Muslim women in science
By Corey Elizabeth Habbas
Ms. Habbas is a freelance writer from St. Paul,
Westerners are comfortable with stereotypes
that Muslim women are oppressed because of Islam
The fact is that the United States falls behind
six Muslim countries in the percentage of women graduating in science to
the total science graduate population.....
There is an ingrained value in every Muslim, man and woman alike, to
pursue knowledge and to learn about God’s truth by studying the
surrounding world. Prophet Mohammad , advised his followers to seek
knowledge wherever it can be found. In keeping with this value, Muslim
women are continuing to make headway in the field of science and their
graduation ratios often exceed those of western women in pursuing
scientific degrees according to figures recently released by UNESCO.
Yet, very seldom do positive depictions of Muslim women get portrayed by
the western mainstream media. In some cases, media profit depends upon a
production team’s ability to feed the myopic fantasies and stereotypes
etched in the minds of many non-Muslims.
Westerners are comfortable with stereotypes that Muslim women are
oppressed because of Islam, which could not be further from the truth.
The Islamic message, which stresses gender equity and rights for women,
is often corrupted by competing cultural values that have no basis in
The quest for knowledge has always applied to women in Islam. God has
made no difference between genders in this area. The Prophet once said:
“Seeking knowledge is a mandate for every Muslim (male and female).” (Sahih
During the International Congress on Muslim Women in Science Towards a
Better Future, King Mohamed VI stressed that “...the integrated
development of the principles of Islam and of scientific knowledge must
be achieved irrespective of gender”, according to a UNESCO report on the
gathering that took place in 2000.
Muslim women in science have become leaders in their fields, receiving
awards, earning patents and making contribution that further man’s
knowledge of the world, and yet the eyes of western cameras see through
these women as if they do not exist.
A tendency to avoid praise for Muslim achievements hides the seldom
The fact is that the United States falls behind six Muslim countries in
the percentage of women graduating in science to the total science
graduate population. The countries whose ratio of women science
graduates exceeds that of the United States are Bahrain, Brunei
Darussalam, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Qatar and Turkey. Morocco exceeds the
United States in the ratio of women engineering graduates as a
percentage of the science graduate population.
Rehab Eman, a Muslim woman with a Bachelor of Science in Architectural
Engineering, and a Masters degree in Islamic Studies on Jerusalem
credits Islamic values for what inspired her to pursue knowledge in a
scientific field. Instead of holding Eman back, the Muslim men in her
life, including her father and brother, encouraged her to work hard for
”My lecturers were men, my supporters were men, my sponsors were men.
They believed in my talents...,” she shares.
Traditionally, Muslim women have not been discouraged in the sciences to
the extent that Western women have, which might be why statistics show
such high ratios of Muslim women graduates in science fields as a
percentage to the total science graduate population. However, in Muslim
countries the real hurdles that affect women’s education are the very
same hurdles that affect men’s education. These hurdles take the form of
poverty, illiteracy, political instability and the policy of foreign
Data that explains the real problem can be found by comparing the total
educated populations of countries and regions of the world. A high
degree of illi teracy and low levels of secondary school enrollment
account for why there are less graduates overall in poorer countries
than there are in wealthier regions like North America and Europe. In
locales defined by UNESCO in their recent report, gross secondary school
enrollment ratios are very low: Africa (below 40%), West Asia (below
60%), and East Asia (below 75%).
While some Islamophobic pundits are all too ready to make a correlation
between poor education and what type of religion one practices, more
accurate relationships can find their foundation in hard figures.
National wealth and education forge a tight relationship. According to
data from the UIS (UNESCO Institute for Statistics), national wealth is
directly related to educational enrollment. Statistics show that the
vast majority of medium-high and high income countries have a secondary
school enrollment ratio above 90 percent. Poorer countries don’t have
the resources needed to make education a priority. Undoubtedly, the next
question that gets asked is, “How do countries become poor?” Well, to
the dismay of many hostile to the deen, poverty and Islam cannot be
correlated any more successfully than illiteracy and Islam.
While there is more than enough scriptural proof that Islam encourages
education for both men and women, some fail to realize that when the
disease of poverty attacks, it does so in disregard to any cultural or
Obstacles to Education
Although there are obstacles to education in much of the non-Muslim
world today, the Muslim world has endured some of the most hostile
attacks in recent decades, which has affected the overall quality and
safety for youth trying to obtain education. In war torn Afghanistan and
Iraq, schools of all levels have been bombed and shelled by U.S.
military forces. Public health is in jeopardy and infrastructure has
been damaged and not rebuilt.
When state-sponsored super-power terrorism isn’t being waged on weaker
civilian populations, a form of quiet economic warfare is being waged
behind a smokescreen of Public Relations razzle-dazzle by organizations
like the IMF and World Bank, the culprits responsible, in part, for
increasing third-world national debts and hitting other nations’
education systems like a homerun out of Yankee Stadium.
