Changing assumptions about women in the Islamic world by working with communities

Editor’s Note: As part of this year’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum, many of our participants are writing posts on Markaz to share their thoughts on one of the diverse topics discussed at the Forum happening now in Doha, Qatar. We hope you will join us by watching live webcasts or following the conversation on Twitter with #USIslam15.

Various strategies are being used throughout the Islamic world to change long-held assumptions about the role of women in society. At the 2015 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, I will be joining women from around the Islamic world to discuss strategies for advancing women’s participation in society., in my case through the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL).

When I was growing up in Afghanistan, most assumed women did not need an education to fulfill their role in society: an Afghan woman’s place was in the home, taking care of the house and children. This was an honorable role, but there was no need for her to have a formal education for her to succeed.

My own father, an illiterate man, was different. He believed formal education was important. Orphaned at a young age, he learned a trade to survive and by the time I was born he owned a successful business. Despite his upbringing, he wanted all of his children to be educated. As the oldest, I was the first to attend school. After graduating from high school, I traveled to the United States to complete my studies. While there, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, devastating our country. Communities were destroyed, half the population was refugees and trust was gone. Many Afghans believed that educated Afghans helped the invaders, and many came to assume that education was of no value, and worse, that it was a threat to the Afghan way of life, particularly for women.

This was the mindset when I returned to the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. The situation for women was particularly bad. I believed, that Afghans, particularly women, desperately needed education and healthcare. They also needed to learn to trust again; to once again be a part of a trusting community. Trust and community participation are key to a successful project.

When we began, few Afghans thought women should be educated. To succeed, the community had to be able to trust those providing education. AIL staff meet with community members, mostly men, to find out what they wanted and what would make them feel that women were safe. Once we reached an agreement, AIL and the community signed a contract. The community contributes to the project – usually space and security – to build a sense of ownership in the project, with AIL paying salaries and providing books, training, and supervision.

As trust develops, and women’s literacy and skills expands, families and communities begin to see value in education. Mothers can help their children study; women learn skills, such as tailoring, and can make clothes for the family. Contrary to previous assumptions, they can use their skills to earn an income for their family. Children are healthier, and learned manners and cleanliness. The lives of the families improve. As the community members see the value of education, assumptions change, and women begin to take on different roles.

In our centers, women meet and share ideas. They ask for classes in leadership and human rights. Some join village councils and others become community health workers. The community sees that education helps individuals, families and ultimately, the community. This change in assumptions about women and education has come because the community participates the process and can see the value firsthand.

In the Islamic context of the communities where AIL works, change has come through partnering with communities, building trust, providing quality services, and waiting for results to become self-evident, rather than speeches, marches or laws. Today, assumptions have changed from “women don’t need education” to “education is valuable for all.”