When we think about Middle Eastern women, and their access to education, jobs, and liberty we typically imagine a life of oppression. We hear stories that women are required to stay home, not to work, and have to have a guardian to leave their homes. While this lifestyle is a living reality for some, progress has been made towards a new perspective on education.
Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, many would agree that the political and cultural position of Afghan women has improved substantially. The recently adopted Afghan constitution states that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman- have equal rights and duties before the law”. So far, women have been allowed to return back to work, the government no longer forces them to wear the all covering burqa, and they even have been appointed to prominent positions in the government. Despite all these changes many challenges still remain.
Not all women experience educational liberty. Access to education differs greatly from one region to another. For example, in Saudi Arabia there is a denial of adequate education for young girls and women. Repression of women is still prevalent in rural areas, where girls are forced into early marriage and denied basic education. Numerous schools for girls have been burned down and some girls have even been poisoned to death for daring to go to school. Even though reformist measures have been made in Afghanistan, 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate and only 30 percent of girls have access to education. This is a sharp contrast to some universities in the United Arab Emirates that have a female population approaching 80 percent.
Muslim women still face many underlying challenges in trying to receive education. One such example is the traditional patriarchal interpretation of qiwamah, the notion that men are guardians of Muslim women. Although the Quran stipulates that both men and women are protectors of one another, the concept of qiwamah has been used to justify various restrictions on women that in turn hinder Muslim women’s education. For instance, limiting women’s right to free movement is a great impediment to free and equal access to education. In various regions Muslim girls are also forced to marry at a very early age and thus kept at home instead of in the classroom. They are taught that their only role is that of a wife and of a mother and are discouraged from seeking educational and professional opportunities.
A report from Islamic women Maria Zain, who lives in the Middle East states that “girls outnumber boys at tertiary level [schools] and many women hold high positions in public and private offices…all children, girls and boys (regardless of their religion or race), are encouraged to study hard in school and do well at university level in order to be successful.” Zain believes that there is not much discrimination between boys and girls from the society. If there is, it would be based on individual families’ preferences and opinions about whether their daughters are as deserving as their sons when it comes to being provided the opportunities for education. Those within the faith often claim that the situation is better than it appears.
According to Islam online, author Zain discusses how “true education lies in good character, moral upbringing, experience (and the ability to learn from experience), emphatic interpersonal relations with others, and the strong desire to please the Lord, alongside the written certificate.” And nowadays with the advent of information exchange via the internet, laced with free classes, education doesn’t even have to be written on paper to be recognized. Similarly, co-op oriented activities, apprenticeship and other forms of experience (like volunteering in a soup kitchen) are all shapes and sizes that emerge from different forms of education. “There is just so much more to learning than getting that piece of qualification.”
Recognition that education is not all that’s important for being a contributing member to society extends across cultural lines. This philosophy can be applied to America and to other nations, in that it’s important to not just be textbook wise—but to also immerse oneself in other learning experiences. Knowledge comes from the doing and the learning. It’s not just about being in a classroom, argues Zain. We have to look at the debate from a holistic view-how does this education mold and shape students? “Is school really doing a service to children if teenagers are leaving the institution after a few years worth of alcohol, drugs, and who knows, pre-marital relationships? Is it worth the fuss when a seventeen year old spends her late nights tending to a baby alone, while juggling the thought of exams? Or is it the drift-racing during the freshmen year of college and frat parties that are so important, and should not be missed?” questioned Zain.
Although Zain has some concerns about the value of modern education, allowing women to be educated does transform nations socially, economically and politically for long-term development. The international community must help the middle east’s government approach the task of empowering women as a continual process, going beyond the one-time establishment of institutions to serve and protect women.