Muslim Women's Education: Between East and West

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The media and the popular culture literature in America and Europe are not the only biased groups in portraying women in Islam as "oppressed" and that their liberation can take place only outside Islam. Contrary to my trust in the impartiality of Western scholarly and activists groups, I am finding that such groups are as inequitable when it comes to addressing the "Muslim woman question" from within the framework of Islam. Empirical and historical findings in my current research on Muslim women's education in western societies, such as in North America, suggest that the absence of concerns for Muslim women's religious education is not only evident, but particularly polarized during the last two decades of the twentieth centuries. Though many of these groups are advocates of Judo-Christian women's participation in their respective religious theological and scholarly ranks, none of these groups raises the issue of Muslim women inclusion in decision-making and scholarly ranks among Muslim communities.

The Qur'an and the Hadith are rich in precepts that speak of Almighty God's design for harmonious social order and humanity's responsibility for understanding God's design and working from within it. For many Muslims, including those active in North America, citing these precepts is enough to prove that Islam has always embraced a well integrated educational imperative and comprehensive knowledge of the Islamic teachings for all Muslims. Few, however, are critical when the discussion concerns women's Islamic education and the women's role as preservers of culture and as the primary educators within the faith of Islam. These few Muslims may readily acknowledge that women have more power in Islam than most Westerners realize, but when the question of allowing more women to become Islamic scholars and jurists is raised, the issue becomes that of women's primary role as nurturing mother and wife instead of educating scholar and a partner in the interpretation of the tradition.

Meanwhile, Muslim women in the USA and Canada, as generally is the case in other Western societies, are not free to practice certain aspects of Islam with the excuse that women are being oppressed by Islam. While Muslim women are trying to build their own agenda for emancipation, they are being torn between secular humanists who do not allow them to practice their own reading of the religion, and the Muslims who still think that a women's Islamicity is expressed through the wearing of a headcover and seclusion and by her male household.

Analyzing this polarization in the context of Muslim women's education historically, since the interaction between the West and Muslim societies has intensified in late nineteenth century, and empirically, using North American Muslim women as the case-in-point, indicates a discrepancy in the world views on education, on Islamic education, and on women's education. This discrepancy resulted in a tension between Muslims and Westerners in which Muslim women's education suffered the brunt. By synthesizing these discrepancies and the resulting historical and contemporary practices, I will conclude with some suggestions for developing an integrated educational strategies for Muslim women within the Islamic framework and in the contemporary Western social context.

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Copyright 2004, Nimat Hafez Barazangi. This is a pre-published version of an article accepted for publication in the edited book Women in Islamic and Judaic Societies following peer review to be published by Holmes and Meier: See also:


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Holmes and Meier


Muslim women's religious education; Inclusion in scholarly ranks; Islamic theology and jurisprudence; Women as primary educators; Integrated educational strategies


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in Seth Ward, ed. Women in Islamic and Judaic Societies. Holmes and Meier (2004)

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book chapter

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