Sexual abuse is a pervasive and longstanding problem at madrassas in Pakistan, an AP investigation has found, from the sunbaked mud villages deep in its rural areas to the heart of its teeming cities. But in a culture where clerics are powerful and sexual abuse is a taboo subject, it is seldom discussed or even acknowledged in public.
It is even more seldom prosecuted. Police are often paid off not to pursue justice against clerics, victims’ families say. And cases rarely make it past the courts, because Pakistan’s legal system allows the victim’s family to “forgive” the offender and accept what is often referred to as “blood money.”
The AP found hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clerics reported in the past decade, and officials suspect there are many more within a far-reaching system that teaches at least 2 million children in Pakistan. The investigation was based on police documents and dozens of interviews with victims, relatives, former and current ministers, aid groups and religious officials.
The fear of clerics and the militant religious organizations that sometimes support them came through clearly. One senior official in a ministry tasked with registering these cases says many madrassas are “infested” with sexual abuse. The official asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution; he has been a target of suicide attacks because of his hard position against militant groups.
He compares the situation to the abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church.
“There are thousands of incidences of sexual abuse in the madrassas,” he says. “This thing is very common, that this is happening.”
Pakistan’s clerics close ranks when the madrassa system is too closely scrutinized, he says. Among the weapons they use to frighten their critics is a controversial blasphemy law that carries a death penalty in the case of a conviction.
“This is not a small thing here in Pakistan — I am scared of them and what they can do,” the official says. “I am not sure what it will take to expose the extent of it. It’s very dangerous to even try.”
His assessment was echoed by another senior official, a former minister who says sexual abuse in madrassas happens all the time. He also doesn’t want his name used because he too has survived suicide bombings due to his stance on militants.
“That’s a very dangerous topic,” he says.
A tally of cases reported in newspapers over the past 10 years of sexual abuse by maulvis or clerics and other religious officials came to 359. That represents “barely the tip of the iceberg,” says Munizae Bano, executive director of Sahil, the organization that scours the newspapers and works against sexual abuse of minors.
In 2004, a Pakistani official disclosed more than 500 complaints of sexual assaults against young boys in madrassas. He has since refused to talk, and there have been no significant arrests or prosecutions.
Religious Affairs Minister Sardar Muhammad Yousaf dismisses the suggestion that sexual abuse is widespread, saying such talk is an attempt to malign the religion, seminaries and clerics. He says he was not aware of even the cases reported in the newspapers, but that it could occur occasionally ‘because there are criminals everywhere.” Yousaf says the reform and control of madrassas is the job of the interior ministry.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees madrassas, refused repeated written and telephone requests for an interview.
The case of Parveen’s son was one of at least three within a month in the towns of Kehrore Pakka and Rajanpur in Punjab province’s deep south, according to police reports. Another incident involved the drugging and gang rape of a 12-year-old boy asleep on his madrassa rooftop by former students. And the third was of a 10-year-old boy sodomized by the madrassa principal when he brought him his meal. The cleric threatened to kill the boy if he told.
The AP is not naming the children because they are victims of sexual abuse.
The fear of clerics was evident at the courthouse in Kehrore Pakka, where the former teacher of Parveen’s son waited his turn to go before a judge. A half dozen members of the radical Sunni militant organization Sipah-e-Sahabah were there to support the teacher.
They scowled and moved closer when an AP reporter sat next to the teacher, who was shackled to a half dozen other prisoners. The whispers grew louder and more insistent.
“It’s too dangerous here,” said one person, looking over at the militants nearby. “Leave. Leave the courthouse, they can do anything here.”
The teacher had already confessed, according to police, and the police report said he was found with the boy. Yet he swore his innocence in court.
“I am married,” he said. “My wife is pretty, why would I do this to a kid?”
There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas or Islamic schools in Pakistan. The students they teach are often among the country’s poorest, who receive food and an education for free.
Many more madrassas — small two- or three-room seminaries in villages throughout Pakistan — are unregistered, opened by a graduate of another madrassa, often without any education other than a proficiency in the Quran. They operate without scrutiny, ignored by the authorities, say residents living nearby. Parveen’s son, for example, went to an unregistered madrassa.
Madrassas are funded by wealthy business people, religious political parties and even donors from other countries, such as Saudi Arabia. The teachings of the madrassas are guided by schools of Islamic thought, such as Shiite and Sunni.
However, unlike the Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchy topped by the Vatican, there is no central religious authority that governs madrassas. There is also no central body that investigates or responds to allegations in religious schools.
“Basic responsibility, when something happens, is with the head of the madrassa,” says Mufti Mohammed Naeem, the head of the sprawling Jamia Binoria madrassa in the city of Karachi.
There are between 2,000 and 3,000 unregistered madrassas, Naeem says, which makes central oversight even harder. The government has launched a nationwide effort to register madrassas.
The “keepers” of madrassas are also notoriously reluctant to accept government oversight or embrace reforms, according to I.A. Rehman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which makes sexual abuse harder to prevent.
“This is one of those things, you know, which everybody knows is going on and happening, but evidence is very scarce,” he says. He adds that the power of the people who run the madrassas has increased over the years.
As the religious right has grown stronger in Pakistan, clerics who were once dependent on village leaders for handouts, even food, have risen in stature. With this rise, reporting of sexual abuse in madrassas has trickled off, said human rights lawyer Saif-ul Mulk. Mulk has police protection because of death threats from militants outraged by his defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death for insulting Islam.
“Everyone is so afraid of the mullahs today,” he says.
