Thursday, August 21, 2008

Educating the Muslim Female

I've been trying to sort these sentiments in my mind for quite some time, so writing them out clearly will be difficult. Kindly bear with me...

I grew up with a clear path of education. It was naturally expected for me to go to university, and to pursue higher education. It was never simply an "option." I was pushed to do the best at whatever endeavours I decided to undertake.

In university, I was indoctrinated with the notion of individuality, empowerment and self-determination. I was taught that what and who I wanted to be, was completely in my hands. So I made myself in those four years, out of a combination of valuable personal relationships and classroom education. That was followed by a year in the workforce. Which was both scary (at first) and enlightening. Soon I embark on 2 years of graduate school.

And yet there was something missing all along. And that is true empowerment.

The more I contemplate it, it seems to me that Muslims educate their daughters with the intention of producing educated housewives. In short, education is about theory and not practice. In my limited experience, an incredible amount of concentration is put on marriage in a young woman's life - as opposed to truly empowering her and allowing her to make choices about her future.

For example, if a woman of education reaches her late 20's and is still unmarried, it seems there is suddenly a "too-empowered" stigma attached to her name. It's as though marriage defines women, and without it we are unnatural. I do not deny there is a natural desire for partnership, but I question our community's perception of what a woman is without it.

I often feel frustrated being in a Muslim family. I'm not proud of these frustrations of mine. Believe me, it's a conflicting and negative feeling to have. (Perhaps the phenomenon is also found in non-Muslim families, but I speak from experience only.)

Though we've been taught to make decisions on our own, I find that being female and Muslim sometimes means some of our decision are made for us, and not by us. And thus there can only be one product of that: an ever-increasing frustration with the situations we find ourselves in.

It may be arrogant of me to presume these frustrations are born out of education. But being educated gives rise to the notion that one has full jurisdiction over one's life. But there's the Islamic notion of the "wali" (guardian) to reckon with.

I don't mean to be "blasphemous" with these words, I apologize if anyone feels offended. All I mean to do is express myself in a way that I feel is honest and true to reality.

It's not that I desire rebellion in any serious way. My rebellion is minuscule and quiet, often taking form in wholly insignificant things like buttons, the way I dress, or the sometimes humourous manner in which I address people. So no, it's not that I want to go out and do something my family and community would hate, just to prove I am independent. Not at all.

It's simply a bewitching concept to know that no matter the extent of your education and experience in this world, there are limits set upon you simply because of your sex. But what to do? Either you not educate a woman, and thus legitimize your control over her, or enrich a woman's mind and deal with the consequences of her new-found power.

I personally have these conflicts in my psyche - perhaps I am alone in this. Nonetheless, I have yet to determine what a proper psychological solution for it is. I am wary of extremes.


Anonymous said...

Your frustration is a real one and therefore merits an objective enquiry. Control over the sex of women is crucial to the control of property, and maintenance of racial/caste/religious purity. They are inter-linked and cannot be separated. If we read closely Frederick Engels's The Origin of the family, private property and State we shall realize how important the control over the sex of women is for the maintenance of class hegemony. It cut across societies and religions. Only a historical/scientific understanding of the problem will enable to us to realize the patriarchal nature of religion be it Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. The problem is not here just being a Muslim female. It cut across belief systems which needs to be understood only in a historical materialist paradigm. We speak a lot here in blogs but at the end of the day we remain hypocrites by succumbing/submitting to the very ideology we feel frustrated often. That is why Marx said "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways but the point however is to change it."

We are not ready for the change but only speak in blogs and represent for justice in public sphere. Only a collective and combined action with a clear cut ideology with a dedication will work. Till then there is no end to the tyranny of private property, patriarchy and religion.

sara said...

I'd like to discuss this with you in person, tomorrow perhaps.

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Asmaa said...

Anon, I'm essentially interested in hearing from you if you're a female going through similar feelings. I'm well aware of the patriarchy monster we've created in our heads. I don't quite think it's a matter of religion only. It's a matter of how people's mindsets are evolving.

And, writing this on a blog automatically means that I'm being unproductive? First we write and explore issues, then act. What is action without thought?

Sara, will do :)

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that the problem of women will be understood only by fellow women. You are right in posing the question: 'What is action without thought?' But are we thinking correctly the problem we face in order to act? Most of the problems the world face today - be it patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, class oppression, caste tyranny - continue to exist not because no one thought about them. It continue to exist precisely because they were thought wrongly by those people who wanted to overcome them. It is finding the right solution is what I am drawing your attention to and for this only a scientific understanding of the functioning of society is possible. People believed Galileo not because of his abstract theory. He provided a scientific tool - a telescope - so that people can see and realize with empirical proof that earth is not the center of the universe. Similarly 'Historical Materialism' is a scientific theory of society. Yes you are right that it is the problem with not only the religion. I never stated that it is the problem of the religion alone. I made it very clear control over the sex of women is crucial to the control of private property and the maintenance of racial/caste/class and religious purity. I also stated it very clearly that they are inter-linked and cannot be separated. So the problem of the religion is the problem of private property. All religious aspect has a secular dimension which needs to be grasped. A best text to illuminate on this issue is Marx's The Jewish Question. It is a brilliant text that attempted to address the grievances of problem of 'Jews' in the land of Christianity. Why don't we read The Jewish Question of Marx and discuss the problem you face in a spirited manner?

fathima said...

not alone, at all.

i'd just add one thing though - i think it's deceptive of university educations to teach students that they have full control over their destinies. and i think we should be careful of any sort of rhetoric that says we can achieve full control, because it's not as though we live lives detached from others, without families, or communities, or friends, or social networks.
it's a myth, right, the whole individuality and self-determination, thing. but it's a myth with some value. we strive for control over our lives but we have to remember that not even we can ever fully 'liberate' ourselves from the systems we occupy. and that means be critical of the unfairness meted out both within our minority community and by larger mainstream society.

anyway, thanks for this.

