Watching Derry Girls on Netflix, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the Irish convent experience and my own Lahori one. It revolves around five friends, most of which who were awfully gawky and awkward around boys and had a painstaking amount of restrictions from both home and school. Normally people think of convents as these prim and proper institutes, where ladies are taught manners and educated to become the perfect intellectual housewives. Either that or they are perceived to be horrendous institutions where children are abused, brainwashed and tortured. Both perceptions are not entirely true, and a common myth is that all missionary schools are run by the same kind of administration.
There are hundreds of catholic congregations in the world, from which many have established convents to educate children and spread their religious mission. Every chain of convents is overseen by a Mother Superior, or Mother General, who acts as the regional head of the schools. Some convents have liberalized and now adopt secular clothing for nuns, some don’t have nuns teaching in them at all and some are still hardcore orthodox. While some of these have become co-educational, most of them still retain their all-girls policy. Not all of the convent schools exist as grade schools, in fact, many of them are associated with universities. The Colegio Mayor Jesus-Maria de Granada is now a part of the University of Grenada and St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto was founded by the Congregation of St. Basil.
In countries like Mexico, convent schools have become quite similar to American high schools. Interestingly, while the main mission of convent schools in south Asia and Africa was to evangelize the colonies, many indigenous sub-branches of these congregations sprung up which focused more on uplifting the economic conditions of women in developing areas.
My personal experience has been based on the convents of Spain, Mexico, and Pakistan. In areas like Pakistan where posh private schools are all the rage and public sector schooling falls short of educational standards, missionary schools provide a middle ground where kids are taught private school curriculums at a fraction of the expense. As a result, most kids enrolled in them are from the middle-income categories. Undoubtedly, strict regulations and an authoritarian culture exist in most of them. But in Europe and the UK, examples like the Bar Convent exist where nuns wear secular garbs and religious education is imparted at a minimal level to suit the needs of the society of that area.
In Pakistan, it is a mixed experience. Catechism lessons are mandatory only for Christian children and the majority of girls studying here are still Muslim. The Lahore branch has expanded to cater to the needs of children with special needs as well, but the school remains understaffed and the staff remains underpaid. The situation is different in Spain, where international regulations are in place to see that the standard of teaching is met by all schools and more frequent checks are made to ensure that the nuns in the administration do not abuse their power.
Even though the convent experience may be miserable for some children, it has a certain charm to it. The old buildings, spacious lawns, and history behind them makes them a memorable experience. In countries such as Pakistan, they help promote religious harmony during times when extremist sentiments run high. The international networks of congregations like the Jesus and Mary ones help children connect to other branches for exchange programs. While this schooling experience may be considered ‘old school’ for many, and these schools are becoming less popular in favor of more modern institutes; their impact on raising the socioeconomic status of women cannot be undermined.