Educating Muslim Women

The graph below illustrates the relationship between male and female illiteracy rates in Arab countries. There is not a single Arab country where the female and male literacy rates are comparable. Qatar is an exceptional country because female and male illiteracy rates are equal.

According to the Adult Literacy Rates and Illiterate Population by Country and by Gender report by UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS),
Egypt’s adult literacy rate for males is 83% whereas that of females is 59.4%. The male adult literacy rate for Morocco is 65.7% and that of females is only 39.6%. Pakistan, another Muslim country’s literacy rate is 63% for males and a mirror image of 36% for females. Compare these percentages with that of Israel where male literacy rate is 98.5% and that of females is 95.9%! According to an unpublished report on senior schools by a lecturer at University of Reading, more and more Pakistani parents are keeping their children from seeking higher education or their children themselves are simply not interested in education. The result is that half of Pakistani households in the UK have incomes that are 50% below the national average income (Source) and nearly all Pakistanis aged 60 and over are living on Income Support (Source).

Time’s TIME 100: The People Who Shape Our World, has only 10 ‘Muslim sounding’ names out of 100 and one of them is that of Wafa Sultan! This means that less than 10% of the 100 most influential people in the world are Muslims. The number of original research papers published by scientists in Muslim countries is 0.1% of the number published by scientists in Europe and the USA today (Source). And we need Muslim girls along with Muslim boys to gain education because when you educate a man, you educate a person, but when you educate a woman and you educate a family. Educate a family and you educate a country.

A study done with Bangladeshi women, for example, showed that “girls’ career preferences in Bangladesh were the most limited in the survey: rural girls opted for ‘doctor’ or ‘teacher’ almost without exception and 88 per cent of the urban girls said they wanted to be doctors. The lack of range in career preferences would appear to be linked to the lack of role models for the girls: only a tiny percentage of their mothers were working outside the home” (Source). Girls in developing countries don’t have appropriate role models and their parents make traditional career choices for them – doctor or teacher. We need Muslim female nurses, scientists, astronomers, composers, painters, writers, business entrepreneurs, and statisticians amongst other myriad professions. Fewer girls than boys are enrolled in high school science curricula because of a bias in the existing education system and family attitudes that encourage girls to study the arts and humanities (Source). Another study shows that 75% of Muslim women in India are illiterate (Source).

750 verses of the Quran urge believers (men and women) to study nature, to reflect, and to make the best use of reason in their search for the ultimate truth (Source). Educating women achieves equality between the genders since it is the duty of both genders to seek education/knowledge and helps to eradicate disease and poverty in the developing world. In 1837, when Queen Victoria came to power, no institution of higher education in Britain was open to women. But before the beginning of the next century women had even entered institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. Many new universities were founded during Victoria’s reign and the result was that the sun never set on the British Empire.

What I am proposing here is to empower Muslim women. I’m proposing that we change statistics which show that half the Muslim women in the Arab world are illiterate and in all but four Arab countries less than 80 per cent of Muslim girls go to secondary school. Islam cannot progress if we keep are women illiterate.

Does anyone know any articles by MF on this topic? What do Muslim feminists think about this topic?  How can literacy be achieved in Muslim societies?



Was the Prophet a feminist?

The short answer is, personally I think that the Prophet Muhammad was a feminist. He was not a feminist in the modern and militant sense of the word but he looked after the interests of women very well.

I think it was natural for him to be a feminist and it would have been surprising if he didn’t look into the interests of women because he was surrounded by women all his life. In infancy his universe was his wet nurse with whom he lived outside Mecca. When she left him with his mother, the Prophet was solely cared for by his mother as his father had died before his birth. When his mother passed away as well he was looked after by his paternal grandfather and then his uncle. These men were his guardians but he was cared for by the women of their households. He married Khadeejah at the age of 25 and had four daughters from her. Khadeejah was his mentor, his guide, nurturer, helper and employer. After her death he married several times and was again surrounded by women.

In a culture that largely valued sons, he had four daughters. He valued his children – the sons that didn’t survive beyond infancy and the daughters – unlike some tribes that practiced infanticide. He taught his followers to raise their daughters with kindness because daughters were their key to paradise. Having an independent first wife and only surviving daughters himself, he understood very well that women needed rights: the right to education, property, and inheritance.

