April 9, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 1831

Saudi Columnist Criticizes Preoccupation With Death in Saudi Girls’ Schools

April 9, 2008
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 1831

In two columns in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, titled "What's Happening in the Girls' Schools?" and "Who Will Sound the Warning Bell in the Girls Schools?" Halima Muzaffar criticizes the Saudi education system for using scare tactics and for instilling in young children the fear of death, as part of their religious education. She claims that this "culture of death" is the reason for the spread of terrorism in Saudi society.

This is not the first time Saudis have protested against the school system. A MEMRI Special Dispatch from 2004 looks at criticism in Saudi Arabia regarding the intensive focus on death in Saudi schools, with columnists, university lecturers, and parents discussing the emotional damage suffered by schoolchildren as a result of this focus and calling on the Saudi Education Ministry to put a stop to it. [1]

The following are excerpts from the two columns by Ms. Muzaffar:

"Girls' Schools... Are Inculcating Extremism [in Pupils]"

"It appears that, for some teachers, [employing techniques based on] sterile drilling and destroying the girls' talents are not enough... They are also trying to destroy their souls through fear. These teachers are spreading 'the culture of death' without any supervision or control. Perhaps, in their ignorance, they are trying [in this way] to imbue their lessons with a moral [message]... and perhaps they are [only] doing this so they can put down 'religious activity' in their personal files... in the hope of receiving special commendation [from the administration].

"[But] whether inadvertendly or intentionally, the girls' schools are inculcating extremism [in the pupils]. Extremist women teachers with a pessimistic outlook on life are using scare tactics [in educating the children]. The Ministry of Education and Culture must not ignore this.

"Why can't religious guidance be administered without resorting to the discourse of fear? Why is the Ministry of Education and Culture ignoring these ideological attempts to transform our girls into lifeless and sickly creatures, and into future mothers who will be easily manipulated by a terrorist father, brother, or husband - because [in their early school years] they were polluted by [ideas] of terror, death, and rejection of this world?

"A woman I know noticed that her eight-year-old daughter was distressed: She suddenly began wetting her bed at night, and suffered from nightmares that made her cry. This was caused by stories told by one of her teachers, about the tortures of the grave and the hammer-wielding angels of destruction called Munkar and Nakir [2]... [and] about the Angel of Death who does not rest until he has taken the souls that he is commanded to take, and about the agonies of dying suffered by those who were slack in their observance of the religious commandments. All these [stories] were aimed at encouraging the girls to pray. [But] this teacher, and others like her, forgot that the best way to encourage innocent girls and prompt them to do things is to instill in them the love of Allah, of His Paradise, and of His mercy.

"As one of the older generation, I still remember how schools would bring [into the classroom] women whose job it was to wash the bodies of the dead, wrap them in shrouds, and weep over them, causing our little eyes to water in fear... I will never forget how, during the first year of junior high, as part of our religious studies, the [school] administration [brought] one of these body-washers [to speak to us]. She taught us how to wash the body of our mother, sister, or other female relative, in case we had to do this in the future. She [also] told us about the terrible things that happen to the dead, [and stressed that] only those who had devoted themselves entirely to the faith were spared [these horrors]... You can imagine how [the girls] fainted and cried - which, unfortunately, was considered to be to the credit of the woman who frightened us, so that other schools began to compete for her services."

"This 'Culture of Death' is the Main Reason that... Terrorism [Is] Endorsed by Our Society"

"Let me put it plainly: We must realize that this 'culture of death' is the main reason that the ideological terrorism of takfir [accusing others of heresy] and various [other] sorts of terrorism are endorsed by our society. To eradicate this cancer, we must address its roots - namely, the social seclusion of women. [3] [We must reform the upbringing of] the young girls who will later become women, mothers, and educators - for it is they who will shape the next generation. We must stop exploiting their innocence. We have had enough generations of closed[-minded people] who know nothing but death and perdition." [4]

In a follow-up article, titled "Who Will Sound the Warning Bell in the Girls Schools?" Muzaffar wrote that her first article had evoked numerous responses from parents, who agreed with her and added stories of their own. She said:

"A reader named Saleh Al-Salouli told me that one day, his daughter returned [from school] in shock after the teacher had forced them to watch an execution... This story should alert the girls' schools [to the existence of a problem], and make the [Education] Ministry considerably tighten its supervision [over the schools]. For how can they continue to employ a principal who had turned an execution into part of the curriculum for little girls?...

"A reader named Muna related that her 12-year-old daughter has suffered from anxiety and nightmares since she heard [from her teacher] about the tortures of the grave and about the maggots that consume the bodies of the dead... And a reader named Muhammad [wrote] about how surprised he was when his daughter, a fifth-grader, told him that it was forbidden to watch Tom and Jerry on television. Her teacher had decreed so...

"There were [also] responses [too harsh] to report here. But I urge the officials [of the Education Ministry] to read them, for they reflect the views and experience of the readers. [I urge the ministry] to take them seriously, since they show that the girls' schools are trying... to exploit the [young pupils'] innocence in order to disseminate the culture of death and extremism." [5]


[1] MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 730, "Educators and Parents Protest Against 'The Culture of Death' Taught In Saudi Schools," June 11, 2004, Educators and Parents Protest Against 'The Culture of Death' Taught In Saudi Schools.

[2] According to the Islamic faith, Allah sends the destroying angels Munkar and Nakir to question the deceased in the grave regarding his religion and beliefs. If his answers are unsatisfactory, the angels break his bones with their hammer.

[3] The writer plays on the word "seclusion" which also means "veiled."

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 8, 2008.

[5] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 15, 2008.

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