ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - 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.
"I listened to what they said and I thought this is the correct thing to follow, and I wanted to learn more about my religion," said Varda, who was encouraged by her neighbors to sign up to a part-time course at the Tehreek-i-Islami madrassa.
Asked about the killing of a governor earlier this year because he opposed the country's controversial blasphemy law, Varda, without hesitation, said Salman Taseer's murder by his own bodyguard was the right thing to do.
"If people ... call themselves Muslims and they are members of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, then they should not be criticizing this law," she said.
"I am sorry to say this, but this is what he deserved."
Pakistan, a politically unstable nuclear-armed country which al Qaeda and the Taliban also call home, has been drifting toward religious militancy since the 1980s under the rule of president General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.
Zia, who enjoyed enthusiastic support from the United States against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, nurtured Islamist militants and used American cash to turn a society that had previously been moderate and tolerant toward hard-line Islam inspired by Saudi Wahhabism.
Weak governments over the ensuing years have not helped stem the radical tide, and anti-Americanism remains strong.
Pakistan's madrassas for boys are notorious for creating militant fighters with their hardline, perverse teachings of Islam. Experts say the female schools are just as dangerous, even though their students tend to be better educated and more affluent.
Female madrassas "targeted women because they know that is the place to plant the seed, because it will go far," said Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia director for global intelligence firm Stratfor.
"Women will get married, women will raise children. It will create a norm within society over time."
At the male madrassas, boys can live and eat for free, or for a very small fee, which means the bulk of the students are often very poor and from remote or rural areas. They memories the Koran all day and listen to lectures from their teacher, who often lacks any sophisticated understanding of the faith.
Female madrassas charge a flat rate of 3,000-4,000 rupees a month - almost the price of a private college. Courses usually last four years and in addition to memorizing the Koran, the women study Islamic texts on morality and piety.
"There are serious problems related to these types of schools," said Haider Mullick, policy analyst and fellow at the U.S. Joint Special Operations University in Florida. "Some of them will develop tolerance, but not participation, toward the sort of attacks or killings that we've seen."
Al Huda, founded in the 1990s by Farhat Hashmi, is one of the most well-known female madrassas in the country, and most of its students hail from the middle and upper-class.
At the school's vast new headquarters on the outskirts of Islamabad, students in black or grey robes walk past a colorful classroom where children take lessons, and through a sunlit lobby where leaflets explain aspects of Islam.
While precise numbers are not available, an estimated 15,000 students have gone through al Huda's program, writes Faiza Mushtaq in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Journal.
Sadaf Ahmad, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Lahore University of Management Sciences and author of a book on women and Islam, said al Huda and other female madrassas spread their ideas further into mainstream society through religious study groups held in members' homes.
Hidden in a warren of narrow lanes across town is another renowned female madrassa, the Jamia Hafsa, which educates around 550 students under founder Um-e-Hassan. Small groups of girls in headscarves sit at low tables, reciting the Koran late into the night, asking questions of attentive teachers.
Hassan's students come from a range of social backgrounds, she says, with many traveling from towns and villages to live at the school in Islamabad.
Hassan is married to the imam of Islamabad's Red Mosque, which her students helped take control of in 2007 in a campaign for the imposition of harsh Islamic law in Pakistan.
Her roving bands of stick-wielding women terrorized Islamabad neighborhoods before a commando assault on the mosque took it back. More than 100 people died in the attack.
Hassan estimates she has educated "thousands" of girls since Jamia Hafsa opened in 1992. At the time of the siege of the Red Mosque, she says she had around 750 students.
"We should pass on what we know about Islam to our children, to girls," Hassan said. "Here they don't think about fashions, or how they look. They don't worry about not having things. They concentrate just on their studies and some will teach girls in their communities when they leave."
Editing by Miral Fahmy