Low-income, educated and empowered Muslim women have tended to be viewed in opposition to their culture and religion, argue Payal P. Shah (University of South Carolina, USA) and Ayesha Khurshid (Florida State University, USA). But what can the education of two Muslim women from low-income communities in India and Pakistan reveal about the place of religion in the construction of the contemporary identity of Muslim women. Here the two researchers offer a more nuanced picture of religion, education and empowerment for Muslim women.
In contemporary times, Muslim womanhood has reemerged as a site for different political, cultural, and even military conflicts. In 2002, the First Lady of the United States Laura Bush justified the US intervention in Afghanistan through connecting it to the protection of Afghan women. Over a decade later, US presidential candidate Donald Trump used the somber demeanor of Ghazala Khan, mother of a slain Muslim US soldier, during her husband’s speech at the 2016 National Democratic Convention, to question her ability to speak. Ghazala’s struggle to grapple with her son’s loss on a national stage became a reflection of the collective silence and oppression of Muslim women and, thus, a way to delegitimise the critique voiced by Ghazala’s husband about Trump’s rhetoric against minorities.
In these narratives, empowered Muslim women are viewed as an antithesis of their culture and religion and as an ally of the West. It is no surprise that the heroic story of Malala Yousufzai, the globally-renowned girls’ education advocate from Pakistan, has been mobilised to further reinforce, rather than problematise, this dominant narrative. Malala who was shot by the Taliban has eloquently articulated how Islam, her culture, and family have shaped her worldview and work.
The western media however covered Malala’s story through conflating the Taliban with Islam and Pakistani society while making her family invisible in her story. Malala, thus, emerges as an ‘empowered victim,’ as someone who is an individual agent reflecting the patriarchal traditions of her religion and culture. This interpretation of Malala’s story, particularly the erasure of the immensely supportive role of her family, provides critical insights into the notion of empowerment for Muslim women. It reveals how the subjectivity of empowered Muslim women become intelligible only as actors that stand in opposition to their religion, culture, and family (Khurshid 2017).
In research spanning from 2008-2016, we focus on the lived experiences of two educated Muslim women from Pakistan and India to examine what empowerment means for them: Rashida, a Muslim teacher in a predominantly Hindu region of Gujarat, India and Noreen, a Muslim teacher in a Muslim-majority region of Punjab, Pakistan. Both Rashida and Noreen represent women who are amongst the first from their communities to be educated and professionally employed as teachers. We are particularly interested in examining how these participants employ their distinct educated status to construct what it means to be empowered Muslim women in their contexts.
India: Being a Muslim teacher in a rural and low-income Hindu community
Rashida was 23 years old and engaged during our period of research. She completed her masters’ degree in Gujarati in addition to her certification as CPEd (physical education teacher) shortly before beginning teaching at a public all girls residential school. Rashida shared many stories with us about what it was like to be a Muslim teacher in a predominantly Hindu region. Rashida’s family was originally from a rural area about 100 kilometers away from the capital city of the region where she grew up.
Rashida explains that being Muslim in Gujarat, even in a small city, was very difficult. Considered low caste, Muslims are placed at the lower end of the Hindu socio-cultural hierarchy. As a part of this hierarchy, Islam is positioned in opposition to Hinduism, resulting in a perception of Muslims as both low caste and inferior.
For Rashida, being a Muslim in a Hindu dominant society meant occupying an inferior caste-like status. Her Muslimness symbolised ‘othering’ that she had to work against in order to claim citizenship in the Gujarati and the Indian society. Humanism, thus, became her framework to claim citizenship. Rashida’s education enabled her to access opportunities and roles that were not available to other women in her Muslim community. She felt empowered as someone who had access to economic resources, a job outside the home, mobility in public spaces, and a higher status in her family.
This educated and empowered status, on one hand, extended her certain privileges in the larger society and, on the other hand, reinserted her positionality as someone who was different from her Muslim community. She herself prescribed to these stereotypes by claiming how she was different from other women in her community.
Her Muslim womanhood, thus, was constructed in opposition to the subject positions assigned to other women in her community. She defined empowerment, however, in relation to the specific norms of her Muslim family and community rather than the larger Indian society. For example, she mentioned her superior status in her family as a reflection of her empowerment. She also compared the opportunities that were available to her as with those of other women in her community.
Finally, she wanted to make her education and knowledge useful for her family and community. In other words, Rashida approached her subjectivity as an educated and empowered Muslim woman as an outlier and not as a reflection of Muslim womanhood. This construction echoes dominant narratives in Indian society about the backwardness and oppression of Muslim women (Chatterjee 1993; Sarkar 2008). However, in spite of these narratives, Rashida’s conceptualisation of empowerment mobilised her family and community as being the most relevant spaces and structures for her.
Pakistan: Being a Muslim teacher in a rural and low-income Pakistani community
Noreen was a 23-year-old woman who was working as a teacher at the school supported by a US-based transnational development organisation during our research. Noreen had a bachelors’ degree and was one of the first and very few women in her rural and low-income Punjabi village to have received high school and college education. Noreen, an educated Muslim woman in a Punjabi village of Pakistan, challenged the ‘othering’ of her family – being from a village in the mountains – through mobilising Islam. In this national context, Islam could serve as a framework that transcended the ethnic and class hierarchies that assigned Noreen and her families a lower status.
The nation-making project in Pakistan that equates Islam and modern education as being synonymous entities created the conditions that validated Noreen’s claims even in a village with a very low literacy rate. Noreen also claimed her status as an empowered woman through referring to her access to economic resources, male-dominated spaces, public mobility, and higher status in the family. She referred to her distinct status in the village as an educated and empowered woman. However, the ‘backwardness’ of the village in this case was not a reflection of Islam but rather an outcome of lack of awareness of Islam. The notion and practices of empowerment for Noreen meant violating some of the social norms that were aligned with Islam.
When it came to both women’s vision of what it meant to be educated, both emphasised the value of being exposed to other people as a sign of being educated. This value reflects modern and urban notions of what it means to ‘be educated’ (Khoja-Moolji 2016; Khurshid 2014; Shah 2011). Moreover, both women felt that education provided them with access to new roles and responsibilities, contributing to their empowerment. This empowerment enabled them to have more freedom and opportunities both inside and outside the home, something that both felt was desirable.
Therefore, from the lived experiences of Rashida and Noreen we gain insights into how Islam might, or might not be, employed as a resource to explain their identities as educated and empowered women. Their experiences show this in the context of how increasingly around the world Muslim women are taking control of the production of appropriate gender roles by constructing their own narratives (Sakai and Yasmeen 2016). For Rashida, Islam is not the primary framework she relies upon in employing her subjectivity. Noreen, on the other hand, relies upon Islam as the primary way to claim her status as educated and modern.
By speaking to these women, we saw how Islam is one of the multiple institutions that these women refer to explain their identities and experiences. Rashida and Noreen’s experiences give us a concrete way to consider how being Muslim, being educated, and being empowered are context specific phenomena, rather than universal experiences.
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Payal P. Shah is an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations and Qualitative Inquiry in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of South Carolina. She conducts critical ethno- graphic research on gender, education, and development in India and has published across the fields of international and comparative education, qualitative inquiry, and women’s and gender studies.
Ayesha Khurshid is an Associate Professor of International and Comparative Education in the Depart- ment of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Florida State University. She focuses on the issues of gender, education, and modernity in Muslim majority societies and communities. Her eth- nographic research examines the construction, performance, and politics of Muslim womanhood in different global/local contexts.
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