Muslim Women in Science

Category: Life & Society, Women Topics: Islam And Science, Women Values: Education Views: 12443

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 Islam scripture. 

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 Bukhari)

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 explored comparisons. 

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 her education. "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 powers. 

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 illiteracy 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 religious boundaries.

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

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.

Sameena Shah

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 astrolab 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.


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)

Woman Graduates in Science

Bahrain                   74%
Bangladesh              24%
Brunei Darussalam     49%
Kyrgyzstan              64%
Lebanon                  47% 
Qatar                     71%
Turkey                    44%

Compared with...

U.S.                       43%
Japan                     25% 

Women Graduates in Engineering

Eritrea                      4%
Morocco                  25%

Compared with...
U.S.                        19%
Japan                      13%

Corey Elizabeth Habbas is a a freelance writer from St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

  Category: Life & Society, Women
  Topics: Islam And Science, Women  Values: Education
Views: 12443

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Older Comments:
I am beginning to question some of the statistics you provided. Bangladesh is a very poor country, indeed, but women do excel regularly in higher studies. More and more (Muslim) women are going for Science, Engineering and Medicine and some of them are coming out on top of their class. May be the education rate and ratio is still lower in Bangladesh because most people cannot afford basic education, but the one's that do - do it with excellence. I have seen more Bangladeshi women Doctors, Engineers, PhDs and university faculties in the US than from any middle eastern country.

Bravo for highlighting the achievements of Muslim women in science, and for espousing the value of knowledge in Islam. I have one suggestion however. I believe you are putting a potential barrier between non-believers and the important history and biographical information in your later paragraphs with your perhaps valid yet unnecessary criticism of the West's portrayal and perception of Muslim women. I must admit my eyes glossed over as I started to read this criticism, and I almost stopped reading the article entirely.

I would like to suggest that a positive article hailing the achievements and virtue of these Muslims, minus the condemning language, will penetrate the hearts of Muslims and non-Muslims alike without the scars, wounds and bitterness on both sides that often accompany harsher tones. You're also more likely to spread Truth beyond its current boundaries.

The muslim women In India and Pakistan were ignored in your article. There are many women in those parts of the country that hold Master's degrees in Science and Medicine. There is a British system involving education and that means that these women are fluent in English by the time thay are graduated- even better than the women in those Middle Eastren countries and I am saying this because the women in India and Pakistan come from poor backgrounds as compared to the Arabic women, who have the money for education and etc.

It is good to pursue scientific knowledge but this quest cannot supersede the rights of other people over an individual. On the Day of Judgement, Allah will not leave a person until he/she has accounted for the rights of parents and all the close relatives. Even with the statistics shown in the article, The western countries are far ahead of Muslims in scientific research and their materialistic approach is devoid of any spirituality. The damage that this scientific research has done to the family system in the west is known to all of us and that is where Muslims need to be cautious and fearful of Allah.
May Allah give us the correct understanding of deen, ameen.

What an interesting development. Once my grandfather said, "The West took our values and claimed to be their own development, while we (Muslims) exchange ours for their garbage and call it Tradition." I couldn't agree more. When Islam came to al-Andalus, nowadays Spain, it brought sciences, culture, emancipation, and peace to all parties, Muslim, Christians and Jews. The Latin Spain when took over from the Muslims, replaced Islamic values with Christian values. Islam states that "males and females are equal members of one another", Christianity states that the "woman should cover her head because the man is her head." The early church was disputing whether the woman had a soul or she was like an animal without a soul just a living object. In Islam even a stone has a soul and can bear witness in that terrible day(Qiyamah). So, there you go, Christianity finally applied the Islamic values to women after 1000 years, namely:"males and females are equal members of one another", and some Muslim societies unfortunately applied the old Christian values to their religion, namely: "the man is her head". However, even up to date, Christians all over the world practice their primitive belief about women. When I was vacationing in Costa Rica we had a very beautiful and cheerful young woman that was the mother of two wonderful pair of twin boys as room maid. One day she came to work looking like she was hit by a truck. Her face was a raw pulp and she was agonizingly limping her way about. We asked her what happened and why didn't she take a day off, she just said she had an accident and that her boss would replace her if she didn't come to work. We talked to the boss who had the followings to say:"She's a bad woman, her husband gave her what she needed." I was bewildered, these people were Catholics, some of them attacking Islam as an oppressing religion. Another time when I was in Italy on a business trip, a Polish(Catholic) beat his wife mother of three to death.

Excellent article!!! It reminds me that as Muslims we are to continue the quest for knowledge. I have met so many Muslims who believe knowledge is only relating to religious and or spiritual knowledge. Many marginalize the importance of secular knowledge. I am of the opinion that "All Knowledge is from Allah". There is no evil or bad knowledge only Mankind who chooses to use the knowledge in evil, bad, or destructive ways. Again, an excellent article on Muslim women and Our accomplishments. The article clearly left me with feeling proud that I too have obtained degrees and intend to get my PHd; Allah willing!!!

A very informative and educated article. There is this notion that Muslim women are not only allowed to be educated but they have no interest in going into fields of science and technology. And there is this notion that all Muslim women do is just make babies. Alhamdulillah sister Corey Habbas has brought into light a much needed facts that have been kept hidden by not only the Media but also the Academicians. Thanks for this eye opening information. I hope and pray that people do not remain ignorant after reading these facts.

