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Arranged Empowerment vs. Empowering Arrangements: Narratives of Muslim Women Teachers from Pakistani Rural Communities

by Ayesha Khurshid & Emily Leyava - 2019

The issue of education for Muslim women has become central to many global discourses and policies focusing on Muslim countries. These paradigms present education for Muslim women as the solution to issues ranging from poverty to religious extremism. Embedded in these narratives is not only the image of Muslim women as oppressed victims of their culture, but also the image of Islam as a patriarchal religion. Education becomes an instrument to empower these women through enabling them to challenge their “oppressive” cultural and Islamic traditions. In other words, education becomes a site, tool, and institution to arrange the empowerment of Muslim women against their families, communities, and Islam.

Fears of religious extremism have made Muslim women the subjects of various global projects aimed at modernizing Muslim societies through educating and empowering Muslim women (Abu-Lughod, 1998; Kandiyoti, 2005; Najmabadi, 1998). Such global projects view Muslim societies as traditional structures that are inherently oppressive to women (Asad, 2003; Mahmood, 2005; Scott, 2007). During the 2016 presidential election campaign, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump pointed to the quiet and somber demeanor of Ghazala Khanthe mother of a slain Muslim U.S. soldierduring her husbands speech at the 2016 National Democratic Convention as evidence of her assumed subjugation. Ghazalas struggles to grapple with her sons loss on a national stage became a reflection of the collective silence and oppression of Muslim women. The image of Ghazala as a voiceless woman emerged in a political and cultural context imbued with stereotypical images of Muslim women and Muslim societies. In the post-9/11 era, the subject position of Muslim women as the other reproduces historical and contemporary narratives about Islam as a set of outdated traditionsnarratives that have been used to justify military and development interventions in Muslim countries (Abu-Lughod, 2002; Ahmed, 1992; Mahmood, 2005).

In this context, education is the vehicle through which Muslim women can become empowered agents in their quest for social progress. Such a viewpoint thrives on the assumption of schooling as an institution of the modern West. Empowerment within this framework is understood as an individualistic endeavor, and education as a tool that can help Muslim women break free of the shackles placed on them by their families, culture, and religion (Abu-Lughod, 2009; Adely, 2009; Kandiyoti, 2005; Khurshid, 2015). Access to education is, thus, believed to enable Muslim women to access economic resources seen as central to becoming individual agents.

This chapter problematizes empowerment through education narratives by focusing on the emotional experiences of Muslim women teachers from rural and low-income communities in Pakistan. These women were some of the first, and very few, women in their families and communities to have received high school and college educations. Similarly, they were also among the first to have jobs outside of the home. Through the use of longitudinal ethnographic data, our analysis shows how empowerment was a relational rather than an individualistic notion. In other words, the idea of empowerment reflected the centrality of emotional connections with families, communities, and Islam to the participants identities as educated and empowered women.

Our ethnographic analysis suggests a need to broaden existing discourses surrounding education and empowerment by focusing on the lived experiences of those who are often the targets of educational projects and interventions. Doing so, we contend, can surface counter-narratives that challenge stereotypes about Islam, Muslim societies, and Muslim women.


In contemporary times, empowering individuals and communities as the primary agents of development has become the cornerstone of international development discourses. The international development institutions aim to generate networks and resources that marginalized individuals and communities in so-called developing countries can directly access to empower themselves (Cooke, 2004; Cooke & Kothari, 2001; Edelman & Haugerud, 2005; Escobar, 1995; Rose, 1996). In this paradigm, education is positioned as a central avenue for self-empowerment (Malhotra & Mather, 1997; Tikly & Barrett, 2011).

The intense preoccupation with empowerment, however, has been criticized by some development and feminist scholars for expecting individual actors to look toward themselves to meet their own needs (Chhotray, 2004; González de la Rocha, 2007; Kothari, 2005; Leve, 2007; Merry, 2006). Such critiques approach these practices of development and empowerment as tools of neoliberal global governance that focus on producing individual actors to support the market economy.

