According to the Manusher Jonno Foundation, nearly 626 children were raped from January to December in 2020
Jumman (not his real name) was sick.
Full of fever with a relentless throbbing inside his head, Jumman was struggling to think clearly. He was not sure what was louder – the pounding of his heart inside his chest or the pounding on the bathroom door.
Jumman was terrified.
“Come out, come out now. Are you not a good boy?” a sickly sweet voice outside the door called to him. He had known the voice for years, and people admired the person with it. They loved him for his piety, his sermons, and his concern for people’s religious salvation. Maulana Idris Ahmed was a popular man.
“You dare defy me? You think I am going to go away just because you locked yourself inside the bathroom? I will wait. And I will not have a thermometer in my hand, I will have a firm stick to chastise you with,” the coy cajoling had given way to an ominous growl.
It was almost time for the call to prayer, Jumman thought, hoping that Idris would relent and go to the mosque. His heart lifted at the muezzin’s call to prayer. The fists on the door ceased, and footsteps shuffled back.
“No, no. I am sorry. I do not think I will be able to come to the mosque today. I will perform my prayers in my room. Blessings be upon you.”
Footsteps drew closer to the door. The little relief that was forming within Jumman with the absence of the pounding on the door evaporated with a menacing whisper.
“You cannot escape me. Why do you delay this pleasure? For every moment you deny me, you commit a sin, you damn yourself, you condemn your parents to hell.”
That was it. Jumman unbolted the door, stepping out with a glassy look in his eyes, defeat sagging his shoulders.
Idris stretched his arms outwards, gesturing Jumman to embrace him.
This was not the first time and it would not be the last time. For years, Idris had his way with Jumman, who was only one of his many victims in the madrasa.
The ordeal began in 2010, when Jumman was just 12 years old. His parents had sent him to a local madrasa in Dhaka’s Dakshinkhan. Idris, one of the teachers there, had taken him under his wing, claiming that serving him would be the fastest way for Jumman to go to Jannat (heaven).
Jumman’s service included dying Idris’s beard with henna, a list of sundry chores, and massaging Idris.
Almost immediately after joining, Idris brought Jumman to his room in the local mosque. He locked the doors and asked the 12-year-old to undress, claiming he needed to check for signs of puberty. Terror paralyzed Jumman as the predator groped and fondled him. When the ordeal was over, he rushed home, whimpering and heaving all the way.
A few days later, Idris called the madrasa authorities to send Jumman to the mosque so that he may recite the Quran in its entirety. Under the guise of sacred teachings, Idris would rape Jumman for the first time.
Jumman’s prepubescent mind struggled to comprehend what had transpired. He knew that whatever it was, he did not like it one bit. He hated it. The pain was unbearable. His tears and blood did not faze Idris one bit.
But how would Jumman explain this to his parents? What if this was the norm at the madrasa? What if his parents berated him for disobeying the madrasa teacher?
Fear, confusion, ignorance, and trauma sealed his lips.
And over the next nine years, Idris would rape Jumman over and over again. He would record it on his mobile phone. He would brag to Jumman about the coterie of boys he used as catamites. He would send him videos of raping other boys on Facebook Messenger.
Idris told Jumman: “If you tell anyone about what I do, a Jinn (spirit) will possess you.” Jumman tried resisting when he could, to no avail. He even switched madrasas. But Idris appeared at his house and pled to his parents to let him save Jumman’s soul from damnation.
“Look at your son! He was such a good boy when he was learning under me. Now, he wears heretical clothes like jeans and T-shirts! He has gone astray! This sweet boy, this lovely boy, how can I let him burn in hell? How can you let him burn in hell?” Idris passionately appealed to Jumman’s parents.
It was an easy sale, further smoothened by Idris’s offer to pay Jumman Tk1,000 per month for serving him. It was an opportunistic move. Jumman’s father had injured his arm and could not work. Jumman was Idris’s.
In July 2019, one of Jumman’s cousins felt something was off about him, noting that Jumman was always evasive whenever Idris called to see him alone. He confronted Jumman, and for the first time in nine years, Jumman could finally let it out.
It came out in staccato bursts, interrupted by tears and hiccups. Between sobs that rendered his speech incoherent and gestures accompanying them, Jumman told his cousin what he could. His cousin, who declined to be interviewed for this story, shrewdly collected evidence and took it to the Rapid Action Battalion.
Days later, on July 22, a team of RAB 1 arrested 42-year-old Idris Ahmed.
RAB spokesperson Sujay Sarker told Dhaka Tribune that Idris confessed to his crimes, but claimed it was Satan that made him sexually abuse his victims all these years. He also claimed to have been sexually abused as a child.
Assistant Superintendent of Police Sujay said: “These cases are tough to deal with because locals have difficulty believing someone so respected like a religious cleric can be a sexual predator.”
He recommended parents should carefully try to learn why their children refuse to go to the madrasa and if they find anything suspicious, to report it to law enforcement agencies immediately.
Sexual abuse in madrasas is not uncommon. It often perpetuates a vicious cycle where the abused may grow up to abuse others in turn. According to Ain o Salish Kendra, 25 boys in madrasas were raped by their teachers, principals or other people associated with the madrasa in 2020.
In 2019, 19 madrasa boys were raped by their teachers or principals between January and October 2019. Additional research on newspaper reports put the number at 35.
According to Manusher Jonno Foundation, nearly 626 children were raped from January to December in 2020.