The fear that surrounds sexual abuse by clerics means that justice is rare. The payoff from offending mullahs to police means that they often refuse to even register a case, says Azam Hussain, a union councilor in Kehrore Pakka. And the families involved are often poor and powerless.
“Poor people are afraid, so they don’t say anything,” Hussain says. “Police help the mullah. Police don’t help the poor. … Poor people know this, so they don’t even go to the police.”
This is particularly true in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, where more than 60 percent of its 200 million people live. Even Pakistan’s own Punjab provincial anti-corruption department in a 2014 report listed the Punjab police as the province’s most corrupt department. Police say they investigate when a complaint is made, but they have no authority to take a case forward when the family accepts money, which often happens.
The family of a boy who says he was repeatedly assaulted sexually by a cleric in a Punjab madrassa talks about their tussle with police.
The boy isn’t sure of his age. Maybe 10 or 11, he says. His voice is barely a whisper, his head bent low as he talked. He is surrounded by two dozen villagers and relatives, all men, all angry.
He says the cleric threatened him with death if he told anyone.
“I was ashamed and I was scared,” he says. “He told me if I told anyone, my brother, my family, he would kill all my family and he would kill me.”
He says he begged the cleric to leave him alone. Once, the cleric even swore on the Quran that he would stop, but still returned.
In August, when the boy was home, the thought of returning to his madrassa became too much. He pleaded with his older brother not to send him back. But his brother beat him and told him to go back.
The brother, who would only give his first name as Maqsood, looks anguished. “I didn’t know,” he says. Their elderly uncle, who looks near tears, covers his face and tries not to look in the boy’s direction.
The boy says another student at his seminary was assaulted by the same cleric. But police released the cleric after senior Punjab government officials intervened on his behalf, according to Maqsood.
Demonstrations by villagers forced the cleric’s re-arrest. Still, Maqsood says, when he went to the police, his honesty was questioned.
“The maulvi was sitting in the chair like he was the boss, and I was told to stay standing,” he says. “We are being pressured to compromise. … We are poor people.”
Local police deny charges that they favored the cleric or intimidated the family. They say they have consulted a local Islamic scholar about the rape allegations, and that the madrassa has not come to their attention previously for any wrongdoing.
“We need witnesses, evidence,” says Sajjad Mohammed Khan, Vehari’s deputy superintendent of police for organized crime.
The top police officer in the district center of Multan, Deputy Inspector General Police Sultan Azam Temuri, also denies that pressure from clerics or powerful politicians prompts police to go easy in such cases. He says cases are investigated when allegations are made. Temuri says his department is trying to tackle child abuse in general with the introduction of gender and child protection services.
The madrassa where Maqsood’s brother went, with more than 250 students, has a reputation in the neighborhood for abuse. Two women with their heads covered hurry past, stopping briefly to warn a young Pakistani woman, “Don’t bring your children to that madrassa. It is very bad what they do to the children there.”
A sign for the madrassa is emblazoned with the flag of a Taliban-affiliated group. After persistent knocking, a blind maulvi, Mohammed Nadeem, led by a young student, agrees to speak. He denies that any abuse takes place inside the madrassa.
Victims and their families can choose to “forgive” an assailant because Pakistan’s legal system is a mix of British Common Law and Islamic Shariah law.
A similar legal provision was changed last year to prevent forgiveness of “honor” killings, where victims are murdered because they are thought to have brought shame on their families. Honor killings now carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison, but clerics in sexual abuse cases can still be forgiven.
Sahil, the organization that scours newspapers for cases of sexual assault, offers families legal aid to pursue such cases. Last year, Sahil found 56 cases of sexual assault involving religious clerics. None of the families accepted Sahil’s offer of legal assistance.
In cases that are pursued, convictions do occasionally happen.
In south Punjab, a cleric was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor girl in 2016 and sentenced to 12 years in prison and the equivalent of a $1,500 fine. The same cleric had in the past managed to get several families to settle over sexual abuse cases because of his close links to religious extremist groups, said local officials. This time, a local activist group known as Roshan Pakistan, or Bright Pakistan, persuaded the family of the young girl to resist.
Far more often, the family gives in, as in the case of a 9-year-old girl who was raped by the maulvi of the unregistered madrassa she attended, according to a police report.
Her uncle, Mohammed Azam, points across a field to the madrassa, surrounded by a high wall. The girl started working two years ago, at 7, and her only schooling was in the Quran. She spent the rest of the day sitting cross-legged on a mud floor inside a swelteringly hot room sewing the traditional shalwar kameez.
Last July, a cleric “forcibly took her shalwar off and started molesting her,” according to the police report obtained by the AP. She screamed. Two men heard her screams and stormed into the room, and found the cleric attacking her. Seeing them, the cleric fled, and the men took the bleeding girl home, the report said.
“We would hear that these kinds of things happen, children raped in the madrassas, but you never know until it happens to your family,” says Azam, her uncle.
Yet the family settled the case out of court. He refused to say how much money they got, but neighbors say it was around $800.
“The family took money to not speak about it,” says Rana Mohammed Jamal, an elderly neighbor. He says he believes abuses occurred predominantly in the small madrassas that spring up in poor neighborhoods, “where it is just the mullah and no one can say who he is, and he can do anything.”
Parveen, the mother of the 9-year-old boy who says he was raped by his teacher in Kehrore Pakka, vowed that she would never give in to intimidation. But relatives and neighbors say the family was hounded by religious militants to drop the charges and take money.
In the end, the mother “forgave” the cleric and accepted $300, according to police.
The cleric was set free.