(Covered Pakistani female madrassa students take part in an anti-government demonstration in Islamabad August 27, 2004 after a government raid in their mosque and Islamic seminary/Mian Khursheed)

Varda is an accountancy student who dreams of working abroad. Dainty and soft-spoken, the 22-year-old aspires to broaden her horizons, but when it comes to Islam, she refuses to question the fundamentalist interpretations offered by clerics and lecturers nationwide.

Varda is among more than a quarter of a million Pakistani students attending an all-female madrassa, or Islamic seminary, where legions of well-to-do women are experiencing an awakening of faith, at the cost of rising intolerance. In a nation where Muslim extremists are slowly strengthening their grip on society, the number of all-female madrassas has boomed over the past decade, fueled by the failures of the state education system and a deepening conservativism among the middle to upper classes.

Parents often encourage girls to enroll in madrassas after finishing high school or university, as an alternative to a shrinking, largely male-orientated job market, and to ensure a girl waiting to get married isn’t drawn into romantic relationships, says Masooda Bano, a research fellow at the British-based Economic and Social Research Council.

But, like Varda, many students at the 2,000 or so registered madrassas are university students or graduates looking for greater understanding of Islam, as well as housewives who, like others in Pakistani society, feel pressured to deepen their faith.