A self-proclaimed Economic Hit-Man, John Perkins, former Chief Economist
for Chas. T. Main, confesses in a radio interview with Amy Goodman that
his job was to build the American Empire by increasing other countries’
national debt by using any means necessary.
”This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been
built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through
fraud, through seducing people into our way of life, through the
economic hit men. I was very much a part of that,” says Perkins.
Gender inequity does exist, but it is not relegated to Muslim countries.
Some disparaging gender gaps in higher education exist where the
religion of Islam isn’t even practiced by a majority of the population.
For example, only 44% of people enrolled in higher education in
Switzerland are women, Guatemala (43%), Rwanda (37%), Korea (36%),
Bhutan (34%), Cambodia (29%) and Liechtenstein (27%).
On the other side of the coin, in Tunisia, a country where 98% of people
practice Islam, there were 5% more female students enrolled than males
in higher education. Malaysian women made up 55% of the enrolled
population in higher education, Lebanon (54%), Jordan and Libya (51%).
Bahrain even exceeded the United States in the ratio of women enrolled
in higher education by 6%. If education is freedom, then it looks like
Muslim women in Bahrain are more liberated than American women.
Rather than Islam threatening a woman’s right to education, governments
hostile to Islam often set up roadblocks to prevent Muslim women from
obtaining education. Both France and Turkey are guilty of this type of
exclusionary persecution, all under the false guise of secularism.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a prestigious nongovernmental
organization, these bans exclude thousands of women from institutions of
higher learning each year. A 2004 HRW report states, “This restriction
of women’s choice of dress is discriminatory and violates their right to
education, their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,
and their right to privacy.”
Exemplary Muslimah Scientists
Despite the fact that the Muslim woman is constantly being harassed
about her choice in religion and must withstand relentless western media
stereotypes that ridicule her faith and demonize the men of her culture,
there exists an Islamic tradition celebrating women in science of which
Muslims must remind the world. Today, the Islamic culture in which women
are encouraged to participate, excel and lead in scientific fields
continues to express itself, not only through statistical data, but in
real, living, breathing and praying people. Although these women are
exceptional, they are by no means the exception to the rule.
Professor Samira Ibrahim Islam
Professor Islam was nominated as a distinguished Scientist of the World
For the Year 2000 by UNESCO. She made significant contributions in drug
safety by defining the Saudi profile for drug metabolism. She has held
several academic leadership posts in her own country as well as
international diplomatic posts with the World Health Organization.
Professor Islam has also been a key figure in building academic
infrastructure, beginning in the ‘70s, to support women studying science
in higher education in Saudi Arabia.
Recently at the international Workshop on Machine Learning in Canada,
Samira Shah, presented an innovative algorithm in computerized cognitive
leaning that she and a team of colleagues developed at IIT Delhi, India.
Her previous academic contributions include a “Global Optimizer” for
which a patent is pending. She is currently pursuing a doctorate degree
from IIT Delhi.
Professor Dr. Bina Shaheen Siddiqui
Dr. Siddiqui has made significant contributions to medicine and
agriculture through her study and classification of indigenous plant
materials. She has been awarded several patents for anticancer
constituents and biopesticides and has written more than 250 research
articles. Pakistan Academy of Sciences elected her as a Fellow and she
co-founded the Third World Organization for Women in Science. She
received her Ph.D. and D.Sc. from the University of Karachi, Pakistan.
She has been honored with several prestigious awards including the
Khwarizmi International Award of Iran and Salam Prize in Chemistry.
Historic records show that women participated in science and medicine in
Muslim societies. By contrast, in America, during the 1890’s women could
not be doctors, and yet, Muslim women doctors were seen as equals to
their male counterparts hundred’s of years earlier, they were even
responsible for written contributions in the field. Also, women like
Ijliya, an astrolabe builder, were employed as skilled scientists in
Muslim courts. Others made progress in pharmacology like Ishi Nili
Seeking knowledge is one of the most rewarding ways to connect to Al-Alim
(The All Knowing) besides prayer. The believing faithful hold a deep
love for Allah in their hearts. Perhaps it is this deep love that
inspires believing men and women to strain and reach with their minds,
through scientific learning in order to bring themselves closer to the
One to whom they are so thankful.
”Iqra!” (read) was Allah’s first command to Mohammad (peace be upon him)
and its implications are numerous to Muslims living today. Read, be
literate, seek and learn, discover and use the gifts and talents that
Allah has granted us above animals.
Use the mind to move closer to Al-Haadi (The Guide), as the Muslimah
scientists have done in the past and are doing today.
Women graduates in science and engineering
The data for years 2002/2003 contained in these tables describes the
percentage of women graduates in science and engineering out of the
total science and engineering graduate population in each country, and
pertains to higher-education in science (life sciences, physical
sciences, mathematics and statistics, computer sciences) and Engineering
(engineering and engineering trades, manufacturing and processing,
architecture and building) fields in countries with Muslim majorities
for which data was available.
(Statistics from the “Global Education Digest” report released from
UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2005)
Brunei Darussalam 49%
Women Graduates in Engineering
News from Bangladesh, Monday October 24, 2005