At six years old, Fatima Asgarova, a resident of Georgia’s eastern town of Marneuli, already wears the hijab and has begun to study Islam on the weekends. She is not unusual. Like many Christian females in this predominantly Orthodox Christian country, Muslim women are increasingly looking to religion to help prepare their daughters -- or themselves -- for life.
In Marneuli, the seat of the predominantly ethnic Azerbaijani region of Kvemo Kartli, a search for a moral compass -- if not devotion to Islam itself -- often explains why residents send their children to a school, or madrasa, that teaches about Islam, comments Leyla Hasanova, 35, who teaches Islamic theology and the Quran in the 18-pupil madrasa at the town’s Imam Ali mosque.
“Some families do not perform namaz [five-times-a-day prayers] or [their] women do not wear a headscarf [hijab]. However, these families also send their children here,” comments Hasanova. “They want their children to grow up with Islamic moral values.”
Oktai Kazimovi, a researcher into Islam in Georgia, believes that the Georgian Orthodox Church has been regaining influence after the end of Soviet rule. Nevertheless, this official atheism also affected Islam, a faith of roughly 10 percent of the country’s 3.7 million residents.
“There is a point when ethnic minorities are returning to their religion in response to this,” he says.
That process has grown steadily since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, says Esmira Nasibova, 35, a Quran instructor at Marneuli’s all-female Khanim Zahra madrasa. “Islam existed in Georgia from the very beginning, but during the Soviet Union it was not allowed to propogate the religion. We practiced our religion under some difficulties,” she says.
How many Islamic madrasas exist in Georgia is not clear, but, pointing to the need for weekend classes at the Imam Ali madrasa, Hasanova believes their popularity is expanding.
The schools, both part of mosques and independent, teach children between the ages of five and 13 the basics about Islam, its history and ethics, the lives of its spiritual leaders and passages from the Quran and other Islamic texts. Aside from Kvemo Kartli, where Shi’a Islam is the rule, they exist also in the western region of Achara and the Pankisi Gorge, south of the capital, Tbilisi, where Sunni beliefs are more common.
In Kvemo Kartli, the local branches of two Iranian organizations, the Ahl al-Bayt Society, a network of Islamic education groups,   and the Qom-based Al-Mustafa International University have played a particular role in bringing Islamic instruction to local women and girls through their Georgian affiliates.
Their work prompted the creation of the Khanim Zahra madrasa in central Marneuli in 2013. (The name is derived from that of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima-Zahra, meaning “brilliant” in Arabic.) “When Islam began to spread more and more, we created such a center that other women could have the same advantages as well,” comments Nasibova, one of the school’s managers.
In the madrasa, photos of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shi’a Islamic cleric who oversaw Iran’s transformation into an Islamic republic between 1979 and 1989, adorn the walls alongside religious posters and excerpts from the Quran.
There, aside from rules about Islamic life, the 25-30 pupilslearnhow to work as seamstresses and, critically, how to speak Georgian; a skill often lacking in Kvemo Kartli that facilitates access to jobs and further education. In a filial branch in the Tbilisi suburb of Ponichala, computer classes have been added to further attract young girls.
Though she has no exact numbers, Nasibova thinks that such madrasas are increasing the number of female Muslim believers. Grown women, who married before finishing school, often come to the schools to continue their educations, she says.
The six-teacher Khanim Zahra madrasa encourages them to complete their high-school studies, she adds.
“Early marriage does not prevent a person from developing yourself and engaging in society,” emphasizes Nasibova, who also married in her teens. “Sometimes it is said that Islam enslaves women and doesn’t give [them] rights. However, no one gives more value to a woman than Islam,” she continues, without elaboration. “But people should develop themselves. We want women to study all their lives.”
Madrasas do not offer degrees, but their certificates can allow women and girls to find employment in other madrasas or Islamic organizations.
Women attending the Khanim Zahra madrasa declined to be interviewed about their experiences or photographed by Chai Khana. Their husbands would object, they said.
The attractions of a madrasa education, however, are not universal. In Kvemo Kartli, older ethnic Azerbaijani women, who grew up in the officially atheist Soviet Union, may find a madrasa less appealing, believes Kazimovi.
Some conservative Georgians go a step further and view the presence of madrasas or Islamic communities as a potential threat to their own identity. Reports of alleged discrimination against Muslims are relatively common.
Like other Islamic teachers, Elnara Jafarova, 26, a teacher of the Quran and Arabic grammar at the Khanim Zahra madrasa’s 15-pupil branch in the village of Ponichala, outside of Tbilisi,rejects any suppositions that Shi’a madrasas radicalize their students or prepare them to fight for Islamic extremist groups in Syria.
“We do not send anyone to Syria. There is Islam taught here.”
Rather than jihad, Kazimovi lists marriage, families and social environments as among the strongest factors prompting Muslims to study in Georgia’s madrasas.
“People should believe in something and religion is the most stable in this regard,” he continues. “That's why people decide to go this way.