Gender: Gender and Education

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Formal schooling, informal education, and gender socialization have historically been strong factors in the development of women, societies, and states in the Middle East, reflecting social, political, and religious trends and tensions within the region.

The education of girls and women in the Middle East is a complex and contentious subject. What knowledge women should acquire, relative to that of men, and how they should use that knowledge are matters of great debate, both among educators and among the public throughout the region and beyond. Indeed, discussions of gender and education often serve as markers of political or religious dissent and have become a key factor in the debate around women's status in the region. These debates reveal the complexity of gender socialization for Middle Eastern women and men, and the ways in which formal and informal educational structures and opportunities have variously, and often simultaneously, served as sources of empowerment and control. This complexity is best understood through a historical analysis of the role of education in the development of gender role identity among different populations in the modern Middle East.

Participation and Content

Formal schooling for women and girls in the Middle East is characterized by both progress and regression. The region's states have accepted education as a basic right and, when compared to developing countries generally, over the last fifty years have made significant quantitative gains in female schooling. The enrollment of girls has increased notably, particularly following the introduction of nondiscriminatory compulsory public education laws in most states, and in many Middle Eastern countries girls and boys now have equal access to schooling and similar levels of participation. In the Middle East as a whole, girls are more likely to be attending school than their counterparts in West Africa or South Asia, and academically they usually outperform their male peers, both on assessments and in terms of grade repetition.

However, there are indications that these gains may be slowing, if not reversing. Nearly one girl in four of primary school age in the Arab states is not in school, and the ratio is far higher in Afghanistan. In addition, enrollment rates for girls drop noticeably beginning in middle school and continue to decline through secondary and tertiary schooling. Although Turkey, Iran, and Israel all boast high levels of both primary and secondary enrollment for girls, in the Arab states slightly less than 47 percent of the 60 percent of all students in the secondary age group enrolled in school are girls. High dropout rates among girls and high numbers of girls who never enroll contribute to the high overall levels of female illiteracy in the region (an average of 50% for women in the Arab states).

Gender bias in curricula varies from country to country within the region, but instructional programs and texts generally reinforce subordinate or domestic roles for women. However, the effects of these messages on student choices and participation are unpredictable. Secondary schools across the region, which typically track students into arts and humanities or sciences, generally sort females into the arts and humanities tracks and, in vocational programs, into such fields as nursing, typing, home economics, and simple bookkeeping. Tertiary programs reflect similar imbalances of women in social sciences, humanities, and education, as opposed to more technical fields. However, an increasing proportion of Middle Eastern women (indeed, a larger proportion than their Western counterparts) are choosing science and mathematics as specializations, and (as noted above), their performance has outpaced that of male students in these fields, even in more traditional societies.

Social Context

Such contradictory data indicate a need to view education within a broader framework than that of simple formal schooling. Social forces affect academic performance and gendered life choices. For Middle Eastern girls and women, as for women elsewhere, informal training and upbringing, popular discourses, and media engagement are as important to their overall education as any formal schooling they receive. Gender roles are conveyed, modeled, and reinforced in these venues in ways that interact with schooling to shape students' expectations, desires, and performance, thus exerting a profound influence on the future of the region's women and girls.

Historically, this interaction has been part of a larger tension between Middle Eastern cultures and educational reforms largely developed in or modeled on those of Western Europe and North America. Although traditional forms of education, including the kuttab and madrasa (Islamic schools focusing on religious instruction), have remained important throughout the region, colonialism, modernization campaigns, and now globalization have layered external influences over indigenous institutions and concerns. State school systems in the contemporary Middle East are heavily dependent on funding from international sources to maintain their capacity, and thus typically reflect an understanding of education that is based on external models (although content and pedagogy are typically at least one step behind efforts in the countries on which they are based). This dependence on the West has resulted both in greater Middle Eastern interest in and acceptance of Western norms and in rejection of those norms in favor of local or regional efforts grounded in religion and culture.

Islamic Influence

Religion has played a central role in the education of Middle Eastern girls and boys, and in the shaping
of their gender identity. Islam, the dominant religion for most of the region's countries, strongly emphasizes learning as an obligation of faith, and has in most cases been used historically as a support for education, including that of girls and women. Muslim women across the region have studied and continue to study in traditional Islamic schools and colleges; in schools operated by Christian missionaries; in public, state-sponsored schools; and in overseas institutions of higher learning. Local custom and beliefs, however, have affected the enrollment of girls and women and have strongly influenced both men's and women's fields of study. Formal secular education for women, as opposed to religious instruction, is seen across the region on a continuum ranging from necessity to nuisance, and there are notable differences of opinion about where the line between benefit and drawback occurs. Some extreme interpretations, such as that of Afghanistan's Taliban, have opposed women's education altogether, but these represent the exception rather than the rule. Most stances value female schooling's contribution to family and social development.