The true figure, as with all rape figures in Bangladesh, is almost certainly many times higher as the vast majority of rapes are never reported.
According to Saleh (not his real name), another survivor of sexual violence at madrasas, “child grooming” is one of the biggest reasons for rape to prevail in madrasas.
He was raped by a senior student in his madrasa in Jhenaidah when he was only nine years old. He never reported it to anyone. But the senior was not the only predator. A teacher, who was the principal’s nephew, had displayed kindness and warmth towards Saleh. It was unusual, given that the teacher was notorious for beating students until they were bloodied and bruised.
When everyone fell asleep, the madrasa teacher would creep into the dormitory, quietly jostling Saleh awake.
“He made me touch his genitals,“ Saleh shuddered.
One night, as the madrasa teacher was having his way with Saleh, the students in the room woke up and saw everything. There were no protests, no outbursts. The teacher quietly gathered himself and slunk out of the room.
He did not return again.
But there were no complaints either. Saleh said the difference between sexual abuse at regular schools and madrasas is that there is room for protests at the former and crippling fear at the latter.
“The teachers are so eager to hand out violent corporal punishments with such gusto that sexual abuse is often considered the lesser and more preferable punishment by students,” he said.
Consequences of speaking up
Samad (not his real name), currently an undergraduate student, began an online movement for sexually abused students from madrasas on Facebook. He called for former and current madrasa students to anonymously share their stories. The response he received was more than he imagined.
But once he started posting, things took a darker turn.
“People began referring to me as Avijit Roy, like the blogger who was killed in public by Islamic extremists for his secular online activism. They called me a Jew. My mother was concerned that I would be targeted. A cousin and aunt told my mother that I am not a good Muslim. They printed out photos of me with my female friends and teachers, and several posts, and sent them to madrasas,” he said.
The threat was explicit.
Are the abusers being punished?
On May 26, 2014, a fifth grader girl was raped by the imam of the Baitul Mamur Mosque in Dhaka’s Dhamrai. The perpetrator, Selim Hossain, took the girl to his home next to the mosque when she came to learn to recite the Quran. Not only did he rape the child, he had an associate named Jamal film it on his phone.
Afterwards, they circulated the video among people with similar palates in the neighbourhood.
A month later, Selim went to the child’s parents and showed them the footage, demanding the prepubescent girl be married to him. The parents called for the girl and yelled at her, blaming her for the shame they said she brought upon the family.
The heated exchanges did not go unheeded by the neighbours who rushed to the scene. After quickly taking in what was happening, they handed Selim to the police. Jamal would be arrested later. Both would be charged under the Pornography Control Act, but Selim would face charges under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act as well.
Wahida Banu, executive director of Aparajaya Bangladesh, told Dhaka Tribune that children at madrasas should be made more aware of their rights.
“When a child gets sexually abused in a madrasa, they often do not understand that they have been sexually violated. They are terrified to speak out. We think there should be a student body in every madrasa where students can discuss their problems. It is easier for students to talk among themselves than to their parents or teachers.
“But the bigger problem is that people have a misconception that religious clerics like imams and madrasa teachers live on a higher moral ground. They often get away because of the public support."
Director General Shafiuddin Ahmed of the Directorate of Madrasa Education appeared to wash his hands off as he said they try their best to teach morality to teachers at the Bangladesh Madrasa Teachers Training Institute.
“There are only a few immoral people who abuse students. Law enforcement agencies are always there to take action against them. We can only try to teach them morality.”
Associate Professor Sayema Khatun of the department of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University said there is not enough research on abused madrasa children, preventing better understanding of the situation and development of strategies to combat this kind of sexual abuse.
She said: “This is something we still do not feel comfortable talking about in the first place, let alone make strategies to protect these children from getting sexually abused by their own teachers. The first thing we need to do is break the silence on sexual abuse in madrasas.”
Sex education is not taught in Bangladesh, except in a handful of pilot projects. This means that most children learn about sex from their friends or the internet, usually via pornography. The lack of understanding of what sexual abuse and consent is further contributes to their silence.
Abuse of children goes beyond borders and religion
Sexual abuse in madrasas is not uncommon just in Bangladesh, but all over the world. In Turkey, reporting on sexual abuse of children at state-run Islamic Hatip schools has seen broadcast bans by the ruling party. Banned from the media, the victims and their families air their grievances on social media, according to Ahval News – an expatriate Turkish media outlet.
In Pakistan, where dogmatic religion is explicitly imposed through violent actions with impunity including murder to silence dissent, child rape by religious clerics is rampant.
The Associated Press found 359 cases of child rape, solely by imams, maulanas, and various other religious officials, between 2007 and 2017. But extremists have always wielded tremendous power, hence effectively silencing a Pakistani official who once disclosed 500 cases of child rape at madrasas in 2004 alone. Even though the police act from time to time, pressure from clerics lead to the release of the perpetrators.
Sexual abuse of children at religious institutions is one of the least discussed issues, mostly due to the triple taboo – sex, minors, and religion – involved. The Catholic Church has been embroiled in a scandal that threatens to change how it may look decades from now. Cardinals, bishops, priests around the world have been summarily charged for their numerous transgressions committed under the aegis of divinity. Buddhist monks in Thailand and Cambodia have also been sentenced for raping children under their tutelage.
It took nearly 30 years after the first mainstream media coverage for the Vatican to acknowledge the child abuse. When will madrasas acknowledge their demons and attempt reforms?