Teaching About Life

A religious leader is encouraging his fellow Rohingya refugees to bravely embrace change, and strive for a better future.

When dozens of Rohingya women came forward to consult with a doctor on family planning, Ustaz Arfat was a little taken aback - but also pleased and proud. He counted 55 women in the queue. The session which was supposed to end at 3pm was extended to 7pm that Sunday afternoon.

He had arranged a family planning session for his fellow Rohingya refugees in Selayang, Selangor, with the aim of educating them about birth control, spacing births, and contraception.

For the Rohingya community, this was a breakthrough. Such matters have never been discussed openly and publicly.

Then again, Ustaz Arfat is not a conventional religious leader.

At only 34, he is considered one of the most learned ulama in the local community. Ustaz Arfat does not prescribe a dogmatic worldview; instead he is on a mission to change his fellow Rohingya refugees’ mindset to be more progressive and forward-thinking.

“Before, Rohingya women would only stay at home, and would not meet with teachers or even other women. In our culture, once a girl reaches puberty she has to stay home; she cannot go for religious class or school,” says Ustaz Arfat.

He has become an ally and advocate for Rohingya women’s emancipation. Introducing family planning to his community is part of this ongoing effort.

“We used to live in small villages. No one was highly educated. Our fathers and mothers - they only thought of the simple life - wake up, eat two meals, and sleep. We didn’t think of high school or college. The girls marry early, when they are 13-15 years old, and have babies.

“But now, we are in another country. We see men and women with good future. They go to university, have good jobs,” says Ustaz Arfat.

Ustaz Arfat posing with his students at a community learning centre for refugees in Kuala Lumpur

Ustaz Arfat recognises that religious education alone is no longer enough. He is a teacher at a community learning centre for refugees in Selayang. The learning centre started out with only religious studies, but Ustaz Arafat’s earliest reforms was to start academic classes there.

“Rohingyas regard religious studies as the most important. But we are in a different society now. We have to change,” says Ustaz Arfat.

There are 110 students enrolled for academic studies in his learning centre and 160 for religious studies, mostly from the Rohingya community.

He also recently started English literacy classes for adults, and is proud that five of his 25 students are women.

“The Malay women here also wear the hijab, but they go to school and work. Our Rohingya women are seeing that things can be different,” adds the ulama who came to Malaysia four years ago.

Many of the women in his community send their children to his school, and he has earned their trust. Through their frequent interactions he has gotten to know the women’s issues, including the hardship they face raising many children.

Gaining his community’s acceptance of academic studies was easy, but Ustaz Arfat realised that he had to tread much more cautiously when it came to family planning. After he had learnt about the topic at a UNHCR workshop, he held a meeting with his community members.

He stressed that it was important for Rohingyas to go beyond a subsistence life, and aim for a “full life”.

“Full life is when we can talk in different languages, like English. Our sons and children can have a good future, go for higher learning, get good job.

“But we marry young and have many children. The women stay home and their health is also not good. If we have too many children, we cannot give them a full life,” recounts Ustaz Arfat.

He gained support of more than three quarters of the community, enough to organize the family planning talk and consultation.

Many of them were worried that family planning is haram. But Ustaz Arfat reassures them that spacing the births of their children is not against religion because “it’s for life and for the children.”

“They say thank you, good programme. We also want good future, we are ready,” says Ustaz Arfat showing us a case full of family planning paraphernalia that he can use to teach family planning.

“I am teaching about life, nothing to be shy about,” he says.

UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees