Stereotypes of Muslim women abound. Muslim women are frequently portrayed as uneducated and suppressed. They also are often regarded as being opposed to education. In this essay, I argue that many Muslim women do not choose to forego education, but rather are unable to access this basic right mainly due to a lack of opportunity and socio-political constraints. The sharply contrasting cases of India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are illuminating in this respect. While the Indian case presents a stark picture, the Emirati case presents a bright and more hopeful one.

As an Indian Muslim, born and raised in Kuwait and thus having experienced a privileged life, I have heard many stereotypical remarks about Muslim women. In fact, just a few months ago, one of my female friends commented, “You are not what you look like.” I was left startled. When I asked my friend to explain, she replied: “You wear hijab. But you are well educated and very ambitious”! This recent personal experience tells a long never-ending story about the way Muslim women are widely perceived all over the world.

The socioeconomic status of Muslim women in India seems to conform to the stereotypical image of female Muslims throughout the world as being apathetic, uneducated, suppressed, and dependent upon men. Uzma Nahid, a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, rightly points out that Muslim women are faceless, voiceless, and marginalized within their own social circles and in the larger Indian context as well.[1] Though more than six decades have passed since India achieved independence, Muslim women remain behind the Indian population in almost every respect, one of them being education. Muslim women have a lower level of education than women from Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Parsi, Buddhist, and Jain communities.[2] However, this lower level of education is often attributed to low aspirations and a lack of ambition. Such reckless conclusions only perpetuate the many misconceptions about Muslim women.

Muslim women in India do indeed have educational and professional aspirations. Regrettably, however, just a handful of studies document this. One such work is the The Sachar Committee Report published in 2006 by the Government of India. According to the report, “In this dismal scenario there is one big ray of hope, while the education system appears to have given up on Muslim girls, the girls themselves have not given up on education. There is a strong desire and enthusiasm for education among Muslim women and girls across the board.”[3]

This finding reminds me of a Muslim woman named Husna, who is an embroidery worker by profession. I had interviewed her while working on my Master’s dissertation titled, “Triple Jeopardy: A Reflection on the Socio Economic Status of Muslim Women in India through Voices of the Muslim Women Embroidery Workers.” When I asked Husna about her relationship with her husband, she replied:

"When I fight with my husband, that time, I realize my weakness … I feel we are weak … However, I feel like this because I got married young and am lowly educated. Those girls who are educated and employed should not feel like the way I feel. Girls are not behind. I won’t let my daughter be behind. My poverty does not make me feel inferior, but my education does.  It is very important for girls to get an education. Even if they become  homemakers in the future."[4]

In fact, all the women whom I interviewed held very strong opinions regarding education. One of them, Tahera, stated, “A Muslim woman should attain an education, as it is very important for her development.” Concerning Islamic conservatism, Husna remarked, “Islam talks about purdah,[5] but does not ask [women] to remain behind closed doors.” The words of Husna and Tahera ― two poor women from the slums of Delhi ― echo the yearning for education held by many Muslim women residing in different corners of my country, India.

So, why are education levels among Muslim women in India so low, when the Sachar Report states they have a strong desire for education? Why do they lag so far behind women from other communities in education, employment, and seemingly everything else? Historical, political, economic, and many other factors have created a complex web of circumstances that needs to be disentangled carefully.

There is a widespread impression that adherence to Islam is somehow chiefly responsible for the low level of educational attainment of Muslim women. Yet, historically there has always existed a wide gap between male and female education in the case of Muslims, as providing education to girls was seen as burdensome. Why? Because providing schooling to girls requires the appointment of female teachers and the establishment of separate schools and other facilities, thus causing a great deal of hesitation in male-dominated society.[6] However, according to the Sachar Report, “… it was argued that, contrary to popular perception that religious conservatism among Muslims somehow militates against educating girls, current research indicates that poverty and financial constraints are the major causes that prevent Muslim Girls from accessing modern/secular education.” Other factors mentioned in the report include, “low perceived returns from education,” “poor access to schools,” and “low quality schools in Muslim-concentrated areas,” among others.

However, the fact that a massive number of Muslim women are unorganized might also be a significant cause of their low level of educational attainment.[7] According to the Sachar Report, Muslim women are largely self-employed and heavily represented in occupations such as sewing, embroidery, and beedi rolling.[8] While working on my Master’s dissertation, I observed that female embroidery workers often brought their children along with them to work. In many cases, their female offspring helped them attach sequins to the clothing. Many of these girls also took embroidery classes. Described by the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) alike as "livelihood" and "skill enhancement" initiatives, I regard them otherwise. As I wrote in my dissertation, “home based work might be providing employment, it may be providing subsistence, may be providing self-identity, but at the cost of actually damaging the next generation. It will perpetuate that kind of cyclical poverty.”[9]

No matter what the causes are behind the deplorable state of Muslim women, there is undoubtedly a high level of enthusiasm among them to attain some form of education. [10] Unfortunately, a lack of research, as well as insensitivity to their struggle, exacerbates the existing stereotypes. In this globalized world, where sending a message is just a click away, such a stereotypical image quickly travels far and wide, adding to the problem. However, not all aspiring Muslim women are suffering from the same fate.

The case of Muslim women in the UAE stands in sharp contrast to that of India. Indeed, the UAE has become an inspiration for the rest of the Arab world in particular and the Muslim world in general, in the area of women’s rights. According to a 2007 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, “the proportion of females in higher education has risen remarkably, at a rate that has not been achieved in any other country in the world. Between 1990 and 2004, the number of female university students has increased dramatically, doubling that of male students. This is the result of the promotion and encouragement of women’s education by the state and family.”[11] Unlike India, the UAE boasts many distinguished female Muslim leaders who are seen as inspirational figures among the masses. One such woman is Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, a tireless leader in promoting the causes of female education and empowerment. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE’s Minister of Foreign Trade, is another example of a strong and accomplished Emirati woman whom others can admire. Apart from such real-life heroines, the UAE is also making optimal use of television media to inspire its women. A fictional character called Abla Noora ― a headmistress who leads her school to success ― has become very popular, and an inspiration among Emirati women.[12]

According to this UNDP report, various factors have contributed to the strikingly rapid progress of Emirati women. Perhaps the most important contributing factor to women’s educational progress in the UAE is the state’s efforts, which led to the establishment of a cost-free education system. This helped enhanced the educational opportunities of women from all strata of society. In 2007, the literacy rate among UAE women was estimated at 90%, one of the highest in the world. Her Highness Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma Al Makhtoum[13] stated in an interview with Al Maraa Al Youm magazine that the UAE woman has become intellectually, psychologically, and socially qualified to take on any position in any field. These words capture well the status of the Emirati woman ― a status which in no way resembles the stereotypical image of a female Muslim.

Conclusion

Today, the Muslim world remains enveloped in controversies and misconceptions, and women suffer significantly as a result. The portrayal of Muslim women as uneducated, submissive, and as victims adds to their pathos without helping to bring about any real improvement in their lives.

The stereotypical image of a Muslim woman as uneducated and lacking ambition is neither true nor fair. It obscures the complex realities of life for many millions of Muslim women ― misattributing their low levels of educational attainment to a lack of desire rather than to a lack of opportunity, as well as to the strictures of Islam, rather than to a broader range of socioeconomic and political roadblocks.

A Muslim woman, no matter where she lives ― whether in a small wealthy country such as UAE, or in a sprawling developing country such as India ― is as ambitious as any other modern woman. Husna, the Indian woman mentioned above, says that although her poverty does not make her feel inferior, her lack of education does. Similarly, an Emirati woman, as related in an account published in the November 19, 2010 issue of Gulf News, insists that she “chose” to pursue an education because it promised to make her a more valuable member of society.[14] The similarity between them is unmistakable and striking: both aspire to be educated. The difference between them is the degree of educational opportunity. One woman remains invisible, while the other gives wings to her dreams.


[1] M. Ali, “Muslim women in India are in miserable condition:Uzma Naheed,” twocircles.net, June 25, 2009, http://twocircles.net/2009jun24/muslim_women_india_are_miserable_condition_uzma_naheed.html.

[2] R. Jalil, “Educating Muslim women in India: Problems and Perspectives,”twocircles.net, July 3, 2011, http://twocircles.net/2011jul03/educating_muslim_women_modern_india_problems_and_perspectives.html.

[3] R. Sachar, Social, Economic, and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India (Delhi: Government of India, 2006), http://minorityaffairs.gov.in/sites/upload_files/moma/files/pdfs/sachar_comm.pdf.

[4] A. Parween, Triple Jeopardy: A Reflection on the Socio Economic Status of Muslim Women in India Through Voices of the Muslim Women Embroidery Workers, M.A. Thesis, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India (2011).

[5] Purdah is the practice of concealing women from men.

[6] R. Jalil, “Educating Muslim women in India: Problems and Perspectives,”twocircles.net, July 3, 2011, http://twocircles.net/2011jul03/educating_muslim_women_modern_india_problems_and_perspectives.html.

[7] The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008, defines an unorganized worker as home-based worker, self-employed worker, or a wage worker in the unorganized sector or a worker not covered by any of the labour laws.

[8] Beedi is a thin, often flavored Indian cigarette made of tobacco wrapped in  an ebony tree leaf.

[9] A. Parween, Triple Jeopardy: A Reflection on the Socio Economic Status of Muslim Women in India Through Voices of the Muslim Women Embroidery Workers, M.A. Thesis, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India (2011).

[10] R. Jalil, “Educating Muslim women in India: Problems and Perspectives,”twocircles.net, July 3, 2011, http://twocircles.net/2011jul03/educating_muslim_women_modern_india_problems_and_perspectives.html.

[11] S.R. Madsen and B.J. Cook, “Transformative Learning: U.A.E, Women and Higher Education,” Journal Global Responsibility, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2010), pp. 127–48.

[12] M. Swan, “Emirati Women Need Strong Role Models,” The National, January 20, 2013, http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/education/emirati-women-need-strong-role-models.

[13] Her Highness Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma Al Makhtoum is the wife of the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Makhtoum.

[14] G.A. Janbey, “Emirati Women Choose to Get a Good Education,” Gulf News, November 19, 2010, http://gulfnews.com/options/columnists/emirati-women-choose-to-get-a-good-education-1.714071.