There are countless narrations which show the Prophet as a husband who took part in household chores and often only smiled silently when his wives fought with him or with each other. While modern people may like to highlight the ‘tragedy’ of his marriage with Aisha, traditions that describe their relationship are hardly tragic in tone. While Aisha may have not realised when she was getting married to the Prophet, after marriage he never gave her the reason to regret their marriage.

One incident I personally like from the Prophet’s life is when he married a woman who was tricked by his other wives to seek refuge from him when he entered her room after the wedding. Without allowing his ego to be humiliated (he was a prophet and the head of the state), he quietly left the room and asked his servant to send her back home with gifts from him.

Muhammad had also learned from his life experiences that the women in his life offered him sound advice. Thus, he often consulted his wives; Khadeejah and Umm Salamah being his smartest counselors. In fact it was Umm Salamah who insisted that the Quran address women like it addresses men and not only her husband liked this suggestion, even Allah granted her wish.

According to a couple of ahadith the Prophet became very emotional when Ali asked his permission to marry again. However, he didn’t prohibit Ali from remarrying since it would have been making haraam what was made halal by Allah, but he told Ali that the latter would have to divorce Fatimah first since what “hurt her heart, hurt (the Prophet’s) heart and what brought tears in her eyes, brought tears in his.” Those are the words and emotions of a loving father in an era when many tribes sold off their daughters never to care for them again.

Skeptics argue that the Quran encourages wife-beating, gives women lesser rights than men in testimony and inheritance etc. However, even in the most stressful moments of his life (like the incident of Ifk), the Prophet didn’t hit his wives. If “he lived the Quran”, as Aisha claimed once, that is what Quran teaches. There are guidelines offered in the Quran, but they are only that – guidelines. A man may wish to give more to his daughters in inheritance than his sons and there is nothing in Islam that would prohibit him from doing so.

With this in mind, I don’t think that Islam and feminism is an oxymoron. Surely we can’t just stop with the rights given to women in the 7th century, but the question is ‘is giving Muslim women more rights today then those given by the Prophet in the 7th century, unIslamic?’ In the modern world, is it wrong to allow Muslim women to: rule countries, work outside their homes, pray in mosques, gain an education, and establish a career? How can this be wrong when even the women in the 7th century Arabia, both before and after the coming of Islam, did all this – and more?!

So what exactly is unIslamic about Islamic feminism? What is it that makes some Muslims defensive and snub Islamic feminism like it is the one thing that would destroy Islam?

PSP: Praying Salah during Period

“My reward was a community of like-minded Muslims together with whom I prayed behind Amina Wadud, an American Muslim scholar, in the first public female-led mixed-gender Friday prayer. Without a head scarf and on my period, I prayed next to a man — sacrilege to many but a delight to me.”

This is how Mona Eltahawy describes her “delightful” experience of being Muslim which many would call feministic and therefore, sacrilegious!  However, even many Quranists who are not necessarily feminist insist that a “woman must pray during her period.”

Here are two excellent posts on how period is viewed in mainstream Islam:

Got Period? The Problem of Purity by a male feminist and a friend, Rawi; and Only women bleed: Menstruation and prayer in Islam by Woodturtle, a Muslim feminist on my blogroll.

  1. Have you ever touched the Quran, fasted or prayed when on your period?
  2. What are your views on the topic?

Surrogacy, egg donation, IVF and Islam

Mariam asked me to do a post on surrogacy and IVF in Islam and this  topic was on my to-write list because exactly a year ago someone asked me about egg donation and if I thought it was allowed in Islam. This is what I wrote in my reply:

You will not find anything in the Quran and hadith about it simply because IVF didn’t exist back then. Therefore whatever interpretation anyone gives you is just that – their interpretation. In that way no one can tell you with certainty whether it is haram or halal. Let me give you some background:

In the time when Quran was written, if a woman couldn’t bear children the husband was allowed to marry again. We should note that just before his death, the Prophet had almost a dozen wives/slaves and only one of them had managed to conceive a child (Ibrahim who died in infancy). Yet, his wives neither adopted children (as such an adopted child is not given the same status as a biological child under Islam) nor were they given the option to adopt and raise the Prophet’s son Ibrahim who was born to a Coptic slave, Mary. This disturbed Aisha a lot who wanted children desperately and eventually she was given the title of Umm al Momeneen because she desperately wanted a kunya for herself (be called umm of someone). The Prophet also allowed her to use the kunya of her nephew. Thus, anonymous or known adoption as well as raising the husband’s child with another woman were both options that could have been available to Aisha, but she wasn’t given them.

