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Saudi Activist Ghada Ibrahim on the Islamic Educational System


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/10/27

Ghada Ibrahim is a Former Muslim and Saudi Activist. In particular, the rights of women in Islam. Her emphasis in activist work comes to women’s rights in Islam and talking about her former faith. Here we talk about the Islamic educational system in Saudi Arabia, the use of fear, and the religious mental health system in education.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If you look at the Saudi Arabian educational system, how does this system look to you? How does this rank in international metrics?

Ghada Ibrahim: I can only speak to what I have been exposed to. I was in the education system until 2006. I watched as the girl’s education merged with the boy’s education in the Ministry of Education (before, there was General Administration for Girl’s Education. It was run by a group of religious fanatics who wanted to control what girls were exposed to in the school system.) Even after the merger, there were distinct differences. For example, girls were not allowed a physical education class and were not permitted to study geology, whereas the boys did.

The education system was government owned and distributed. All schools, public and private, had to teach the same core courses. The only difference was “Extracurricular” classes such as additional English language classes, physical education, and computer classes. These were not counted as part of our GPA.

The classes we took were heavy on religion. We began with 3 main religion classes from 1st to 3rd grade (Quran, Theology, and Jurisprudence). Afterwards, more classes were added. These were: Hadeeth (The sayings of the prophet), Tafseer (The interpretation of the Quran), and Tajweed (The preferred method of reading the Quran). We also took science and math (Physics, Chemistry, biology), English, Arabic (This included literature, writing, grammar, etc..), History (Mostly Islamic history and the history of Saudi Arabia), and Geography. The only thing I can honestly say was good in the education system was math and Arabic. Everything else was extremely poor or religion classes. After graduating from high school and going to college in the US, I felt how useless those religion classes were. We could have had more time in literature (Arabic or English), more emphasis on research and writing, more science, but that would take away from the religious studies, wouldn’t it?

Jacobsen: If you look at the educational system in South Africa, as an example, most South African Muslims are Sunni Muslims. How would this then compare the educational system in Saudi Arabia and in South Africa?

Ibrahim: I am not aware of what they teach in South Africa, but most Muslims in Saudi Arabia are Sunni Muslims. Saudi Arabia is also the birthplace of Wahhabi Islam. This is what we were taught in our religion classes. We were taught the most extreme version of an already extreme religion, including that the punishment for apostasy is death, the punishment for stealing is cutting off limbs, and the punishment for fornication is lashing.

Jacobsen: How early does the indoctrination start in Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia?

Ibrahim: Grade School. I remember some of the “rhymes” we were taught back then. “Man rabbuk” (Who is your god?) “Man nabiyyuk” (Who is your prophet?) “Ma deenuk” (What is your religion?) This was taught to us at 6 or 7 years old. Then we are taught what is halal (permitted) and haram (Not permitted) and also that there is a group of people called Kuffar or infidels that are not Muslim and they are not our friends. During this time, we also begin to memorize the short chapters in the Quran and also learn how to pray. Some of the “group activities” that we did when we were children was go to the bathroom together to perform “Wudu” or ablution before prayer then going to the prayer room and praying together.

Once girls reach 4th grade, they are required to wear the black cloak or “Abaya”. After they reach middle school, not only are they required to cover their hair with a hijab, they are required to cover their faces. As the years progress more religious studies are imposed on us. “You can’t love a non Muslim” is a big thing they taught us pre-9/11. It mysteriously disappeared afterwards. I saw it disappear from my younger siblings books. We were also taught to hate capitalism, communism, socialism, nationalism, and ism that isn’t Islam.

Jacobsen: How is fear used to intimidate the children into the belief system?

Ibrahim: Oh boy, how does it not? Imagine this with me. You’re maybe 11 or 12, just starting to mature, and every week in the morning you have a morning assembly lecture from a religious teacher or a visiting religious scholar. What is today’s lecture about? Positive thinking? Don’t bully? Be good to your neighbor? No. It is about punishment in the grave for those that miss prayers. Cautionary tales of how an otherwise good person died, but every time they dug a grave, they found a huge snake. Finally, they decided to bury him despite the big snake. Afterwards, the people in cemetery heard bones crushing and a blood curdling scream. That is the punishment for missing prayer. A snake will crush your bones after death. Also as punishment: Your face will be as black as coal (don’t get me started at how extremely racist this notion is) and that your body will reek after death. In contrast, if you were a pious Muslim that prayed on time, you will smell like Musk after death, your face will be glowing and white (again, the racist undertones), and no snake in your grave. This is just one of many scare-tactics.

Other tactics used: Scaring girls into hijab by telling them that they will be held by their hair in hell. Scaring people who listen to music by telling them that molten lead will be poured into their ears in hell.

Jacobsen: How does the religious mental health system deal with modern knowledge about depression and the real cases in the young?

Ibrahim: I don’t think it does at all. The religious, whether it be Muslim or otherwise, look at depression as a sign of a weakened faith. Depression is dealt with by more prayers, reading more Quran, and return to the faith. I’ve struggled with depression for a long time and every time I mentioned feeling down, the answer was always the same: Read the Quran. At first, that was exactly what I did and it never worked. I prayed. I recited. But nothing. Seeing a mental health professional was frowned upon and a HUGE taboo in my culture. Only “insane” and “crazy” people go to a mental health professional.

What was even worse is the state of mental health institutions. I have known people that were put in institutions and medical professionals that worked in them and it is atrocious. There is no real definition of mental illness in there. A friend was put in there for being gay and her “treatments” were memorizing the Quran. The same can be said for patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other serious diseases. Orderlies regularly abuse patients. It is horrific.

Jacobsen: What impact does this likely have on the mental health of children?

Ibrahim: Children that have actual mental health needs do not get the help they need. This isn’t just about depression, but also learning disabilities. Everything is taboo. Children with learning disabilities are called stupid for not being able to catch up to their peers, which in turn, cause other harms such as low self-esteem and fear of expressing themselves. This has profound effects on building one’s self. In addition, children with depression or anxiety disorders are completely dismissed instead of addressing the very real disease they are suffering from. Untreated depression and anxiety only intensifies with time.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Ibrahim: As I said, I can only speak of the education system as I had gone through it and from the girls side only. Everything is segregated in Saudi Arabia. The girls schools are surrounded by tall cement walls and there is always a guard the prevents girls from leaving between classes and who makes sure everyone is covered up appropriately. The curriculum has changed and I believe is still changing to try and meet international standards. I have seen the sciences improve from my time to my siblings. Religion classes are not as emphasized, or at least I hope they aren’t. The new generation doesn’t care as much about religion, thanks to social media, the internet, and their parents who traveled and took them outside of the country with them.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ghada.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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