Eight years ago, I was working in a secondary school in Bishkek — the capital of Kyrgyzstan — as a history teacher. I loved my job, especially my diligent students. One of them, Malika, a 15-year-old religious girl wearing a hijab, was very bright. She dreamed of becoming an architect. She was hardworking and goal-oriented; I knew she would succeed one day. But Malika stopped showing up at school. Later I learned that her parents had persuaded her to enroll in a madrasah to study Islam. After graduating, Malika couldn’t get into university to study architecture. Her religious education was insufficient to gain acceptance. Malika married a year later and never studied again.
Unfortunately, Malika is not an exception. Every year around 10,000 students graduate from madrasahs in Kyrgyzstan and a quarter of them are girls. The majority of graduates are at risk of falling behind their secular peers without adequate credentials to pursue higher education or secure comfortable employment.
The significant majority of Kyrgyzstan’s 6.2 million population are Muslim. In the nearly 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstanis have shown growing interest in Islam and religious education. The number of mosques, Islamic religious institutions, and students willing to study Islam rises every year: as of 2019, there are an estimated 121 registered religious educational institutions, including 110 madrasahs (25 specifically for girls), which is almost twice the number that existed in 2013. In Kyrgyzstan, religious education is separated from the state secular educational system. The existing religious schools are private and do not have state standardized licenses. Hence, they cannot offer diplomas that could carry their students onward in their educational and professional journeys.
Malika’s story shows the challenges religious girls face in accessing higher education. State and religious institutions, as well as Kyrgyzstan’s international partners, need to do a better job in ensuring that Kyrgyzstan’s religious students are not left behind. They need to work together to improve religious education so girls like Malika can earn a certificate of graduation, continue their studies, and make a contribution to their country’s future.
Parents sending their daughters to madrasahs often ignore the reality that doing so impedes their daughters’ future ability to apply to a university. Religious schools usually lack secular disciplines such as languages, computer science, and math and do not often offer vocational classes, such as sewing or cooking. Girls are usually isolated when studying in a madrasah and that isolation aggravates young women’s despair and mistrust toward secular society, leading to a further marginalization of Kyrgyzstan’s religious population.
Fewer than one third of religious schools provide vocational training, and even fewer have secular classes in their curriculum. The Kyrgyz government should acknowledge its role in ensuring that all Kyrgyz students — in secular as well as religious schools — are provided with an education that enables them to succeed. In relation to religious schools, this entails a commitment to improving the quality of religious education, including a plan to grant licenses to schools that meet state standards. It is particularly important to look at girls’ religious schools and respond to girls’ demands, to empower religious women. Reforms must include the implementation of secular classes and the introduction of vocational training, so that girls have wider opportunities after graduation and are both empowered and equipped to pursue their dreams.
The issue of girls’ studying in madrasahs can no longer be denied or ignored. A bill on religious education, addressing the issues of standardizing licensing procedures and creating a system of religious educational institutions, has been in progress for six years without being adopted. The Kyrgyz government is still unable to reconcile the conflicting demands of a secular state and its religious citizens.
Every Kyrgyz girl, regardless of whether she attends a religious or a secular school, should be provided with a solid and practical education. The introduction of secular classes in madrasahs, as well as vocational training, would benefit not only the students in religious schools but society overall. Girls should decide their own futures and their education ought to prepare them well.
I met Malika again last year. Even though she didn’t become an architect, she is trying to get a job in the madrasah she graduated from. I asked her why she wanted to be a teacher. Malika said that she hoped to bring about change in the religious educational system. “Students need secular classes; they need to have a choice and pick a future profession,” she said.
I was right when we first met: Malika would succeed.
Kyrgyzstan has strong and brave women. With the commitment of government and religious leaders, we can standardize and improve religious education so that girls can earn a certificate of graduation, continue their studies if they wish to, and make a contribution to their country’s future.
Aichurek Kurmanbekova is an independent researcher and George Washington University Central Asia-Azerbaijan fellow from Kyrgyzstan.