What it's like to attend Turkey's Quran schools for girls

Inspired by her own experiences, a photographer reveals the discipline and the delights of a girlhood framed by the Muslim religious text.

By SABIHA ÇIMEN
Published 7 Jul 2022, 10:31 BST
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At a Quran school in Istanbul, Turkey, a student named Zeynep and a classmate spend a study break performing antics under an orange tree. The photographer attended a similar school when she was young.
Photograph by SABIHA ÇIMEN

At the age of 12, my twin sister and I embarked on a special type of education. For three years we attended a Quran school for girls in our home city of Istanbul. The experience stayed with me, and when I later became a photographer, I knew I had to return to it, with my Hasselblad camera in hand.

A student snaps a selfie during a school outing to Ada Park in Bayrampasa, a district of Istanbul. Later she gathered her many photos from the day and shared them through an Instagram story.
Photograph by SABIHA ÇIMEN

For this project I visited my school and others across Turkey, where girls ages eight to 19 spend up to four years trying to memorise all 604 pages of the Muslim religious text. Some of these boarding schools provide secular classes, but the main focus is on learning the Quran, a traditional practice dating to the time of Muhammad. I wanted to document it—not only the discipline required to become a hafiz (one who remembers) but also the way girls retain the essential nature of youngsters. I hoped to create a nuanced look at a rarely seen and often misunderstood segment of society.

In an Istanbul schoolyard Aslıhan and a friend have fun with a gorilla mask. Afterward the two ran through the hallways to prank their schoolmates.
Photograph by SABIHA ÇIMEN
As one of her chores, a student sorts lemons in the dining room of a school in Kars, a city in northeastern Turkey.
Photograph by SABIHA ÇIMEN
At the same school, a girl named Reyyan gathers tomatoes for the cooks. Students help with such tasks during their menstrual periods, when, in the view of some Muslims, they shouldn’t touch the Quran.
Photograph by SABIHA ÇIMEN

Through vignettes of daily life—the daydreams and the quiet rebellions, the trivial moments and the melodramas—an emotional narrative started to emerge. It’s a story about these young women as well as the memories I carry. All of us discovered a hidden power to act out with small forms of resistance, to find our individuality. 

The end result, a book titled Hafiz, is my nostalgia-tinged tribute to those girls and to my own youthful journey with my sister. This project also has been a journey—and through it I feel that my photographic subjects have become my sisters too.

Two of the youngest students at an Istanbul school, both age nine, learn to roller-skate, a process similar to memorizing the Quran: making mistakes and trying again.
Photograph by SABIHA ÇIMEN
At a Quran school picnic in Istanbul, a plane soars over a group of students who, with headscarves billowing in the wind, look as though they are ready to fly.
Photograph by SABIHA ÇIMEN
This story appears in the August 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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