Second, I personally analyse how a situation would be dealt with by all Abrahamic religions. If all three religions agree on something then I personally believe I have greater proof that it is allowed or not allowed. In Islam paternity status of a child is more important than the maternity. This is because in those days a child’s mother was known in every single case, but paternity was hard to define. It could be any man’s child. However, in today’s age with anonymous egg donation, even finding the mother is difficult. But the same ruling can be applied – that a child MUST know both the father and the mother since the biological mother has the same rights as the surrogate mother under all Abrahamic religions.

In Islam it doesn’t matter whether the child is born to a wife or a concubine since the child carries the father’s name and lineage. But that wife or concubine – in all three Abrahamic religions – must *belong* to the man. That he, the man should have full access and authority over her body, including the womb and the eggs. In Judaism and Islam a man can have a child from a concubine (indeed the Prophet had Ibrahim from Mary the slave whom he didn’t marry and Abraham had Ishmael from Hagar whom he never married), but in Christianity a child should only be the result of marriage between two persons. So according to Christianity anonymous egg donations is out-rightly wrong. But according to Islam and Judaism, it could be allowed even if the man and the egg donor weren’t married for the child to be carried and raised by the wife only if the egg donor was a slave! That is theoretically possible but practically impossible. Thus, the result of this is that a man can buy an egg to impregnate his wife (and the wife can carry and raise the child), but the egg donor and the man have to be religiously married (not necessarily legally married).
Thus, in the light of all Abrahamic religions, an anonymous donor egg and known sperm creates a child outside the boundaries of marriage making the child illegitimate with no certain lineage creating the chances of negative future consequences. Thus, from my study, anonymous donation is completely banned.

But even in known egg donation the man and the donor have to be religiously married. In that case, there are scholars who allow surrogation so that for example a woman would be allowed to carry, give birth and raise a child who is the result of either:
• Sperm and egg of a married couple – a relative
• Or the sperm of the husband and the egg of his second wife.

This second wife could be temporary since at one time mutah was allowed to all Muslim men who wanted sex while fighting wars and didn’t have access to their wives, and even had sex with war captives, and today misyar marriage is allowed by Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia where a man owes no material or moral support to a woman apart from regular sex. I should add that Shia Islam allows egg donation from a known donor who does not have to be married to the man.

Having said all this, I don’t think anything is black and white in any religion. Not even in Islam. There are shades of grey. And Islam has been through 1400 years of interpretation and misinterpretation. I don’t think that when you read a hundred times that God is merciful that He can act mercilessly and condemn people to hardships when they don’t understand the shades of grey. If your heart tells you that you are not doing anything that is morally wrong then it doesn’t matter how you see the shades of grey.

If a woman is unable to have a baby, a Muslim husband will be encouraged to marry again and indeed has the choice to marry again. But if a man has a reproductive problem, would the wife be encouraged similarly  to leave him and marry again? Why are there two popular options for women: to have patience or to adopt? What do you think about surrogacy and egg donation in Islam (especially Sunni Islam)? Should a couple be allowed to buy a donated egg and have a child through IVF? Also, do you think a couple should be allowed to opt for surrogacy in case of an incompetent uterus of the wife or other problems?

The thing about women

Note: This post is more in an essay-style; the style with which I’m most comfortable.

I met a woman yesterday I had never met before. She had come to collect her child and we chatted  for less than an hour over a cup of tea. She is Arab and very sweet. Initially we talked about children and their school but once I brought her tea, the conversation became more about her life. She seemed constantly tired and even complained that her legs hurt all the time. She talked non-stop about how she is pressurized by family and society to have more children when she can’t even raise the two she has already. She complained about her mother-in-law more than once, even mimicked her. Throughout that conversation I had very little to add except for an occasional nod and “oh, really? That’s bad.” And then she said something that caught my attention. She mentioned briefly that her mother never encouraged her to enjoy every moment of her childhood and allowed her to act grown-up prematurely. That time was lost. She was married off at fifteen and so although our children are of the same age and she looks older than me, she is actually quite a few years younger than me.  There was a faint sadness in her voice when she said that. That sadness could only be detected by another woman.