Feminist scholars have highlighted how states and international development agencies focus on the individual rights of Muslim women, as opposed to local family, community, and kinship structures in Muslim societies (Kandiyoti, 2005). Womens education has been central to different discourses that have sought to modernize developing and Muslim societies (Abu-Lughod, 1998; Adely, 2009; Chatterjee, 1989; Cornwall, 2007; Kandiyoti, 2005; Najmabadi, 1998). These multiple paradigms approach education as the process that will change women. For example, many international development agencies assume that education will equip Muslim women with the tools to transform their oppressive culture, religion, and families. This discourse presents Muslim women as victims of their oppressive cultures and views education as a liberating force against the backdrop of the patriarchal institutions of family and community (Abu-Lughod, 2009; Adely, 2009).

Feminist scholars such as Chandra Mohanty, Patricia Hill Collins, and Lila Abu-Lughod have problematized universalist conceptions of women as a homogeneous group with shared identities and goals. Mohanty (1984) critiqued Western feminism for constructing the Third World woman as a homogeneous category victimized by the inherently patriarchal cultures of their communities. She highlighted how the political project of Western feminism has constructed Third World women as the collective other by overlooking the vast complexity and diversity that exists among women in any context. By focusing on the experiences of Black women in the United States, Collins (1990) problematized the ideas of shared gendered oppression and shared visions of empowerment for all women. She argued that Black womens identities were shaped by intersecting gendered and racial systems of inequality. Additionally, Collins highlighted a model of community that contradicts the supposed market model of community as delicate and ridden with competition amongst its members. By looking to the experiences of women themselves, she found that Black women held a model of community that emphasized care, accountability, and connections among its members. Finally, Abu-Lughod (2009) examined how international development discourses that aim to empower Muslim women through education homogenize the class, ethnic, urban/rural, religious, and other differences that exist among women in Arab countries. These international development projects present education as an institution that will empower women to detach themselves from the patriarchal institutions of their families and communities, and view it as occurring in opposition to the cultures and institutions of Muslim societies.

By focusing on lived experiences, this paper problematizes the very idea of empowerment through education. Instead, it highlights the context-specific processes and norms around becoming educated and empowered. The approach taken in this paper contributes to a corpus of feminist scholarship that has questioned whether empowerment is indeed an individualistic and market-oriented process. In particular, we engage with work such as that of Abu-Rabia-Queder (2014), who discussed how Bedouin Muslim women receiving higher education in Israeli universities continued to follow certain gendered norms around sexuality and marriage practiced in their community, even as they sought to transform other structures. These negotiations, however, were not merely a product of lack of choice for the participants in this study, but rather an effort to define and assert their identities as educated women within the institutions of family and community. We also engage with Greanys (2008) work, which discussed how, in the Beni Amer tribe in Sudan, household responsibilities remained a female domain even when women had paid employment outside of the home. Income-generating activities for women did not automatically translate into complex impacts of women taking on dual roles and additional responsibilities to claim more power within the domestic sphere. Instead of distancing themselves from their families, educated women professionals in India and Nepal took on additional family responsibilities in order to show the benefits of education and paid employment for women (Guinee, 2014; Jeffrey, Jeffery, & Jeffery, 2008). Erin Murphy-Graham (2012) showed how women participants in an alternative secondary-education program in Honduras used education as a valuable tool in negotiating the issue of equal rights and responsibilities with their spouses.

Such critical feminist scholarship highlights how access to education has offered new roles and opportunities to women from marginalized communities in different parts of the world. However, these educated women mobilized these resources within the structures of their families and communities, even as they sought to transform certain gendered norms and roles. Such examples help us understand how education cannot simply produce similar conditions and outcomes to empower women all over the world, something we call arranged empowerment. We argue that many international development organizations, as well as states, introduce policies and interventions that are grounded in this notion of arranged empowerment. This chapter is based on the idea that education has the potential to introduce new resources and roles to women in different contexts. However, their interaction with and adaptation of these roles is situated within their cultural, social, and economic context. We call these adaptations empowering arrangements, and we specifically highlight the emotions embedded within such arrangements. We conduct such analysis through the stories of a group of Muslim women teachers from rural and low-income communities in Pakistan. Specifically, we examine how their identities as educated and empowered women can inform us about the role of education and emotion in these contexts.


