Picture of young girl in black covers holding an orange while other pair of hands is on her chest.

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.

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.

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.

For this project I visited my school and others across Turkey, where girls ages eight to 19 spend up to four years trying to memorize 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.

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. 

As a new student at a Quran school in Rize, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, Elif covers her hair for the first time.
As a new student at a Quran school in Rize, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, Elif covers her hair for the first time.


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.

This story appears in the August 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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