The influence of Islam has not been limited only to the formal schools. Family norms, social and political projects, and economic activities in the Middle East are all shaped by understandings of religious text and practice (even aggressively secular Turkey's rejection of Islam in the public sphere indicates the importance of the faith's influence). Islamic understandings of appropriate roles and activities for girls and women, and the training required for them to achieve those roles, are important subjects for
debate across the region's states and are prominently argued in the media, in public discourse, and in law. Interpretations range from liberal to conservative extremes, but have in general favored domestic roles for women, or public service roles (such as teaching and nursing) that parallel and do not overwhelm their domestic responsibilities, with related limitations on the necessity of advanced formal training. Correspondingly, men are expected to provide income and support for families and to serve in public positions with parallel powers of provision and oversight that in theory benefit from more advanced education. Arguments in favor of extending women's service role to government and other forms of public leadership (with greater education as a prerequisite) are varyingly received: Highly educated women hold positions as government officials and are important religious figures in countries as varied as Palestine, Egypt, Iran, and Qatar but their formal participation in political life is much more limited in other states in the region.

Christian Influence

Islam is not the only religious tradition exerting influence on schooling and gendered identity in the Middle East, however. Christian missionaries have also contributed, largely through the establishment, beginning in the late nineteenth century, of formal schools for girls and of universities. Both in areas with larger indigenous Christian populations, such as Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt, and in areas where Christian minority presence is nearly negligible, missionary schools provided an educational option for Middle Eastern students before the establishment of public education, and they continue to offer an alternative educational venue today. Some of these schools are indigenously governed and run and are closely connected to local Christian communities; others remain service arms of foreign missionary organizations. The latter, in particular, have tended to hold an outsider's perspective on the appropriate forms and functions of education for their students, and in many cases these closely paralleled the positions of the colonial regimes of Britain and France.

Many of the Christian schools and universities catered to an elite population (both Muslim and Christian) that has been at the center of political and cultural debates across the region, both in support of increased Westernization and in opposition to foreign influence. Together with institutions sponsored by colonial governments to train local administrators, these schools produced a new class of Middle Eastern intellectuals and political actors in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. Their graduates, fluent in the languages and cultures of their educational hosts, were intended to serve as bridges between societies, or facilitators of external influence, but their exposure to Western norms often had unintended consequences. Although many have been key to the processes of internationalization that have occurred in Middle Eastern states through their roles in government, cultural institutions, and social leadership, otherswell informed and critical of Western approaches to and interests in the developing worldhave formed a base of intellectual and material support for nationalist and regionalist movements and opposition to globalization.

Women graduates of these institutions have often taken positions on women's roles and rights that lean toward the liberal end of the political and cultural continuum, although not all would welcome being classified as feminists. These women have contributed to debates about women's roles and identity locally and internationally and challenge both internal and external stereotypes of Middle Eastern women as unquestioning, submissive, or oppressed. Some do this from positions of comparative Westernization, others from a nationalist or Islamist stance, but all argue the importance of women's active contributions to the health of their respective societies.

Women's Role in Society

Whether such contributions should be instrumental, strategic, or intrinsically valuable is, however, a matter of debate. In throwing off colonial regimes and pursuing development agendas, many Middle Eastern states have framed women as important but temporary contributors to efforts at liberation and nation-building, only to relegate them to subordinate status once the national struggle has been resolved. Others have viewed women only as economic drivers whose contributions as physical laborers, wage earners, or child-rearers are essential to modernization and development. Both perspectives necessitate a rethinking of gender roles, and both support the increased education of women across the region, but neither values women for themselves, viewing them instead as instruments for achieving national goals that are determined mostly by men.

Modernization and related human capital models of development, which draw on an understanding of individual and population-group contributions to the economy as a form of investment capital, have emerged as the dominant framework across the Middle East, largely through pressure from institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, and other Euro-American development agencies determined to bring the region into line with international market norms. Research in this tradition argues that higher levels of education increase women's direct and indirect contribution to the market by increasing their productive skills, delaying marriage, increasing their average number of years in the formal labor pool, and reducing their fertility rates, thus increasing the health and education (and therefore the future productivity) of those children that they do bear.

Adopting this approach has led to broad public campaigns for girls' education in the Middle East and corresponding efforts to increase the quality of schooling for girls, particularly in those fields believed to most directly support technical and scientific development. Arguments for educated women's participation in public economic roles have created opportunities for many, but these positions tend to add to rather than replace women's unpaid labor in reproduction, and they have not been paralleled by legal changes to reduce their generally subordinate status.

Linking education first and foremost to economic development relegates learning to an instrumental role in the lives of women (and men) across the region and implies that it has no meaning or value apart from its connection to marketable skills or services. The intrinsic benefits and less measurable outcomes of education are devalued in an approach to development that many in the Middle East argue impoverishes culture and community. Recent regional attempts to articulate strategies for education drawing on the rich culture and history of the Middle East focus on humanistic and critical strains in early Islam and on socio-cultural structures that support socially engaged educational practice. Both approaches offer opportunities for the exploration of gender roles and expectations in ways that do not simply mimic Western feminist or neoliberal arguments for the improvement of women's status. Rather, they challenge societies to reexamine the roots of the social and moral order governing their lives and to develop indigenous strategies through which all members are able to flourish without sacrificing cultural heritage and communal dignity.

See also Baʿth, al-; Kuttab; Madrasa; Taliban; World Bank.


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Rachel Christina

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Gender: Gender and Education

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