Students study at a madrasa (Islamic school) in South Jakarta. Eka Nickmatulhuda/AAP

Poor Indonesian families are more likely to send their daughters to cheap Islamic schools

This article is part of a series to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8.


Indonesia is home to one of the largest and most diverse education systems in the world. It includes thousands of Islamic schools, or madrasas, which cater exclusively to the educational needs of children from Muslim households.

These madrasas exist alongside a mix of other types of schools. These include the typical public and private “secular” schools, and also private Islamic schools, which are all under the Ministry of Education and employ the national curriculum.

For Indonesian madrasas, which are under the Ministry of Religion, a dual system is prevalent.

The first stream are those that adopt a modern system where a larger share of Islamic subjects are taught alongside “secular” subjects. Their graduates are similar to modern-style schools but are distinguished by having a better understanding of Islam.

The second stream of madrasas, such as pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools), teach Islamic studies with an emphasis on classical Arabic books. Their graduates serve as religious preachers and imams of mosques.

Spatial distribution of the number of Islamic schools (all types taken together) and student enrolment in Indonesia. Asadullah & Maliki, 2018, Author provided

The largest number of madrasas in Indonesia, however, are those that exclusively offer Islamic education. They usually operate without government registration and remains outside the state purview.

Madrasas in Indonesia more than doubled in number – from around 63,000 between 2002 and 2003 to around 145,000 between 2011 and 2012 – due to the boom in informal madrasas unrecognised by the state.

In the 2011-2012 period, unrecognised madrasas accounted for more than 17% of all schools. Recognised madrasas also had a high share at the secondary level – 31% and 36% for the junior and senior secondary levels respectively.

Our research published in the International Journal of Educational Development, however, finds that not only do Indonesian madrasas systematically attract children from poorer households, but poor families also are more likely to send their daughters to madrasas compared to their brothers.

Explaining the “girl effect”

Our research involves nearly 200,000 Indonesian children aged 5-18 years. The data are drawn from Indonesia’s National Socio-Economic Survey while information on school availability in certain villages come from village census records, both for the year 2005.

By analysing this combined data set, we find Indonesian children from poorer households, rural locations and less educated parents are more likely to be sent to madrasas. The opposite is true for private school enrolment.

This conforms with existing notions that madrasas offer a cheaper alternative to Indonesia’s fee-charging private schools.

However, when we investigated further how school choice varies between boys and girls, what we found was rather puzzling.


Read more: Gender equity in schools in Muslim countries: it can be done


Although thousands of schools – madrasas or otherwise – are providing access to education for both genders, there is still an unexplained phenomenon: girls are significantly more likely to be in madrasas.

Sons, on the on the hand, enjoy a higher probability of enrolment in non-madrasa schools.

On average, the effect of being a girl on private non-madrasa enrolment is negative and eight percentage points lower than for boys with similar family backgrounds. Irrespective of location (whether it is on the country’s most populated island, Java, or not, or rural versus urban), parents favour madrasas for girls.

Due to the scope of our research, we were not able to definitively understand what caused this “girl effect”. However, we hypothesise a number of non-economic motives might explain the girl bias in madrasa choice in families that live in poverty.

First, the relatively higher presence of girls in madrasas might partly reflect the growing influence of conservative ideology in rural Indonesia.

For instance, a network of Salafi madrasas has emerged. They promote the norms of female seclusion, which conservative parents in rural areas prefer. In these schools, female students are required to adopt dress codes such as niqab.


Read more: Why raising the minimum age for marriage is not enough for Indonesia to put an end to child brides


Second, economic opportunities for women outside home, such as salaried manufacturing jobs, are limited in rural areas. Early marriage is the reality for many women in such locations.

Education in a madrasa is seen as appropriate as girls are groomed in traditional roles to become a “good wife”.

Perpetuating gender norms

How does this affect female empowerment in Indonesia?

International evidence indicates significant conservatism among madrasa students in general, and female graduates in particular, in relation to gender roles and attitudes.

Similarly, patriarchal traditions continue to influence most Indonesian madrasas.

For example, some research has found that the religious texts used in Indonesian Islamic schools reinforce traditional narratives on women’s roles in the household. Other reports found that some madrasa teachers perpetuate the notion that women are less qualified for leadership positions.

This comes as a concern as women in Indonesia are already under-represented in the labor market, with around 46.3 million workers – only about 38% of the workforce in 2017.

For most women in rural areas, however, getting a job is not as important as getting a husband. Prospective grooms in underdeveloped economies and patriarchal societies demand values such as obedience, selflessness and submission from their future wives. Conservative teachings in madrasas may only be responding to such demands.

However, these teachings risk reinforcing gender stereotypes and narrowing the range of social roles available to women.

By emphasising these “wife duties”, madrasa education may perpetuate conservative gender norms in Indonesian society while also undermining efforts to empower women through education.

What should be done?

Continuing to expand access to female schooling through increasingly conservative madrasas may involve costly trade-offs as this trend could discourage economic and political participation for women.

This might not be an ideal choice as the government is keen to encourage more women to enter the formal economy. Indonesia’s female labor force participation rate is stagnating. In the past two decades, it has remained largely unchanged at around 51%.

However, policies curbing the growth of low-fee madrasas are also not an option. There are indications that gender inequality in school choice might be an unintended consequence of the rising numbers of expensive private schools.

Therefore, expanding the choice of affordable quality schools – regardless of faith orientation and household income – should be a policy priority.


Read more: 'It's okay to be poor': Why fighting poverty remains challenging in Indonesia


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