You are missing the point, Jose (Comment #33611). It is true that some Muslims treat their women "like dogs." Unfortunately, they become no different from the "pagans and idol worshippers" who treat their women "like dogs." What you need to know, Jose, is that these people are, first and foremost, human beings; and as human beings, we all have these streaks of wickedness in us. And that is why God, in His Infinite Wisdom, sent messengers to remind us to do good and avoid doing bad things. The last of those messengers was Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who was born into a nation that was ashamed of bringing forth a female child in addition to so many other aberrations. You can see that long before the Prophet of Islam was born, people were already treating their women "like dogs." God told him to tell them that it was wrong to do so. He glorified the status of womanhood. A whole chapter in the Holy Qur'an is devoted to the issues of women. I encourage you to read it and see the station God gave to women in Islam. So if you see a Muslim ill-treating a woman, then he is not following the teachings of Islam. He may be following traditions that predate Islam. I really don't think that should discourage you from becoming a Muslim. I encourage you to be like Valerie. Come in and see for yourself. Thank you for listening and may Almighty God guide you to the Truth--Islam. Ameen.

Takbir! Allahu Akbar! I could not help but shed tears while reading this article. I really can't figure out why, but it just sort of whipped up some kind of sentiment in me, Alhamdu Lillahi. Based on the references cited, this article is irrefutably well-researched. Thank you very much, Corey Habbas. The fact is the Western media is trying, fruitlessly, to suppress these valuable pieces of information, but they will keep on coming to light, Insha'llah. The issue of educated Muslim women dates as far back as the days of the Prophet himself (SAW). Hadrat Aisha (RA)--a mother of the believers--was well-educated, because the best education one can have is to memorize the Holy Qur'an. This book, among many sublime metaphysical issues, teaches one about the facts of life. In fulfillment of Allah's (SWT) first commandment in the Holy Qur'an, there are numerous ahadeeth that speak of seeking knowledge; and in none of the ahadeeth that I have read have I seen only Muslim men being singled out for this worthwhile endeavor. The Prophet (SAW) said: "knowledge is the stray camel of the believer. Seize it wherever you find it." He did not specify gender here. He also said the believers should seek knowledge even onto China. Take into consideration the distance from Arabia to China and the mode of travel at the time even though he spoke for all time and not just for that particular time in human history. The pages of the Holy Qur'an are replete with admonitions to seek knowledge; so any Muslim who knows his religion will never stop a woman from learning. This article further proves the point. I urge you to remain steadfast, Valerie. That's the best thing you are doing. Ask any knowledgeable Muslim when in doubt--it doesn't have to be your specific imam. Concerning the hijab, I advise you to get the Holy Qur'an with an unabridged translation by Yusuf Ali. It has some very interesting footnotes and some elaborations. May Almighty Allah continue to strengthen. Ameen.

Excellent article. Would be nice if we were able to get these women together in a conference in the US.
The writer deserves our thanks for the research that went into this article.

What a wonderful article, before I even finished reading it I cut/pasted it to e-mail sent to my parents and to my husband at work. All in my family do not understand why I became a Muslim as they say, "What, you want to be oppressed? Muslims are all third-world, stupid, uneducated and terrorists. Why would you want to associate with such a group of those people that wear those things on their heads?" I tell them those "things" are called hijab for women and it is to cover properly so as to not draw attention of men. I am married so only my husband needs to see my hair for example. It is like talking to rocks right now, so as to not cause relationship disturbance I wear simple head scarf and hope that one day around them I can wear my lovely hijabs. When they are not around I wear them of course, but again, try to avoid confrontation. Now here is a good question, if here in San Diego, California where I live, all in my family caucasian, all Babtists or Protestant Christians, and they asked me several times, "Now, if you are not supposed to draw attention to yourself, why would you want to wear something over your hair that causes people and men to look at you more?" Perhaps I shall ask the Imam. Because does this not go against what proper dress is for Muslim women and NOT drawing attention to oneself? Also, as for being Muslim in America where very few women of any faith wear hijab, am I any less Muslim for choosing NOT to wear hijab? I recall from my many reading thus far that the covering is to be modest, to bring cover over chest, but nowhere can I find in Koran about the hair. Anyway, I shall ask Imam. Back to this article, very informative and thank you for sharing it. Shookran Jazilan and Assalamu Alaykum.

AHMAD said:
Assalamu Alaikum. I think this is a very good point of awareness. May Allah reward you.

You have done excellent analysis of the education of Muslim women. We know from the history of Islam that enemy of Islam will do everything to malign Islam and Muslims. In a way, neocons are doing Muslims a big favor by reminding us to improve our economic and educational situation, which we need to do. Let us be positive and do our best. Always thanking Allah for giving us guidance. May He give us strength to practice our deen.
Thank you for this excellent article.

Mohammad Syed

I am absolutely agree that muslims men and women alike should
study and persue knowledge.However, muslim women should be
good wives,mothers first and then, if there is time left ,good
scientists. It is great when women can do both at the same time
and not so great when they say ;" what did I study for so many
years ? Just to sit home with kids?"


I agree with the Sister entirely. I have some statistics from Unesco also.

Let me ask my famous question once againg WHO IS ABUSING WOMEN? The West, East, North or South? The answer is just beginning to surface and the truth shall come out with time in-sha-Allah.

Women (including most of our Sisters) have been brainwashed by the western media into believing that Islam has curtails their rights and they must fight to get them back. What an irony.

There is a need to blow our trumpet because no one will do it for us.
The article was quite revealing with statistics to back it up. Kudos to our muslim sisters.

A friend of mine told me about this article, she said I should read it. It's very interesting but I have to say something.

I grew in the mid-east while my father worked there and I have to say, Muslims treat their women like dogs. I know idol worshippers and pagens who treat women with more love and respect.

Muslims have what appears to be the 1st devine rules on how to treat a woman but you guys ignore it.

If Muslims would follow Islam and not backwards culture, people like me would all convert and the world would love your religion instead of HATE your actions.

Think about it.