the King, Daud, Taraki, Najibullah, Rabbani, and now the Taliban, they know that continued survival depends on keeping the system functioning without rocking any boats. As in the past, these officials are perpetuators, not innovators. This is a big stumbling block.” (p. 220, cited in Ekanayake)

What I believe is that the “innovation” that Afghans are resistant towards is now becoming a reality, except that it’s now a resurgence of traditionalist schooling such as that of the madrasas, arguably setting the country back by a few more decades. By institutionalising conservative only-religious studies in madrasas such as this, I make the following speculations:

(i) Kunduz runs the risk of being controlled by a clergy, whose funding source is unidentifiable. To avoid possible terror networks from infiltrating further into Afghanistan, they need to be aware of the infrastructure and funders behind these schools. If a province is taken over by an ideological state apparatus, in Louis Althusser’s terms, then it is conceivable that other provinces will follow the trend, and so, “state control” will soon emerge from these madrasas, rather than the central government in Kabul.

(ii) Because such madrasas appeal more to poorer rural families, the proliferation of these institutions will continue to put villagers in a vicious cycle of poverty, with a growing disdain towards those who attend state schools. This will mean more income inequality, and developmental stagnation in the future.

(iii) The religious dogma presented and taught to the girls in the madrasas are causing a rift between their family members and friends in their own community. If this goes on, violence will re-surface, now no longer along lines of tribal affiliations, but basic values on religious differences and interpretations. The “art of disputation” may see the girls in armed conflict, just to spread this version of Islam to their own communities.

This is a blog that is non-academic in tone; it is my trying-to-make-sense of reality and my immediate response to a Youtube video I had just watched. I really do want to return to Afghanistan to work with the locals and implement some changes in the educational landscape, especially in eradicating illiteracy and, hopefully alleviating poverty (without an official agenda), but seeing the growth of these “black crow” madrasas, I cannot be certain that it will be safe to do so. I do have hope for the future, but the hope is darkly veiled for now.