This paper explores the distinction between 'secular' and 'Koranic' schooling and literacy in South Asia. It begins by tracing an archaeology of the distinction between secular 'literacy' and religious 'illiteracy'. It locates the emergence of the distinction in the colonial census of the 19th century, in the development of 'English' education, and the responses within madrasa schools. The second part locates these debates and their on-going importance within a contemporary ethnographic setting. It examines the relevance of the distinction in relation to women's literacy practices. The paper argues that both secular and religious literacy practices are significant for women's status and well-being, and illustrates the centrality of religious reading and learning in Bangladesh. The paper challenges the conventional distinction between religious and secular schooling and literacy, noting their complementary and overlapping nature.