That is the thing about women – we may love our men, but when it comes to understanding the pain of a woman, our men almost always fail us. From period cramps or a hurt ego to a divorce or miscarriage, it is a woman who understands the pain of another woman even if she has never had period cramps herself or never went through the agony of miscarriage. Yet a man who obviously can’t go through either kind of pain still fails to show the kind of sympathy required in those delicate moments. Is it as simple as women having higher emotional intelligence? Is this why in I am Sam, Sam’s lawyer is a woman and all the people who testify on his side are women?

So I kept thinking about it after she left and realised that while her and I shared nothing in common and if we are to meet again there would be more awkward silences and nods, it is not shopping together or talking or even sharing recipes that bring women together; women bond immediately through sharing pain. It is that moment when one woman detects misery from the subtle drop in the tone of voice or the sinking of the eyes of another woman, that a link is created and women who fail to either detect or ignore the anger or hurt of another woman lack a very common gift. They are thus often called ‘cold’ and even ‘cruel.’

This is why I think Islamic feminism is necessary and was inevitable. I had asked once why you all want to belong to a group when most of you live in liberal countries that give women many rights, often even equal rights to men, and you all commented that even if you don’t have to go through the pain yourself you wish to stand up for the rights of women who are less fortunate than you. Women are empathic creatures; I think that is why feminists stand up for the rights of gays and those women and men who are oppressed. Yet this is a gift that is rarely mentioned in many patriarchal scriptures. We hear about men’s strength and courage and intelligence and bravery and their ability to maintain the classic stiff upper-lip, but what about women’s superior emotional intelligence? Perhaps that is why many people don’t like feminists …  because while women have higher EQ, we also know how and when to filter it and channel it. Feminists while bonding strongly with other women, can chastise men firmly – something the latter are still not used to. And while most men don’t want to be told how to treat their women, they also don’t want outside sympathy/empathy for their women from other women because women gain strength from unity.  

I wanted to share these thoughts with you – women and men who read this blog; wanted to thank you for caring whenever you have cared for others; and wanted to let you know that I appreciate you for appreciating others – women and men, straight and gay, Muslim and non-Muslim.

If you have any comments/thoughts/opinions, please share. I would particularly like to know why you think Islamic Feminism as a movement and an organization of Muslim women is important for the unity and well-being of Muslim women in the 21st Century.

The Second Sex

Women lack concrete means for organising themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Negroes, the ghetto Jews, the workers of Saint-Denis, or the factory hands of Renault. They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men – fathers or husbands – more firmly than they are to other women. If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to Negro women. The proletariat can propose to massacre the ruling class, and a sufficiently fanatical Jew or Negro might dream of getting sole possession of the atomic bomb and making humanity wholly Jewish or black; but woman cannot even dream of exterminating the males. The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other. The division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in human history. Male and female stand opposed within a primordial Mitsein, and woman has not broken it. The couple is a fundamental unity with its two halves riveted together, and the cleavage of society along the line of sex is impossible. Here is to be found the basic trait of woman: she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to one another.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, 1949.

What do you think?

Strategic stickers!


This type of censorship is very common in the Middle East. Bare limbs of women and photos of piglets are promptly made halal with a black marker or sticker.  Earlier the same cereal box was painstakingly plastered with a shapeless sticker of red overcoat/abaya stuck on the woman’s body that was otherwise in a bathing suit. I should point out that this packaging is already tailor-made for the ME. The same cereal box in the UK has a woman in a bikini.

I never made much of it until my seven year old son pointed out this morning that some parts of her body were missing (!), but instead of trying to remove the stickers, he brought in her coloured markers set and began to give her limbs over the stickers!

What do you think as a Muslim woman – do you think this kind of bowdlerization in the technologically advanced 21st Century is good/healthy or silly/unnecessary? What type of signals does it give to children, do you think?