Muslim women catch up to – and even surpass – male counterparts in education

In Qatar for example, 51 percent of young female adults have a higher education, compared with 34 percent of their male counterparts, according to a new Pew Research study.

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Iraqi student Amal Hussein works as a library assistant scanning books in a local public library during her fourth year on scholarship at the American University of Iraq in the Kurdish northern city of Sulaimaniyeh, Iraq, on March 6, 2014. Ms. Hussein is the daughter of the widowed Baghdad matriarch Karima Selman Methboub, whose impoverished family of nine The Christian Science Monitor has reported upon extensively throughout the Iraq war and since late 2002, when Saddam Hussein was still in power.

Muslim women, who have long lagged far behind their male counterparts in education, are now catching up quickly – and in some cases surpassing them.

According to a study published Tuesday by Pew Research, young women in Muslim countries today have an average of six years of education – only 1.1 years less than their male counterparts. That marks a significant improvement over the oldest generation analyzed, in which women averaged only 2.5 years of schooling compared to 4.6 years for men.

And in the wealthy Gulf states of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, education gains among Muslim women have been so impressive, notes Pew, that gender trends have actually reversed. In Qatar for example, the richest country in the world, 51 percent of young female adults have a higher education, compared with 34 percent of their male counterparts.

“Women are not just outnumbering males, they are outperforming them,” including in areas like math and science, says Fida Adely, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

However, educational achievement and employment opportunities – an important catalyst for women’s independence and social equality – don’t always go hand in hand in these states.

“The question is not whether or not they will get an education, but if that education will lead to jobs,” says Shibley Telhami, a politics professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. “We’ve done a lot of studies, and the minute women begin earning wages they can become more independent.”

With the exception of Kuwait, the employment rate of women in Gulf states is lower than rates in other Muslim countries, a factor that Dr. Telhami attributes to the Gulf’s oil economies.

By comparison, the developing countries of Sudan and the Gambia have female employment rates similar to the United States, while the Muslim gender gap in education in sub-Saharan widened slightly for the youngest generation of women.

Improving educational equality is not just in the interest of women; it can also simultaneously improve a nation’s economy, experts say.

“The benefits to societies and economies have become obvious,” Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs, writes for Bloomberg. “Educated women contribute to the quality, size, and productivity of the workforce…. Our research shows that investments in female education can yield a ‘growth premium’ in GDP trends and that narrowing the gender gap in employment can boost per capita income.”

But it can take time to chip away at cultural and religious views that discourage women from working. Telhami, who has done his own polling for 10 years, says that roughly 25 percent of the population in these countries feel women should never have the right to work outside the home due to religious teachings or societal tradition.

While there is still an "ultraconservative" segment in these societies, however, a plurality say women should have the right to work outside the home when needed for financial reasons – while still others say they always should be allowed, regardless of a family's economic situation.

“It’s a fluid thing – people start shifting positions. Suddenly your daughter or wife is capable of pitching in by earning extra wages, and people start shifting their views,” says Telhami. “The moment society sees women with a job as an asset, it’s a powerful thing.”

Dr. Adely of Georgetown says it’s important to take the long view. Looking at the US, for example, twice as many men earned bachelor degrees in the 1960s, and today, women earn about one-third more bachelor's degrees than men. And in the 1950s, only 34 percent of American women participated in the US workforce, compared with 57 percent in 2014, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I like to put it in historical perspective – these things don’t happen overnight,” says Adely. “It’s taken us decades in the United States to get to the point where it’s OK for women to go to work.”

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