It was a long hut made of corrugated metal and plastic. They’d constructed it to fit on the side of the house, the back door in the middle just to the right of where the molvi sat on his throne of cushions. There were long benches, a foot off the floor, leaving a space where you would put your knees. We would sit in the prayer position, legs tucked underneath, feet splayed out to the side. He had a shorter bench in front of him; when it was your turn, you would go to him to read. The girls sat to his left and the boys to right. Being closer to the door, the boys always got to leave first. We’d stare on, those few minutes dragging.
I was 4 the first time I was sent to a madrassa to be taught Arabic and Urdu. It was a fair distance from where we lived but my mother would walk us there every day after school. There was just enough time for a quick cup of tea and a couple of biscuits before setting off to arrive just before 5pm. I vaguely remember the noise and close proximity of other children; all rocking back and forth, reciting parrot fashion the Arabic/Urdu alphabet; Aleph – Annar, Beh – Bakra, Theh, Tahthi.. Snapshots of a space in time I have very little memory of but a period during which I happened to learn an alien alphabet, progressing onto the first few chapters of the Quran. Alien because I could read it; recite it off by heart, but with very little understanding of what I was saying. Urdu and Arabic have a very similar alphabet and structure. Urdu was easy to understand, it sounded very similar to the languages spoken at home. But Quranic Arabic is art. It is complex and difficult to master. It was a language I didn’t understand. Shortly after I’d begun the evening classes, we were moved to the plastic and metal madrassa closer to home. By the time I left aged 11, I had read and recited it 3 times and was preparing to memorise the whole thing. I left because I could not take anymore. I had reached an age where I was able to make the decision that what I was experiencing was not normal and I did not want it. I was prepared to face the consequences.
When finding my niche, I did not have to struggle too much. I found learning fun, possibly a distraction, and had an aptitude for it. It helped endear me to the family; they had someone to pin their hopes and dreams on. I progressed very quickly through the Quran; chapter by chapter I impressed not only my family but my teacher. He would ask me to read louder so the other children could hear and ask for me to perform prayer, to show them all how it was done. I cannot remember feeling any joy in showing off my talents. Whilst eager to please, I was painfully shy. Inside I was sinking but I would do what was requested of me because I was afraid. He had a selection of sticks, bamboo and walking, in varying thicknesses. The thinner they were the more they stung. The thicker ones would leave a bruise but he saved those for the boys. Depending on his mood, your punishment was either swift; with a lash on your hand or behind or more in the way of suffering over a prolonged period of time. Children, as young as five and as old as 14, were made to hold stress positions. Kursi means chair in Urdu. Standing, you were required to hold your body in a chair like position, for maybe an hour at a time. If he saw you straighten or you shifted through pain from a cramp, you were beaten with a stick and made to resume position. Make like a chair, or a chicken. Bent all the way forwards, your arms round the back of your legs, you had to grip your ears from between your legs, holding the position for more than an hour.
We were all subjected to these punishments, boys and girls. The molvi relished barking these orders, his eyes moving over your body as you struggled to keep still. I can’t remember how old I was when I first recognised his gaze as something that was unacceptable. I had chosen to sit with my friends at the far end of the hut; it is there I first learnt about sex. I had already seen porn; my father didn’t think to protect us from such things. Aged 7, I’d innocently pressed play on the VCR on his room, my siblings sat on the floor around me. At first, I struggled to identify what I was seeing, I thought they were wrestling. And then, a close up. Horrified I reasoned the man was hurting the woman and hurriedly turned it off, shooing my siblings out of the room. I would later discover all manner of magazines and videos and toys. As I joined the dots in my head, I became increasingly distant and withdrawn from my father. Once, I discovered a video of a couple with their daughter. I never let my dad hug me ever again. We weren’t particularly tactile but that was the nail in the coffin for our father/daughter relationship. I was afraid. And I was also determined to leave the madrassa.
He picked on me exclusively. Or maybe he didn’t and I just felt alone. Aged 10, I was a young developer. My chest had begun to swell and I was due my first period. I’ve read up on studies where girls whose fathers are estranged from the mother begin menstruating, on average, 6 months before their secure peers. From my place at the far end of the hut, I could have a giggle with the other girls; we would make fun of this stupid sex thing and vow it was never going to happen to us. But it wasn’t to last. Just as I began my first period, he insisted I move to sit right next to him.
Knees tucked in, facing the wall, he was sat to my left facing the opposite way. He sat so close to me, his thigh was right against mine. He would stroke my side, pinch my ribs. It was all unwanted. Where once he had stroked my knees, now his hands would wonder up my inner thigh, stopping short of actually touching me between the legs.
In Islam, girls and women are prohibited from touching the Holy Quran during their periods because bleeding is considered unclean. I risked damnation by continuing to do so. I didn’t want anyone to know I had begun bleeding. I was ashamed of it; I was only the 3rd girl in my class at school to have started. At this very early stage of womanhood, I was disgusted by the way my body functioned and utterly afraid of how God would punish me for touching the Quran with my unholy fingers. I would wrap a corner of my burqa around my finger so I wasn’t directly touching it.
He yawned, loudly and stretched his arms up wide and then brought his hand down hard to slap me square on the chest. Of course, this was incredibly painful but I stifled my reaction. He felt my barely even there breasts, lingering and stroking. I knew this was wrong. The way he sneered at me, touched my body at his every whim, I was completely dominated. And unable to tell anyone. I was sure they wouldn’t believe me anyway, he was like a local celebrity. A man of God, he was respected and the community would bend over backwards for the good work he did for them.. Educating a new generation of Muslims. He had the opposite effect on me. I became very un-Muslim. I had started to challenge God and thought he must be a pervert too, for allowing these things to happen. This wasn’t my God but a God for men who did whatever pleased them. It was the same God my father, grandfather and uncles held up as an example. And they were all bad people.
Finally, aged 11 I summoned up the courage to say no. My mother would complain that I was a lovely little girl before I’d started secondary school and she could just not understand why I was rebelling now. I refused to get ready for mosque. On arriving home after school, I would lock myself up in the bathroom. A couple of times, my father managed to beat the bathroom door down and slapped me about for being so defiant. But this would last at least half an hour into the lesson so I successfully managed to avoid it. It was only after one of the last beatings in this chapter that I disclosed what had happened to me. My father had dragged me onto the ground by my hair and was kicking me on the floor. I managed to escape and ran upstairs to my bedroom, my mother followed behind. “What is wrong with you?” She pleaded. And I just blurted it all out.
“You, you send me there. To that man. But he touches me! And you won’t stop him”.
She froze. I remember clearly that her eyes darkened and glazed over and she stopped, her breathing silent again. And that’s all I remember. Nothing was ever said or done. It was never mentioned to me again.
I remember it every time I hear a Catholic church story, and wonder how many millions of children suffer in silence at mosques. Of course they might not, but how would we know? Grassroots madrassas are rife in local communities. They are not affiliated with the local government and there is no way of ensuring they adhere to child protection guidelines. I am also reminded of the practice of removing body hair as part of your religion. I have made an association between religious men, the rules and paedophilia. I don’t think anyone could blame me for feeling this way.