This article emerged from a larger study that examined how a woman-centered transnational development organization we call the Institute for Education and Literacy (IEL) defined, developed, and implemented policies and practices to educate and empower women from marginalized communities in Pakistan. (Throughout the remainder of this article, we will use pseudonyms for the organization and the research participants.) IEL is headquartered in the United States, with chapters in major cities across that country, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Workers at the headquarters and chapter offices are primarily female volunteers from the Pakistani diaspora, who are either recruited by IEL officers or seek out IEL on their own. The staff in Pakistan, mostly women from urban middle-class backgrounds, are generally educational or development professionals and are paid for their work. IEL has offices in Islamabad and other regions of Pakistan, each with a staff of 6070 people. The organization manages over 200 girls schools, with over 16,000 students, in low-income communities throughout Pakistan. It has recruited and trained over 600 women from the same communities to work as teachers at its schools.

This chapter focuses on the ethnographic data collected from the IEL women teachers to understand how they constructed and negotiated their identities as educated Muslim women. The data were collected by Khurshid, with Leyava collaborating on writing this chapter. Khurshid initially conducted ethnographic research over 16 months from 2008 to 2010, focusing on IEL staff, teachers, and community members in Pakistan. She followed up during the summers of 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2017. This chapter is primarily based on interviews and participant-observation data collected from 32 women teachers working at IEL schools in Pakistan. These women were among the first in their families and communities to have received higher education and to have employment outside of the home. They all lived in villages that were served by the IEL schools.

The interviewees worked at four girls schools located in the suburbs of Islamabad, where Khurshid lived during data collection. This geographical access helped her ground participants experiences in the particular economic, social, and cultural contexts of their villages. While all the schools served communities living in four villages of the Punjab province, these communities differed greatly in terms of their caste, kinship, and, in some cases, even language structures.

These villages comprised different kinship groups with similar social and economic status, with the exception of groups that were considered lower caste. These low-caste groups were a minority in terms of numbers as well as their social and economic status. The women in these groups, thus, were further marginalized in these low-income contexts. All the women participants of this study belonged to the families that were considered higher caste and, thus, enjoyed higher social status in their villages despite their marginalized economic backgrounds.


I tell my girls [students) to take their studies seriously. I tell them to look at me and then look at other women in the village. I get to leave home every day, whereas [other women] tend to the cattle and cook and clean at home. They do the exact same thing every day, whereas I get to learn and experience new things, meet new people, travel to the city, and make my own money. So what is the difference? The only difference is that I am educated and they are not. I ask them, if they want to be like me and make something of their lives then they have to work hard and be good students. (Shama, interview)

Shama, a 30-year-old IEL teacher, described how education enabled her to do things that were not accessible to other women in the village. Shamas education allowed her to have a job as a teacher and provided her access to economic resources, as well as to the resources to develop intellectually and socially. For the women participants, education transformed their lives by providing them the opportunity to leave home and to work as teachers. Their entry into public spaces translated into a number of rare and valuable opportunities for them, ranging from economic and social independence to learning new things and acquiring confidence.

In terms of emotion, education helped these women to feel empowered, confident, and independent because of their ability to take up new roles and responsibilities in spaces that previously had been open only to men. For example, even though the women participants downplayed the economic rewards of their employment, they shared how receiving their own money changed the way they felt about themselves. Across the interviews, the women remarked that earning their own money made them feel independent. As they saw it, they were the only women in their rural and low-income contexts to have respectable salaried jobs. Roohi, a 29-year-old teacher, shared:

You know that we are not paid much. My salary is hardly enough to buy diapers and milk for my children. But it is my money, my own money. I feel so happy that I can use it to do something for my children. If I see something I like in the market, I do not have to ask my husband to buy it for me. I am not dependent on anyone that way. (Roohi, interview)

Roohis sense of independence and accomplishment was shaped by having some financial independence in a context where a majority of the women are economically dependent on men. Roohi described how she felt happy that she was able to do something for her children, without being dependent on her husband. Like Roohi, almost all the women participants contributed their salaries to household expenses and to support their children, instead of spending it on themselves. However, they felt pride that they did not have to rely on their husbands or in-laws for their day-to-day expenses or to meet the basic needs of their children.

