Religion vs. Girls’ Education

A recent headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Muslim Women May Defy Fathers’ Wishes and Go to University, Legal Authority Rules” pointed to a Lebanon fatwa (defined as similar to a court ruling). The ruling was quoted as follows:

“If a father wanted to prevent his daughter from seeking an education and she wanted otherwise, then she is not obliged to obey his wishes in this matter… because obeying the father is an obligation but only under the condition that no harm comes of it to the child,” according to Mr. Gomaa’s reasoning, which is derived from Islamic jurisprudence.

“The harm that befalls a girl for not receiving an education is clear and known. If she abandons her college education, then she will miss a great deal of enlightenment about her religion and about everyday knowledge,” the reasoning continued. “She will have a limited awareness of the world around her as compared to … her educated counterparts in society.”

Of course, not all Muslims agree with this ruling, including the unnamed author of a Web site entitled Read Islamic Books where shariah is marshaled to argue against sending daughters to college. And, as I was reminded, reading comments on that same Chronicle article, nor do all the non-Muslim religious people in the United States (or elsewhere) believe their daughters should be exposed to college or university education; some Americans, it turns out, refuse to fill in financial aid forms for children to attend secular colleges or universities, and refuse as well to support them in declaring themselves independent.

Some evangelical Christians, in an attempt to shelter their children from teachings about evolution, refuse to consider certain schools or subjects. Even when the law supports daughters’ rights, informal practices like this can be mobilized to deny women (and, less frequently, men) access to college and university education. Together, the article and comments ask: what are religious women’s rights to access to education? And, how does this relate, for example, to rates of illiteracy, to poverty, and to related social justice concerns? What are the entanglements of religion, gender, and higher education—here, there and everywhere?

There are many (secular) court cases internationally that have led to rulings on matters of gender, freedom of religion, and access to education. Within an Islamic context, many such cases focus on rights to wear particular attire (often the hijab or aspects thereof) in educational settings. (See here for an analysis of cases in relation to both the right to education for students and the right to work for teachers.)

In arenas that extend beyond the law, a wider array of issues arises. Most recently, for example, there is the movement toward gender-neutral housing at colleges and universities in the United States. This shift is linked to lesbian/gay and transgender rights, but also has the effect of complicating the safety of women; and thus a movement activists on the right and some feminists have questioned, while others are in substantial support ( see here and here).

In the capitalist arena of college and university marketing (yes, higher education institutions are frequently nonprofits, but marketing remains crucial to the survival of most), some religious colleges brand themselves on fear of the contaminating impact of the secular (see here and, for a marketing firm that helps Christian colleges represent themselves, here).

Informal networks of advice for parents are also relevant. Hillel, for example, provides Web-based help in college searches for families seeking to ensure that their children find institutions that are Jewish enough. And Christian sources aimed, for example, toward those who home school, abound. Inclusive excellence remains troubling around exclusivist religious stances. There are, for some “no safe colleges” because “evil” persists everywhere while for other parents, the evils of homophobia and heterosexism mean choosing a college or university for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered child requires substantial care.

Of course, the choice to avoid some schools because they are too religious may be even more difficult to figure out, though there are organizations of secular students and some help for such students and their parents accessible as well.

All in all, the struggle to ensure both the right to education and freedom of religion (and/or freedom from religion) raises as many questions as it offers answers. Do the children, daughters and sons, in these circumstances have a right to knowledge regarding secular education? Is there a right to education; or a right to secular education? What counts as education? These questions are certainly complex when virtually all the liberal arts colleges ranked in the top 50 by U.S. News and World Report are (for complex historical and financial reasons) originally Protestant; when the most highly-branded American institutions identified by University Business include religious schools like Calvin College and the University of Notre Dame; when barring girls’ rights to education remains a global dilemma; and when, in the United States, some still (or again) discriminate in favor of men in college and university applicant pools.

In many places, the right of daughters to a college or university education is, of course, moot, given the lack of access of girls to education; whether explicit or implicit, whether pervasive in a culture, rooted in the practices of a religious community or an effect of the experience of particular socioeconomic classes. While a characteristic of some Islamic traditions, such difficulty is substantially more widespread across the religions, and regions, of the globe. We can all benefit from reflection on the right to education. And, we can all benefit from organizations hard at work to ensure that right–for everyone, including (y)our daughters.

Yes, it was 1787 when Mary Wollstonecraft first issued her “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.” Very little there moves beyond the domestic; but once she started thinking, she arrived at “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792. Perhaps we too can radicalize by moving from the education of daughters to the rights of women (and girls).

After all, it is 2009.

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