10/28/2013 01:55 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Education Is a Good Start


Since 9/11, Muslims have been living under a microscope in the U.S..The experience of Muslim women in particular has been commonly questioned and scrutinized. This intense examination of the lives of Muslims has outlined both the diversity of perspectives within the Muslim community and plenty of misinformation from outside the Muslim community.

Recently, with the news of the events of the International Day of the Girl Child and its advocate Malala Yousafzai, I have found myself defending the place of girls' education in Islam.

Some people think Islam bans girls' education and limits women's duty in society to the noble position of motherhood on the sidelines. That is wrong. According to Islam, women can play any role, such as military officer, judge or president of a country. As a matter of fact, during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), we see women such as Aisha, Hafsa, and Um Salama as jurists who taught men. When these examples are taken into consideration, it is out of the question to restrict or narrow women's activities in society. Yet, unfortunately, the isolation of women from social activities today came from a male-dominated misinterpretation of Islamic sources.

Nowadays, Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl, has become an icon for her devotion to women's education. She became a public figure when the Taliban tried to assassinate her as she rode a bus to school last year in Pakistan. Yousafzai was targeted because of her fight for the right of all girls to education. However, as she said in her speech at the UN on the International Day of the Girl Child, Islam is not against educating girls. In contrast, the first revealed verse in the Quran commands "read" (iqra), and is addressed to every man and woman. "Islam says that it is not only each child's right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility," Yousafzai says.

Yet the truth is that there are hundreds and thousands of other Malalas, and meaningful change will occur in the Middle East nowadays for them. It will be a grassroots change implemented mostly by women, since unfortunately, they are the most oppressed and are beginning to realize it. "Women are capable and have the right to be empowered and recognized. I am the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Prize for peace, and I feel this is an achievement not only for me but for all Arab and Muslim women," Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkol Karman said to help raise hopes.

Yes, the first step is education. We cannot talk about true freedom in a society until its women have equal rights, and access to education is a good start. Nowadays, unfortunately, still, young girls face many challenges around the world in getting an education. Not only in the Muslim world but also in many other parts of the world, girls' education is neglected. "There are still 57 million children out of primary school. Many live in countries embroiled in conflict. More than 120 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 lack basic reading and writing skills -- the majority of whom are young women," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a press release on July 8, 2013.

Last July, I followed the Women in the World's Next Generation Leadership Academy with 50 young women, to witness them charging up and getting ready to change the world. I was amazed by powerful speeches by very powerful women, but I was most touched by Shelby Knox, the director of women's rights organizing for, when she said: "Feminism is hearing your pain and your struggle in another woman's voice and suddenly realizing there's nothing wrong with you, and there's nothing wrong with her, but there's something wrong with the world that's trying to make you think that there is. It's not about hairy armpits and hating men, it's about making each other feel less crazy and getting together to do something about it."

Yousafzai, who was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2013 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a gem of a girl and an inspiration for all of us. She calls on all of us to join and work together to make our common future better through education for all and for a brighter future for everybody.
Equality in education is simply a fundamental human right. And the fight for it is the first necessary step for equality in every dimension of life, and we are all responsible to participate in it.

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This article was previously published in Today's Zaman.