In these rural villages, women were heavily dependent on men to do anything outside of the home, such as shopping or visiting doctors or relatives who lived in other villages. These gendered norms, however, did not apply strictly to the participants in this study. Their families and communities felt that educated women were trustworthy enough to enter into these male spaces without disrupting gender norms. As a result, the participants commuted not only to their schools, but even to doctors in nearby towns, often on their own. Noreen, a 23-year-old woman teacher, shared her visit to the doctor in a nearby town without being accompanied by her father and brother as an example of the perceived resourcefulness of educated women. This trip included taking public transportation, explaining her condition to the doctor, and purchasing the prescribed medicine. Although she took a woman friend along, she proudly shared how her exposure to the world outside her village had made her feel confident enough to make such trips without her father.

The stories of women like Shama, Roohi, and Noreen reflect the changes brought about by women's access to education, labor markets, and economic resources in these rural and low-income villages in Pakistan. On the surface, these experiences seem to confirm the mainstream narrative of empowerment through education, or arranged empowerment. As educated women, Shama, Roohi, and Noreen enjoyed having access to new roles and opportunities and have been able to transform some of the gendered norms in their families and communities. However, becoming empowered was also an emotional process. wherein these women underwent emotional changes in how they saw themselves and other women. But did that empowerment come in the form of distance from their families, communities, and religion? The following section engages with this question by delving deeper into the lived experiences of the participants. We employ observation data (collected by Khurshid) to examine how these educated and empowered women, who took pride in their identities as professionals, felt happier and more confident as women and mothers and how they negotiated the meaning of these identities in their cultural and social contexts. This observation data is from an IEL middle school that served a rural and low-income community in Pakistan.


Right before the midday recess, Sajida was conducting an English spelling lesson with her grade-one students. She wrote different words with missing letters on the blackboard, and students took turns guessing and writing the missing letters. In a sunny classroom decorated with bright artwork, the students emotions about learning filled the room: They were almost jumping with excitement while waiting for their turns. Sajida, an energetic woman in her early 20s, was able to keep all of her students engaged as they watched their peers take turns writing on the blackboard. The students were to silently raise their hands to participate; anyone who spoke lost their turn and had to wait for the next round. It will look like a zoo if I let them talk, Sajida laughed while explaining how challenging it was to keep such young students quiet, yet engaged. Sajida was a very popular teacher in her school, not only with her first-grade students, but also with students from other grades. The students saw her as a pleasant, friendly teacher who was willing to help them at all times. Sajidas colleagues and IEL staff also viewed her as an effective teacher who was able to scaffold students learning in an interactive and engaging manner, a significant skillset to possess, since grade one was the crucial stage where students were expected to make progress in their literacy and numeracy skills.

In the middle of this lesson, the instruction in Sajidas classroom came to a halt as a students mother walked in. Sajida immediately stopped the activity to greet the mother. After an exchange of greetings, the mother started explaining that her daughter Mariam, who was Sajidas student, had missed a week of school because of her uncles wedding. (Traditional wedding ceremonies in Pakistan are often spread over days, if not weeks. However, IEL schools had firm attendance policies, and any absence, except for medical or family emergencies, affected students final grade.) Mariams mother explained how Mariam could not manage to go to bed early enough to get up in time for school in the morning. The family also had to travel to a nearby village for part of the wedding. Mariams mother then went on to explain how tiring the wedding was and how the rain had ruined one of the ceremonies. Sajida listened patiently while turning to her students once in a while to ask them to review the words they had already learned. The students, however, were no longer engaged in their work. Some started walking around the classroom. Sajida would briefly reprimand the students, but then would turn her attention back to Mariams mother. I noticed that Sajida did not contribute much to the conversation, but listened intently while smiling and nodding her head. The conversation lasted about 20 to 25 minutes, and came to an end only when the school bell rang for recess. Sajida excused herself to take her students to the school courtyard where they played during recess.

