Identity and Dialogue

The Taliban VS Malala: an Islamic phenomenon?

The Taliban VS Malala: an Islamic phenomenon? Feb. 2, 2015


This drawing of Malala was made by Michael Cross.

A few weeks ago, Malala Yousafzai, a young Muslim girl from Pakistan won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside an Indian activist, Kailash Satyarthi. That girl’s name, Malala, had already become iconic when she survived an attack on her by the Pakistani Taliban. It is necessary to point out that Malala is a Muslim woman, an aspect of her identity which is downplayed by mainstream media, who curiously enough, do not hesitate to highlight the Muslim identity of Talibanis in discourses about them. This contributes to Islamophobia and stereotyping of Muslims as regressive. A few months before the Nobel Peace Prize was delivered, a group called Boko Haram, operating mostly in Nigeria, kidnapped more than 200 young girls from a school in a small town called Chibok. The group’s name means: Western Education is Forbidden. For a time, the whole world was abhorred by what happened, but with time it was as much uninterested as it was with my untidy bedroom (in a manner of speaking)!

The fact that both these cases revolve around Muslims, that is, the Talibans’ headache over Malala’s fight for the education of girls and Boko Haram’s heinous actions, makes many people associate Islam with misogynistic ideologies. This also includes Islamists themselves, who suggest that God never intended women to know as much as men, because supposedly women are inferior to men and therefore they do not need to be imparted with knowledge. But is that so?

Larbi Sadiki, ‘a specialist in Arab democratization, revolution and transitions [wrote that] Islam’s first command to the Prophet Muhammad was to “read”; “Read in the name of thy Lord”’. He goes further saying that ‘[r]eading and writing belong to the “genius” of cross-disciplinary activities Islam insists upon repeatedly. Reading, writing and reasoning are all part and parcel of the way of life Islam is all about’. One can thus say that the religion of Islam implied education from its commencement.

Farah Onaid tells us, pointing out the considerable role played by Aishah in Islamic sciences, that “Aishah [or Aisha] Binte Abu Bakr, the youngest wife of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), was very talented and possessed an incredible memory. As a Muslim scholar, she is credited with narrating more than two thousand Hadith and was noted for teaching eminent scholars. She had a great love for learning and became known for her intelligence and sharp sense of judgment. Her life also substantiates that a woman can be a scholar, exert influence over men and women and provide them with inspiration and leadership.” But Aishah was not the only one to teach as a Muslim woman in those centuries.

Mehrunisha Suleman and Afaaf Rajbee wrote that “Fatima Al Batayahiyyah, an 8th century scholar taught the celebrated work of Sahih al Bukhari in Damascus. She was known as one of the greatest scholars of that period, demonstrated especially during the Hajj when leading male scholars of the day flocked from afar to hear her speak in person. [In addition to that] Zainab bint Kamal, taught more than 400 books of Hadith in the 12th century. Her “camel loads” of texts attracted camel loads of students. She was a natural teacher, exhibiting exceptional patience which won the hearts of those she taught. With such a towering intellectual reputation, her gender was [not an] obstacle to her teaching in some of the most prestigious academic institutes in Damascus.” It might interest us to know that the oldest existing, and continually operational learning institution, the University of Karueein (al-Qarawiyin), was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatimah bint Muhammad al-Fihri at Fez in Morocco. (Esposito, John 2003. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford University Press. p. 253.)

When the Taliban took power in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, they completely ignored those facts and they taught that women were not allowed to get education like men. Jon Henley wrote that ‘Girls’ education is a particular target: in early 2009, after the Taliban took control of the Swat valley in KP province, they “banned girls’ schooling outright, forcing 900 schools to close or stop enrolment for female pupils”. While the rule was later relaxed to allow girls to attend school up to age [of ten], in Swat district alone, about 120,000 girls and 8,000 women teachers stopped going to school’. After the Taliban were removed in Afghanistan, the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) was adopted in 2009 by the Ministry of Justice. Its Article 35, prohibiting from the right to education, work and access to health Services, states that, " If a person prohibits a woman from the right of education, work, access to health services or exercising other rights provided by law, considering the circumstance the offender shall be sentenced to short term imprisonment not exceeding six months."

Pondering on these references that attest the role played by women in Islamic educational life since the birth of Islam, one may conclude that Boko Haram, Taliban groups and so many other Islamist groups represent erroneous understanding of the wishes of the Prophet (pbuh). The sad fact that uninformed people amalgamate their doings with true and authentic Islamic ways of treating women should invite us to encourage all those who, like Malala, put their lives in danger to protect women. It is also a calling to reevaluate other religious traditions and consider the role they reserve for women. It may astonish us that at many levels, Islam is actually far ahead than other religions at giving women the right to make decisions about their religious rights, which also includes education.

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