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Investigating sexual abuse in Pakistan madrasas

S. Khan Islamabad
June 29, 2021

Experts think several factors are behind the incidents at Pakistan's religious schools. "The children will not speak against clerics out of fear, and clerics will definitely not admit anything," one commentator told DW.

Madrasa students recite the Quran at a religious school in Islamabad
Religious parties and clerics assert that madrasas are the target of defamation by NGOs and secular organizationsImage: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

A recent sexual abuse case involving a madrasa student and a high-profile religious leader in Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore rocked the country.

Sabir Shah, a student at the madrasa, told DW that Mufti Aziz ur Rehman sexually abused him for over a year.

Rehman belonged to Jamiat Ulema Islam, an organization of religious scholars that adheres to an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam.

It was not an isolated incident. Shortly after, a video of child sexual abuse involving a Shiite cleric emerged. In May 2017, a nine-year-old boy was raped by a cleric in Pak Pattan; in 2018 a Lahore-based cleric was booked for raping a minor; and in 2019, a 13-year old disabled girl was sexually assaulted by a cleric in Multan.

The cases have given rise to calls for accountability in Pakistan. Many are blaming religious seminaries. But clerics vehemently reject that their educational institutions are at fault.

More than 2.2 million children study in over 36,000 registered and unregistered madrasas in the South Asian country. An overwhelming majority of the students are from impoverished parts of Pakistan's northwestern, western and eastern provinces.

A religious school in Islamabad
Many religious schools also provide students with free residence and mealsImage: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

'Pious' clerics pick on vulnerable children

Experts told DW that a number of factors contribute to sexual assaults in seminaries.

"I have come across a number of cases where young children were sexually assaulted by clerics," Dr. Naila Aziz, a Lahore-based clinical psychologist, told DW.

She said the clerics were generally under mental stress and often sexually frustrated, trying to suppress their sexual desires as a demonstration of their devout faith.

Some clerics then target vulnerable children because they know that children's claims of sexual abuse are much less likely to be believed. This "prompts them [the children] to not report such cases of sexual assaults," she said. "This in turn encourages clerics to go on doing what they do with impunity."

Little accountability for Pakistan's powerful clergy

Some critics in Pakistan think that the Islamic clergy's powerful political position leads to a lack of accountability at madrasas.

Nasreen Jalil, the former chairperson of a Senate committee on human rights, said clerics used their political power to cover up their sexual abuse crimes. If you open an investigation against a madrasa, religious leaders would call by telephone, requesting that the investigation stops, Jalil explained to DW. She added that lawmakers self-censor when it comes to investigating sexual assault cases in religious schools and other issues related to clerics, as a result of this.

This culture of power and intimidation means that "there is no accountability for these clerics," Jalil said. "They teach the syllabus of their choice, collect funds and use them in their own ways. This lack of accountability has encouraged them to commit crimes against children, as well."

Mumtaz Gohar, the national Coordinator of Pakistan's Child Rights Movement told DW that it is difficult to look into sexual abuse claims. If any group tries to probe the matter, the clerics could use their powerful position to accuse them of blasphemy or of being a "foreign agent."

If a team succeeds in gaining access to a madrasa, then there will be no cooperation. "The children will not speak against clerics out of fear, and clerics will definitely tell you nothing," Gohar said. "It is this sense of impunity that encourages them to keep on engaging in such activities."

Parents are under pressure to not report the abuse

Social pressure can also prevent parents from reporting cases when they become aware of the abuse, allowing it to continue.

Noor Muhammad Fazli, whose nephew was assaulted by a local cleric in Punjab's Chakwal district, said the parents of four girls who were molested by the same cleric withdrew allegations because of mounting social pressure.

This was despite the fact that the accused had confessed to the sexual assault.

It is this social pressure that emboldens these clerics, he said, asserting that, if society stands against them, they cannot target "our kids."

Lahore-based analyst Ahsan Raza said clerics were often revered in villages. Even if found to be guilty, a cleric is often pardoned or the matter is covered up on the order of traditional village consultative council where clerics have supporters and backers, Raza told DW.

Pakistan has just one forensics lab

Pakistan is further hampered by a dire lack of modern facilities that could expedite the collection of evidence and the verification of allegations that are made.

The country has only one forensic laboratory, and it took four months for the lab to investigate one case, a police investigator told DW on the condition of anonymity.

"The lab is flooded with cases and it takes months to prepare reports," she said. "This delays the proceedings, creating problems for the victims' family, prompting them to withdraw the cases, encouraging the perpetrators."

Clerics dispute claims

Religious parties and clerics assert that madrasas are the target of defamation by NGOs and secular organizations.

A torrent of criticism has been unleashed by some elements against religious schools, but, in reality, sexual assaults rarely happen in such places, Jalal Uddin, the leader of Jamiat Ulema Islam, said.

Mohammad Nazir Farooqui, who belongs to Maroof ul Quran madrasa in Islamabad, told DW that there was a strict system of accountability and that it would be wrong to think that such incidents are widespread.

Most of the madrasas are performing their religious duties by imparting education, he said, adding that these religious educational places have their own system of accountability, which does not tolerate such crimes.

"All clerics and religious parties have condemned such acts and demanded that those who are involved should be brought to justice. Despite all that, some elements continue to tarnish the image of seminaries," Farooqui said.