Asmaa said...

Anon, it's not that men can't understand, I just wanted to hear more about what women felt in regards to the topic, and whether or not they saw eye-yo-eye with me.

Fathima, so you're saying a possible solution to this is to reform education as opposed to reforming families? That's an interesting concept, I didn't actually think of it that way.

Aside: I'm surprised no one has called me out on my reference to the wali issue. I thought that would be a contentious issue in this post. Perhaps how I have to come to terms with what Islam's ordained. That's when an interesting discussion would ensue :D

Rizwan said...

I'm not a girl going through this but I have sisters! (I don't know how that's really relevant but I need a pretext to allow me to jump in on this discussion) =)

Maybe part of the hesitation to "call you out" on the wali ("guardian") phenomenon you allude to in your post is partly due to a realization that some of us have of the complexity of the pre-modern fiqh rulings associated with the wali and the breakdown (for many reasons) of adherence to these rulings today.

I think many men who grow up here are realizing that even if we wanted to exercise being "a wali" of our daughters and sisters, our daughters and sisters will have none of it. This has less to do with "higher"/university education so much as it has to do with the way most girls in our society who go to primary and secondary school in southern Ontario are socialized. At a certain point, when it comes to marriage, they're just not interested in their male relative's opinions, well-intentioned help, or bumbling interventions. I doubt that more than a tiny percentage of young 20-something Muslim women in southern Ontario consider their wali to be an obstacle to their freedom of mobility, right to choose whom they marry, (and so on) so much as a part of their culture or tradition or something.

But maybe those are just "Indian" girls =)

Asmaa said...

Rizwan, I think males feel threatened by their educated women, and some of them, in turn, exert even a greater amount of force (not only physical, but also psychological) on their wives and daughters.

I also disagree with the notion that only a tiny minority of young women see their walis as being obstacles to their mobility, etc. Just because a female doesn't disclose that information publicly, doesn't mean she doesn't feel limited and constrained by male relatives. So making that assumption isn't right. Remember, abuse doesn't always show on individuals.

adnan. said...

not related to the topic at hand, but one is rarely ever unique/alone in what they're thinking.

Rizwan said...


I take your point about the absence of the appearance of abuse not necessarily translating to that abuse being absent.

I also take your point about many men feeling threatened by educated women and channeling their own insecurities into exerting greater physical/psychological force to control those women. This kind of reaction is, from my understanding of shari`ah, completely unacceptable. Some Muslim scholars would consider it not only a disease of the heart but a criminal act. I'm confident that this is not hyperbole. We need to take more action (on many levels--in families, through institutions and otherwise) to help such women reclaim a feeling of safety and peace and happiness in their homes.

adnan. said...

This kind of reaction is, from my understanding of shari`ah, completely unacceptable.

i don't think men are thinking about the shariah when they feel threatened by educated women.

it's kinda like folk with racist tendencies, telling them the shariah or muslim scholars don't approve of it, isn't exactly going to change anything.

Rizwan said...

"i don't think men are thinking about the shariah when they feel threatened by educated women."

I agree with you Adnan. The unacceptable reaction I am referring to is one that is physically violent. The reason I also refer to it being unacceptable in shari`ah is that the shari`ah is often used by some Muslim men to justify physically dominating/controlling/abusing women.

If we're talking about change, we have to also admit that there is any one solution or any one catalyst to bring it about. Change has to happen in many stages at many level in many ways and at the hands of many people (although in reality only God truly changes anything).

But in terms of taking the means (Arabic: "asbab") to change, I think one of the steps, or one of the tactics involved has to be "to cut off the pretext"--in other words, to subvert the ability of some of these physically/emotionally/verbally abusive Muslim men to justify their actions on religious grounds. When they have no religious justification, what then do they stand on? Cultural traditions? Psychology? Whatever it is, then we can attack the problem/disease even more effectively at its roots.

I don't mean to make any of this sound neat and tidy. I don't think it works like that, but I'm just trying to articular one specific aspect of one specific process to address this crisis.

What do you think, Asmaa?

Rizwan said...

Correction: "If we're talking about change, we have to also admit that there is any one solution or any one catalyst to bring it about."

I meant to say: we have to admit that there is NOT any one solution...

Fatemeh said...

Great post! I definitely feel you on the "men are intimidated by educated women" thing, too!

Asmaa said...

What do I think? I think I need to take a break from thinking.

Rizwan said...


Nice try, miss. Nice try.

adnan. said...

@asmaa - yes, please stop thinking. you're intimidating us.

Asmaa said...

Well, the first is that I wasn't originally talking about physical abuse. I was referring more to a type of psychological control that men exert over women. If that ever becomes physical, that's a separate problem.

Also, I think that when men have superiority complexes, that will play out in their relationships whether or not they have divine "proof" of their "right" to be superior. I honestly don't believe it has as much to do with Islam or any religion, as it does with twisted human wants and needs.

If someone absolutely wants to do something, he or she will find a way to do it, and justification for doing it.

Anonymous said...

asmaa, this is one of the best things i've read in a long time; i've thought along these same lines before but, at my ripe age and life circumstances, have come to a different set of "ah-ha!s" or hmm?s...i think i'd like to write about them one day, insha'Allah.
p.s. i think your sis is my daughter's teacher. i'm sooo happy.