Thirteen-year-old Moussa had large brown eyes and a timid but warm smile. He was skinny for his age. The youngest of his siblings, he was often told off by his older sister. But even she was shocked and afraid to tell their parents when she learned from his teacher that Moussa had secretly dropped out of the final year of primary school.
When I asked him in confidence what had happened, he beamed and explained that he had been attending the local Quranic school instead:
I just prefer to learn the Quran! That’s all I want to do. And it’s easy!
A few months later, Moussa’s uncle found out that he had dropped out of primary school and beat him severely. Debate ensued within his extended family over what to do. Most of his family were adamant that he should finish primary school, feeling that it would be useful for him in the future.
But his parents could tell that he was genuinely committed to learning the Quran. His mother raised the funds from trade to send him to a Quranic boarding school in the capital city.
This situation took place in the strongly Islamic context of northern Senegal, where I spent eight months living in a rural village conducting fieldwork for a PhD at the University of Sussex. Moussa’s story appears in my recent chapter “Passive victims or actively shaping their religious education?”
Moussa’s experience contradicts the image that policymakers, donors and NGO staff often create of children as passive in decisions about their education. People assume that parents, and fathers in particular, are the ones who make decisions about children’s schooling. Yet children clearly take an active role and, in cases like Moussa’s, sometimes defy the wishes of adults.
The presumption that children are passive is particularly evident in debates around Islamic education, and Quranic schooling especially. This affects policies regarding the sector, as well as the way in which researchers approach the subject. It’s time for a change, where the voices and agency of Quranic school pupils are heard and acknowledged.
Representation of pupils as victims
Quranic schools, or “daaras” in Senegal, tend to have a bad reputation among NGOs and in national and international media. These schools are usually portrayed as sites where students – known locally as talibés - are kept in squalid and unsafe conditions, and forced by abusive clerics to beg for money.
Begging for alms, working for a cleric and learning in conditions of deprivation have always been a feature of Quranic schooling in Africa. These practices were designed to fund the schools and teach the students humility and empathy for the poor.
Yet widespread poverty and urbanisation have led to more and more clerics abusing the practice, requiring that children beg so much that they learn very little.
The problem with this discourse is that is only tells one side of the story. Although there are roughly 50,000 children in Senegal who beg on behalf of Quranic teachers in the major cities, they don’t form the whole picture. Hundreds of thousands of Senegalese children attend Quranic pre-schools, or fee-paying Quranic boarding schools, in which conditions are better.
The image of the talibé as a victim of sinister clerics and poor, ignorant or negligent parents reinforces the idea that children are passive in educational decisions. This thinking also justifies external intervention on behalf of children.
It conceals the fact that children – in line with or against their families’ wishes – may opt for this form of education. They may even prefer to attend schools where they have to beg, rather than state schools.
Understanding educational preferences
All educational choices should be seen in context. Moussa and other boys like him who preferred Quranic schools perceived that unless you come from a rich and well-connected family, investment in state schooling is unlikely to get you a secure job.
This view is supported by many studies showing high levels of unemployment even among university graduates in developing countries, and the pitfalls of development schemes which invest in education when there are no jobs available.
Another problem is that state schools in Senegal teach very little religion, and fail to meet the demands of many Muslim parents and young people. This is a legacy of French colonial policy, but is also a characteristic of a country which must answer to international donors ahead of its majority Muslim population.
Proposed “modern” state Quranic schools haven’t materialised. State reforms of existing Quranic schools have usually been rejected by clerics for imposing unrealistic requirements on them, and bowing to donor agendas.
Yet Quranic schools are often criticised out of context, without their supply and demand linked to widespread poverty, or the persistent low quality and low relevance of the state school system.
Children’s right to choose
Moussa came from a family where many generations of men earned prestige and livelihoods as Muslim clerics. His older brothers and cousins had attended Quranic schools and then migrated to Europe, the US and central African countries. They had succeeded in religious professions such as being imams, but also through trade and low-skilled labour in service industries.
Boys like Moussa were confident they could do the same. In contrast, they felt that state schools offered less prestige and fewer economic opportunities.
Moussa wanted to go to a fee-paying Quranic boarding school. These schools allow pupils to study the Quran full-time and do not require children to beg. They are not the ‘worst kind’ of Quranic schools portrayed in the media. But children do choose to attend those as well.
A UNICEF study explains how several NGOs removed children against their will from Quranic schools in Senegal and “repatriated” them home to neighbouring Guinea Bissau.
Some children disliked the schools, but others wanted to attend in order to study and travel. Yet the NGOs assumed all the children had been trafficked - defined as the transportation of persons for the purpose of exploitation - because they were begging for the cleric. The actions of the NGOs went strongly against the desires of some of the children and their families.
The fact that children shape their educational path has several implications for policy and research. When trying to understand school enrolment patterns, surveys of parents or just fathers mask the complex ways in which whole families, including children, arrive at decisions.
With respect to Quranic schooling, children are those most directly affected by school policy and therefore have the right to be consulted. They are also in a good position to suggest improvements to the educational options available.
Above all, they have the right to avoid being coerced by well-meaning adults who don’t know enough about local realities, who may actually do more harm than good.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of research informants