After taking her students to the playground, Sajida joined me and other teachers in a corner of the playground. The teachers used this 30-minute break to socialize with each other while also keeping an eye on the students. Sajida turned to me and said, You see what happens to us? I could not finish my [English spelling) lesson and now will be rushing through the rest of the day. These mothers walk in whenever they want and stay for as long as they like, talking about everything in the world. The other teachers joined Sajida in sharing their feelings of frustration over such frequent and unscheduled visits by the parents. Teachers were required to closely follow the daily lesson plans developed by IEL. IEL staff monitored their progress and held teachers accountable for meeting the daily, weekly, and monthly curriculum goals. Teachers dreaded parents visits, as they often took away their instruction time.

In the gender-segregated culture of the village, it was mostly the mothers who visited the school to meet the women teachers. These women, like Mariams mother, approached these visits as opportunities to socialize with the teachers, whom they also knew well otherwise. However, it was a major interruption for the teachers, who then had to struggle to catch up on the missed instruction time. In addition, such visits also created classroom-management issues, as students became distracted and noisy. I asked Sajida what prevented her from asking Mariams mother to wait until recess time. She responded, How could I ask her to wait? She is older than I am. And then people start saying that we [teachers] have become proud because we are educated.

Sajida and the other teachers felt cautious, given that they were among the few educated women in their village. Their behavior and actions were seen as reflective of the impact of education on women, and any mistake on their part was seen as a flaw of education. Although this situation compromised the quality of teaching and learning at the IEL school, the teachers were reluctant to take on a more professional demeanor with the mothers. They were not willing to give the impression that they were in any way different from other community members. By asking mothers to wait or cutting them short, the teachers feared violating the local customs of hospitality and politeness.

Teachers had been discussing this issue among themselves for quite some time. After a while, the teachers finally decided to seek IELs help in addressing this issue. They believed that an intervention by IEL staff would be an efficient and effective strategy to resolve this problem without creating a contentious situation with the community. They raised their concern with Sara, IELs main liaison for the school. Sara visited the school 2 or 3 times a week and was involved in its day-to-day workings. She had resolved a number of difficult issues in the past by working with the Village Educational Committee (VEC), which comprised community elders who supported IELs educational project and also served as a bridge between IEL and the community. In the past, Sara had collaborated with the VEC to convince families to allow teachers to attend teacher training in a nearby city that was the central point for teachers working at schools in rural areas around the city. Initially, the families did not approve of women travelling without being accompanied by male relatives. They wanted IEL to provide training at the local school, rather than having teachers commute to the city during the summer, as well as during the academic year. However, IEL wanted teachers from different IEL schools to work together during training sessions and learn from one anothers experiences. They also wanted teachers to have the experience of commuting to the city without a male relative, something the majority of them had never done. IEL leaders and staff believed that such an experience would instill confidence and a sense of resourcefulness in the teachers, something that IEL envisioned as being central to empowerment. Because of Saras and the VECs assurances, the families eventually allowed the teachers to attend these workshops in the city.

Given Saras history of resolving sensitive issues, the teachers believed that the VEC and community would be receptive to IELs presentation of the issue of parents visits. However, Sara suggested that the teachers speak to the VEC members themselves to address this issue. For Sara, it was important for the teachers to have a voice in the decision-making process and to develop the capacity to speak to male authority figures in the community. However, the teachers were reluctant to take up the issue, as they believed that it would spoil their relationship with the VEC members, as well as with the community. Maintaining a cordial relationship with the VEC members and the community was central to their identity as educated women. They believed their mission was to show to people how educated women embodied the cultural norms of respect and reverence expected of them and that these norms did not clash with their identities as educated.

This example reveals some of the emotional tensions that are embedded within efforts to empower women through education. One outcome of the empowerment agenda is shifts in certain gendered norms and roles. Such shifts, as we witness, are met with emotional complexity, as educated women struggle with maintaining the social norms of their local cultures and communities. For the participants, it was important to use their education to access new roles and opportunities. However, for them this access did not come at the cost of their relationship with their families and communities. In fact, they saw maintenance of these relationships as being central to their identities as educated and empowered women.

