Wed, 24 May 2000

Denying education to women defies Islam

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): The conclusion of an international seminar on women in Islam held here last month was that the secret to problems facing Muslim societies around the world lies in providing women with proper education.

This may not be a new idea but the constraints faced in ensuring education for women in many countries continue, as those conference participants active in projects focusing on women described.

"As mother, educator and custodian of traditions in all societies, women have tremendous influence on the way the world evolves," said Assietou Kannediagne from Senegal.

She added that children could only be educated if the mother herself was first educated.

Kannediagne runs a project at the Dar al Quran al Karim Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse Institute to help Muslim girls from poor homes educate themselves. She quoted the long held but barely practiced belief that to educate a boy is to educate a person, but to educate a girl is to educate a nation.

She strongly feels that problems like prostitution and poverty would be greatly reduced if women were educated. She said at the institute she tried to provide a home for poor, teenage girls where they could study up to university level along with Koran lessons.

Her experience with poor parents is that they prefer to educate their boys. For those girls who do not want to go for higher studies, the institute helps them to get professional training in sewing, cooking, farming and poultry rearing.

The talks held by the Islamic University of As-Syafifiyah (UIA) and the Majelis Taklim Coordinating Board were held in the hope of getting Muslim thinkers, intellectuals and leaders to exchange views on the state of women in the Muslim world.

The seminar attracted participants from countries as wide apart as South Africa, Senegal, Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan and England and, within the Asian region, from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

Aida Vitayala Sjafri Hubeis from Bogor Agricultural University said she felt that women remained ignorant of their rights and unaware of the importance of their equal participation in power sharing and in decision making.

About 85 percent of Indonesia's labor force are women. Statistics prove that the education level of these women is lower than that of men. One reason for this discrepancy, she said, is the perception that educating women at home was enough.

Womens' roles are still considered to lie mainly within the domestic domain, although the demands of development expect them to also participate in economic and public life.

Women's participation in social and religious activities is encouraged but they are under represented in development activities.

The truth is that illiterate women in villages and those from low-income groups in the city have been involved in income earning activities for a long time, and not because they want to neglect their domestic duties or to compete with men, but due to necessity, she said.

Today it is clear that women have been working for centuries, much more than men will ever do as they continue to combine their domestic duties with other activities that bring them money.

The head of Women's Solidarity Organization of Lebanon, H. Afaf Alhakim, pointed out that Islam gives equal rights to both women and men to learn and to teach.

Whenever families have adopted the true path of religion, women's involvement in learning and economic activities has flowered. It is very important for women themselves to understand and enhance their own position in society, she said.

Tutty Alawiyah, president of Majelis Taklim and Rector of UIA asked for a creative reinterpretation of parts of Islamic texts that were a source of unnecessary controversy.

"The reinterpretation should not take just a textual approach but also keep in mind the historical context," she said before calling for newer, fairer and more impartial laws that would allow many more women to diversify their roles as wives and mothers to be able to better deal with the challenges of present day society.

Such a reinterpretation has been going on for some years here, involving no less than First Lady Sinta Nuriyah.

Fatima Khan from South Africa's Muslim Women's Federation called a mother's lap the first school of all human beings, from prophets to paupers.

At the federation's learning center the goal is to help students heighten awareness of the world around them, she said.

The participants at this seminar reflected the many thinking Muslim women around the world, who are alarmed at the way most male dominated societies choose to attack the weakest in society, including women, to prove their religiosity.

They may wonder, when did Islam ever say that half of the world's population was entitled to little justice, equality or freedom?

The writer is a freelancer in Jakarta.