It was just another Sunday back in 2012. Syeda Shagufe Hossain flipped through a magazine and stumbled upon a photo story. The article showed a series of photos of young children, aged four to five, beaming from behind mini chalkboards and Bengali textbooks. Tupi clad and dressed in white kurtas, young boys smiled away from one photo, while in another, a little girl engaged in an excited game of slap-and-clap with a classmate. The article discussed the struggles of a Madrasah education - the third stream of education in Bangladesh, one that is often underrepresented. It also shed light on some common misconceptions surrounding these students as well as making light of the restrictions and shortcomings of the madrasah system.
"Something about the article really resonated with me. That picture of the boy on the cover with his tupi, whose attire stood in stark contrast with the English and Bangla alphabets on the blackboard behind him, reflected how I felt sometimes with my national identity, my religious identity and my global identity, and sometimes, my gender identity being at war with each other," she shared.
For Shagufe, from all that she'd read or heard about madrasahs, it was the first article to take a positive take on the issue. "Before I read the article, I had never really given much thought to madrasahs. That article really highlighted the madrasah's challenges and its potential for growth."
Acting as a turning point for her, Shagufe decided to reach out to the writer on an impulse. "He wrote back introducing me to Harunur Rashid Khan, the associate professor and chair of English department at Southeast University. He guided me at the initial stages of the project, and after going back and forth a bit, I decided to go ahead and start a project."
From there forth, began the journey of Leaping Boundaries, an organisation that worked on strategies to train, monitor and facilitate madrasah students' growth, allowing them to go above and beyond what is expected of them, usually very little.
"Initially, it was a language and leadership development program that focused on building English Language skills," she explained. However, as a result of political crisis in 2013, the project came to an abrupt halt. That's when Shagufe realised the challenges faced by the sector, "was not a lack of English language skills but a lack of platforms, where they were not able to represent themselves." Coupled with this knowledge, the project was redesigned and re-launched in February 2014 with a new goal, a new set of volunteers and two new madrasahs.
Today, Leaping Boundaries stands tall and proud as a project that aims to integrate madrasah students into mainstream society by providing them access to platforms where they are traditionally underrepresented. The project gives madrasah students a comprehensive set of skills that help fulfill their lack of language proficiency and leadership attributes. Under the project they receive training in English Language, ICT, soft skills, in addition to receiving psychosocial support. Students from public and private universities are recruited as trainers, who receive training in all three components and basic supportive psychosocial counseling. These trainers then provide tutorial and counseling support to the madrasahs. After the students undergo sufficient preparation, they are linked to various platforms such as the Spelling Bee, debate competitions, Youth Leadership camps and summits, etc.
The Dhaka Tribune caught up with Shagufe, the founder and project director, to find out more about her five-year journey, as she shares the struggles, the hopes and her plans for an organisation that is close to her heart. A social inclusion activist, Shagufe worked in several sectors of the development industry, namely social and economic empowerment, youth development, education, water, sanitation and hygiene. Working with leading development organisations such as BRAC and BRAC International, The International Finance Corporation, the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and WaterAid Bangladesh, she found her forte, her true calling, in the midst of her work for Leaping Boundaries.
Starting with a small core team of four workers, today, they have a team of eight, with 23 people working on the project, including volunteers. Shagufe has participated at the Young Connectors of the Future Programme of the Swedish Institute as one of the five Bangladeshis selected for the program. With many feathers to her cap, she continues to strive to learn more, explore more and tread forth in a journey that she believes is one that shall last a lifetime.
1. What are three of the most common misconceptions people have about madrasah students?
They are all backward and conservative; that they are not creative. That they all subscribe to a value system that prevents them from associating with global or national values. Many think they don’t believe in Bangladesh existing as a sovereign, independent country. Many think they hold anti-western sentiments. None of this holds true for most of them.
2. Can you briefly tell us about the projects undertaken to integrate madrasah students into the global community?
Currently, the project is in it’s third year. We haven’t integrated them into the global community as much as we would like to yet. The girls have shared their dignity stories - stories about what hindered and restored their dignity on Global Dignity Day at a plenary discussion organised by Friendship Bangladesh. The Daily Our Time featured six articles written by the girls on Climate Change following a writing workshop facilitated by Climate Tracker South Asia. Shorno Kishoree is a large platform that aims to raise awareness about menstruation and menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls and is telecasted live on Channel I. The Shorn Kishoree from Dhaka division last year was from Madinatul Ulum.
3. How did the students react to you at first?
They were shy at first. When we first walked in they were huddled into a room, clutching their knees, literally shrinking themselves. Gradually after, they opened up. The volunteer trainers we recruit spend a lot of time on building the right kind of rapport with the students to create an effective learning environment. It’s usually the administration that’s a little suspicious of us when we first try to enter. But in time they have also let go of their reservations.
4. If there are two things you would have done differently when starting off, what would those be?
I spent the first two and half years of the project juggling a full-time job, a masters degree and the project. If I could do it differently, maybe I wouldn’t take on so much. I feel like I set a terrible example for those around me with little thought to my well-being. I think when I was younger, I treated life a lot like it’s a race. It’s a journey, not a race. There’s no finish line and no time by which we have to get there. I did learn a lot about myself over that period though and I am not sure if I would have done it differently only because such valuable lessons were learnt.
5. So far, what has been the most rewarding part of your journey?
There is something remarkable about working with young people. The girls I work with are at that age when they are transitioning. I find it fascination to watch them grow into their own skin. I am also incredibly lucky to have a team that truly believes in the cause and works hard towards it. My team moves mountains to make the project work. To get to know these amazing people and play a tiny part in shaping them as individuals is incredibly rewarding.
6. From all the students you've come across, can you tell us about the lives of one that touched you?
Every child is different and inspiring in their own way. There is one particular girl called Tabassum who touched me. Currently in eighth grade, she was in seventh grade when we started working with her. She qualified for the interview round of BBLT of BYLC twice but could not go beyond. She was very heartbroken and felt a lot like a failure. When we hosted the art workshop in partnership with Liza’s Brushes, she created a mixed media artwork that depicted a heart. She said she has a lot of love to give so she drew a full heart. Her painting sold at the highest value when we auctioned them off to raise funds later. The bidder could barely believe she was a 13-year-old madrasah student who never picked up a paintbrush before. I learnt a few things from her: One, never give up. Two, there are many ways to tell your story; you don’t always have to have a mic to do so. Finally, the third: if you are strong enough to let yourself be seen, someone will value that. Her confidence and overall communication has significantly improved too.
7. Where do you see Leaping Boundaries in five years time?
The plan is to cover three divisions Chittagong, Sylhet and Dhaka over the next five years. We are currently revising operational plans for the next five years in light of new developments both externally and internally within the organisation so exact numbers are being revised.
8. If there's one lesson you wish you knew along the way, what would that be?
That everything unfolds at it’s own pace. Hard work always pays off and there is little reason to worry about outcomes if you do your best.
“How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be extraordinary?”- Seth Godin
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”- Arundhati Roy
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”- Rabindranath Tagore