We argue that this model of relational empowerment, which we call empowering arrangements, made sense for two reasons in this particular context: First, the relational approach helped the participants to explore these new roles and resources without challenging the norms that defined the core of their community. But more important, it gave them a framework in which to define their identities as educated women within the relationships and structures that they greatly valued. In other words, these empowering arrangements were not a reluctant acceptance of certain gendered norms by the participants; instead, these arrangements involved participants actively engaging with and negotiating their roles and emotions within their cultural and social contexts. Salmas discussion of how she kept her somewhat turbulent marriage intact provides insights into these complex identity-formation processes. Salma said:

Look at my marriage. . . . Today my marriage is intact only because I learned something from education. I would have returned to my parents home a long time ago, had I not learned how to deal with the situation. My husband and in-laws did not want me to take a job at the school; they did not see any use in it. I used to have fights with my husband every day about this topic, but I refused to give in. It was my right to make that decision. But I also knew when and where to stop, how to deal with it wisely, I knew what the situation was. I never raised my voice, never fought and cursed like an illiterate woman. I was always respectful of my in-laws and at the same time was firm about my decision. Now they are happy that I am making money, and everyone respects me. I would have been divorced, had I not been educated. (Salma, interview)

Salmas view was common among the teachers, who expressed how education had enabled them to live in a productive and useful manner as members of their families and communities. By invoking individual rights wisely and managing her emotional responses, Salma simultaneously reflected and contested the mainstream image of an educated woman. The participants believed that education had made them aware of their rights as women and had also enabled them to claim those rights in a manner that supported family cohesion. For Salma, education had enabled her to be assertive while being respectful of her in-laws and not responding to them in a manner that could be seen as rude or disrespectful because of her expression of negative emotions. She believed that education had taught her to do thisthat is, to manage her emotions and to speak rationally and assertivelyand thus education had enabled her to keep her marriage intact. In other words, her story as an educated woman was not one of escaping a turbulent marriage, but rather of taming her emotions in order to make her marriage work for her. Being married provided her with cultural capital in her rural village, in terms of being a respectable woman. However, she also deeply cared for and took pride in her roles as a mother, wife, and daughter-in-law. These identities complemented her identity as an educated and empowered woman.

This relational aspect of empowerment extended to the professional identities of the participants. Their engagement with issues, such as the one regarding parents unscheduled visits to classrooms, reflected how the participants did not see their private identities as being distinct from their public identities. In fact, all of them emphasized how they saw the worth of their work as teachers as something that benefited their communities. They downplayed the role of the economic resources that became available to them as a result of working while discussing how they thought their work would change the lives of girls in their villages. Salma said:

You know, when I decided to teach, my goal was to do something for myself. I did not want to be dependent on others. I wanted to choose what I wanted to buy. In my husbands family, people get one pair of shoes and one pair of clothes once a year. I would have been in the same situation, had I not been working. But I had another goal   when I started working, which was more important for me. I wanted to make myself useful to others. But I realized only after I started working how many children benefitted from these two small goals of mine. Sixteen students from my school appeared in the state grade-eight exam, and all of them passed it. This is a big deal for us, really big deal. You see there is some light in such a backward area now, in such darkness. I lit one candle, and with the blessing of Allah, there are many more now. (Salma, interview)

Salma took pride in her ability to help children from her community find a bright future. The literacy and education level in her village was very low, and her school was the only educational institution available to children. Students success on a state-wide standardized test was a significant achievement for her. Therefore, her main identity marker as a professional was how she made her resourcefulness as an educated and empowered woman useful to others around her.

