'Slates, Smiles and Ambitions' is an article that was published in the Daily Star's 'Star Campus' back in 2012. It highlighted the positive characteristics of madrasahs and narrated an elaborate discussion on how the presumably 'third stream' of our education sector could be better integrated inside the society. The article instilled a thought into young Syeda Shagufe Hossain, which eventually turned into a determination to help out and empower students from this often neglected sector. “The article was one of the few positive takes on madrasahs that I had read until then. It didn't talk about madrasahs from an extremism or counter-extremism perspective. It also spoke of some challenges that the madrasah sector faced. It really made me want to help them out in any capacity I could,” says Shagufe.
Shagufe eventually started her own project called 'Leaping Boundaries' in 2012, which initially was an English language tutorial programme. “Back then, I thought teaching English would help reintegrate madrasahs into the mainstream,” explains Shagufe. “But that was not the case. In 2013, we shut down the project and took some time to re-conceptualise it as one that was geared towards visibility.” Leaping Boundaries re-started in 2014, but this time, it catered towards 12 to16 year old girls. It helped the girls to develop three primary aspects: soft skills, technological education and psychological support to ensure their general well-being, with the goal of increasing visibility on platforms where they are typically underrepresented.
Leaping Boundaries currently has 40 permanent members working for them. Eight members work on access to madrasahs, communication, procurement, events and fundraising while others provide direct field support. Volunteers work on a one-year contract during which they receive specialised training on the component that they are recruited for. “The feeling is overwhelming, really,” says Sohana Hassan, a volunteer for Leaping Boundaries and a student of North South University. “I've always thought that madrasah students are backdated in terms of mentality and philosophy, but after I met the girls, it was definitely not the case.”
Last month, the project hosted a unique tech exhibition named Toppled. The event took place on Thursday, 22nd June at the EMK Centre and it was an attempt to break stereotypes and incorporate madrasah girls into mainstream platforms by displaying their talents in the field of technological education. Toppled was a six month programme on technological education under its Collaborative Tech Reasoning component. It aimed to expose madrasah girls to technological education, which they lacked severely in their normal curriculum. The initiative was supported by the EMK Centre through a partnership with Tech Academy and THRIVE. Girls from Madinatul Ulum Model Women's Kamil Madrasah, Al-Amin Islamia Madrasah and Gawsia Islamia Madrasah received training from volunteer trainers from various universities in Dhaka. “Their dedication, interest towards learning and enthusiasm to compete with the mainstream platforms are something that is helping the project move forward,” says Tanzila Shawquat Ira, who has been working with the project for two years. “At the age where we used to play computer games, these girls are making and developing them! More than anything, Toppled is a huge confidence booster for our girls,” she states.
“In the next few years, the goal is to finish developing curriculum for each of our components and then work with the government to scale up the project at the national level,” says Shagufe. With various limitations, Leaping Boundaries has come a long way from where it began. It earned Shagufe the first ever Dalai Lama Fellowship from Bangladesh this year. Going forward, she wants the project to be successful on a National level. “In the next few years, I want to help as many people as I can. The sector provides education to 1.5 million girls in Bangladesh, and they simply cannot be overlooked. We would like to impact their lives in a meaningful way,” Shagufe expresses.