This article was originally printed in The Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s largest-selling English newspaper.
DHANDANAGAR, Nepal — In a maroon-carpeted room, 27 girls sit barefoot on the floor, watching Khadijah Khan, 24, click her way around an Adobe Photoshop file of a red-roofed home next to a placid lake. “Which tool do we use to select an area and make it smaller?” the young teacher asks in Urdu.
“The crop tool,” the girls answer, adjusting the thin duppatas on their head.
Every day at the Aisha Siddiqua Girls College, a madrassa in Dhandanagar, Kapilvastu, Muslim girls take a compulsory 30-minute computer course to learn software basics for today’s most popular computer programs. Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word, and Adobe Photoshop are among the programs for which software training is provided. Learning how to use these programs not only prepares the girls for work, but sharpens their awareness of technological possibilities in the global age, according to the principal, Shaheen Bano.
“If the world is becoming modern, the girls must become modern with the world, so they are not left behind,” Bano says.
Mainly concentrated along the Nepal-India border, madrassas—schools training young Muslims in Quranic studies, Arabic and Islamic thought–have expanded their curriculum to include secular subjects like mathematics, science, geography and English. Often a free or cheaper alternative to Nepal’s public and private schools, madrassa have fees that range from free for the orphaned or most destitute to a few thousand rupees per month. Most madrassas also include lodging to give students an environment lived according to Islamic principles.
The latest change to that growing curriculum, computer training— included to close the knowledge gap suffered by students—is a welcome addition. The majority of students attending a madrassa lack basic computer access in their homes, and many of them only encounter a computer in a classroom.
At a school like Aisha Siddiqua madrassa, students are expected to master Microsoft Word; crunch formulas in Excel; and manipulate graphics in Adobe Photoshop. They create slideshow presentations in PowerPoint and work on posters in Adobe InDesign Urdu. At the most advanced level, students can learn how to work with HTML code or learn programming languages like C++.
The computer lessons occur in 30-minute shifts daily, with 10-minute practical sessions allowing each student in the computer lab to demonstrate their acquisition of the day’s lesson. Girls sit in groups of two at each computer, patiently awaiting their turn. At the end of the year, computer exams are conducted on paper as well as a computer: by then, students are required to have actively absorbed all the year’s software demonstrations.
According to Maulvi Abdur Raheem Madani at the Mat-ulool Uloom madrassa in Taulihawa, there is no tension between technology and Islam. “Islam was the first technology that taught us how to navigate the world,” he says. “Why should students fear more technology? Students will only benefit from having computers in their lives. If there is a problem in a Muslim’s life, he can use the search feature on a digital version of the Quran to locate the answer.”
Echoing this, madrassa officials believe that computers function as a religious tool to strengthen a student’s understanding of Islam. This includes listening to Arabic-language lessons on YouTube, reading Al-Bukhari’s hadith through Internet sources, and working through digital versions of scholarly debates on Islam’s most contentious issues. The advantage of using computers is that students receive the messages about Islam from sources all over the world. And it’s far faster than flipping through tomes.
“What once took 10 minutes to find by hand will take just 10 seconds by mouseclick,” says Madani.
Enrollment figures are also likely to jump as families come to understand the advantage of learning technical skills in an Islamic setting. Although many parents choose to send children to madrassas to inculcate them with Islamic values, parents are pleased to learn their children will also receive marketable skills that may translate into better success in the job market. Offered at a cheaper cost than at most private schools, madrassas offer an economic and spiritual appeal to many Nepali Muslims in the Tarai.
At Aisha Siddiqua, a daily computer class comes at a cost of a mere additional 80 rupees per month. Orphans and the poorest students pay nothing. Still, Principal Bano notes that some parents are upset by the mandatory computer fees, and often discourage students from attending if it means additional costs. When parents feel the pinch, students even come to class complaining of eye troubles, saying that they are unfit to stare at a computer screen.
However, the principal doggedly emphasizes the necessity of computer training in today’s world. “I get the parents on board even when they have economic pressures not to send their kid to class,” she says.
When opposition to the computer class materialises, Principal Bano says, it is often rooted in economic obstacles rather than religious ones, as very poor families do not have the supplemental income to afford a computer class. But they also know that the benefits of a computer education far outweigh the price tag attached with it, say madrassa officials.
For one thing, the education could enable many Muslim children living in Tarai villages to earn a more lucrative career abroad. As with so many of their Nepali brethren across the country, many young Muslims will seek financial betterment outside Nepal.
“If a candidate has computer skills, he can pursue better jobs outside of Nepal,” says Sushma Khadka at the manpower agency Dreams and Guide System. “With computers, maybe they will get a bank or office job.”
Many of the youngsters at the madrassas aren’t seeing that far into the future. When they use computers, it is often not with future employability in mind. Computers are simply a more engaging way of receiving instruction. For Owais Khan, 12, computers are just that much more fun than books.
“If I have the choice of learning Islam through a blackboard or a computer, I would choose a computer. Definitely,” he says.