This overlap between public and private identities, some would argue, is true for professional women in the western world, as they are often expected to take on a certain feminized and less emotional persona as they enter into male-dominated spaces (citations?). There is no doubt that the participants in this study had to make similar arrangements to those of the first western women to access certain roles and opportunities. However, we argue that the participants still found emotional value in defining their roles as educated and empowered women in relation to their families and communities. For example, Rukhsana, a 35-year-old teacher who saw herself as a role model for women in her rural village, shared how young girls often came to her with their problems:

Young girls are like colorful butterflies who want to fly, have fun, see the world. But they can also be so easily lured too, right? I warn them to be careful if they want to live lives that are different from their mothers' and grandmothers'. If they want to become something, attend college, have a job, and have some say in their lives. But they have to prove that they can be trusted before they can have this freedom. (Rukhsana, interview)

Rukhsana saw it as part of her role as a teacher to help her young female students learn about her community's expectations of educated women. She counseled them as they navigated their roles in a context in which very few women enjoyed the freedoms and mobility that came with being educated. In this context, Rukhsana approached her young students sexuality as something that had to be protected in order for them to have more opportunities than earlier generations of women. Her discussion of the possibility of young girls being lured into romantic or sexual relationships was not necessarily framed in terms of morality, but referred to the expectations that educated women had to meet in order to be allowed certain kinds of freedoms as respectable women. However, Rukhsana believed that it was her responsibility to teach her students not only academic knowledge, but the wisdom of being an educated woman. She therefore spent extensive time and effort listening to and addressing the issues and challenges that these young women faced inside and outside of school. She believed that it was part of her role as a teacher to give back to her community.


An educated person is aware of the difference between right and wrong. An educated woman speaks up because she knows what her rights are, her rights as a woman, as a Muslim woman. I see it at our schoolmothers who are not educated never visit to inquire about their children. It is often the grandmothers. Now what do the grandmothers know? That is the difference. Educated women are able to make decisions for themselves. They cannot be silenced or pushed aside easily. (Rabia, interview)

In the above excerpt, Rabia shared an insight that came up repeatedly in conversations with participants, who believed that education had empowered them by enabling them to understand their rights as Muslim women. As Rabia said, educated women could no longer be silenced, as they knew that their husbands, families, or culture could not take away the rights that were given to them by Islam. This awareness gave educated women the confidence they needed in order to speak up for their rights in every arena of their lives. Rabia supported this argument by sharing how educated women were able to exercise their authority as mothers, instead of letting their mothers-in-law make decisions for their children.

The participants saw their empowerment through education as an outcome of their awareness of their rights as Muslim women. In other words, Islam became the primary framework and discourse for educated women to push for certain changes within the institutions of their families and communities. For example, Sabiha, a 33-year-old teacher, spoke about how education had helped her learn how conservative traditions, and not Islam, deemed women a burden on the family. Sabiha used Islam to oppose the cultural norm regarding which families were expected to provide dowries for their daughters at the time of their marriage. This practice caused extreme economic stress for families in such low-income contexts, as their inability to provide a dowry could reduce the chance that their daughters would find a suitable match. As a result, the families often deemed daughters a burden. Rabia challenged this notion by sharing how she, and not her husband, supported her family. For her, this was evidence that men and women were equal. However, she believed that only educated people could understand how this idea of equality between men and women was central to Islamic teachings. For Rabia and other participants, it was knowledge of Islam, and not international development or any other human-rights discourse, that enabled them to understand and practice their rights.

The participants' families also employed this framework of Islam to counter the challenges posed to women accessing male-dominated spaces and roles. Fatima, a 38-year-old woman, shared how she and her sisters were the first women in their families and the whole village to attend school past grade five. It was her father who decided to send his daughters to school, despite stern opposition from the community. She shared how her father responded to the objections raised by his own brothers. Fatimas father employed Islam to challenge the local gendered hierarchy that defined respectability of families through womens roles within homes. This approach became an effective tool to challenge gendered norms that restricted womens mobility in public spaces. The participants and their families employed Islam first to argue for the need to educate women, and later to support the participants' working as teachers. As mentioned earlier, the participants were among the first women in their communities to have jobs outside the home. They often referred to their work as teachers as the work of the prophets. Safia explained this idea further: Our prophet [Muhammad] was a teacher. The first verse of the Qur'an was revealed to him, asking him to learn and teach. We are his followers (Safia, interview). This reference to Islam enabled women to take on new roles outside the home in these rural contexts.

This discussion reveals how Islam provided a framework, a set of values, and a resource for the participants to not only construct, but also publicly claim their identities as educated and empowered Muslim women. They felt confident in claiming new rights within their families, as well as in arguing for shifts in cultural norms that enabled women in their communities to take on new roles. This finding is in stark contrast to the global women's-rights discourses that position Islam as a structure that limits the identities and lives of women like the participants in this study. This focus on lived experiences, however, reveals a more complex and nuanced picture, in which these educated Muslim women arrange their empowerment through seeking and claiming power within the institutions of family, community, and Islam.


In January, 2016, British Prime Minister David Cameron justified a $31-million initiative to empower Muslim immigrant women living in the United Kingdom by presenting it as a project that would counter culturally oppressive practices in Muslim communities. The policy was designed to educate Muslim women in order to help them integrate into British society. These educational resources, according to Cameron, would become a tool for Muslim women to challenge traditions that are imposed on them by the menfolk," as well as by their families and societies (Mason & Sherwood, 2016). This policy, like the statement about Ghazala Khan made by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, validated the Western colonial imagination's vision of Islam, Muslim societies, and Muslim women. In a context where Muslim women are seen as oppressed victims of their culture and religion, education is presented as a tool to empower these women against their families and communities. Such projects use womens participation in the labor market, as well as their social mobility, as primary indicators of their empowerment. In this narrative, empowerment is approached as an economic phenomenon, and schools as institutions that can help women acquire knowledge and skills to participate in the labor market and to become mobile in male-dominated public domains.

Such an individualistic and market-oriented approach to womens education fails to capture the complexity of the emotional and lived experiences of women in diverse contexts (Cornwall, 2007; Mahmood, 2005). It is an approach that expects schooling to transform Muslim women into individual agents who will use their access to economic resources and public domains to challenge oppressive institutions of family and community (Abu-Lughod, 2009; Kandiyoti, 2005). In this view, womens entry into the labor market and public domains is seen as an expression of free will and choice against the local patriarchal norms and structures of their communities. However, details of the lives and experiences of educated women in diverse national and cultural contexts reveal the multidimensional impact of womens education. For example, in places such as Jordan, Israel, and Afghanistan, educated womens entry into public domains and professional fields transformed a gendered norm of mobility. However, at the same time, these women adhered more strictly to gendered norms of clothing and sexuality in order to avoid any conflict with their families and communities (Hertz-Lazarowitz & Shapira, 2005; Holland & Yousofi, 2014; Weiner-Levy, 2006). In Jordan, as educated girls regulated their sexuality to become ideal Muslim women, they also became part of the economic and social hierarchy that separated smart and non-smart girls (Adely, 2009).

Details of the lives and experiences of the participants in this study further extend this scholarship by revealing the emotions involved in the empowering arrangements made by these participants within the institutions of their families, communities, and religion. This analysis challenges the idea of Islam as a patriarchal religion and the view of Muslim women as voiceless victims. It shows the need to approach Islam, or any other religion, as a lived experience, rather than a universal set of beliefs. The identity-formation processes of the participants revealed how Islam became a resource for them to assert their identities as educated and empowered women in their specific cultural contexts.

This analysis reveals how education empowered the participants in this study through their emotions, while also problematizing the view of empowerment as a universal notion. The findings highlight the importance of developing context-specific understandings of the value of education, especially for groups such as Muslims, who have become simultaneously hypervisible and invisible in global policy, media, and political discourses.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 13, 2019, p. 1-20
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23005, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 6:01:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Ayesha Khurshid
    Florida State University
    E-mail Author
    AYESHA KHURSHID is Assistant Professor of Gender & Education and International & Comparative Education in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at Florida State University. Her ethnographic research focuses on the issues of education, gender, and modernity in Muslim communities that have become the target of global educational and/or international development reforms. She teaches graduate courses on gender and education, anthropology of education, multicultural education, and qualitative methods.
  • Emily Leyava
    Florida State University
    E-mail Author
    EMILY LEYAVA is a doctoral student in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Florida State University. Her PhD research examines how members of a rural nomadic community in Western China, who may have participated in and have had access to different systems and forms of education, define and make sense of what it means to be educated.
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