Muslim Women and Science

(Belated thanks to Kathy Ward.)

From The Globe and Mail.

We start with a post about a clearly very remarkable young woman; the puzzle comes after the story:

Alia Sabur is on record as the world’s youngest professor in the history of academia. In February, just a few days shy of her 19th birthday, Alia was appointed full professor at Konkuk University in South Korea. Colin Maclaurin, a physics student of Sir Isaac Newton, held the previous record some 300 years ago.

…She began reading at the age of eight months, entered college at 10 and graduated with a bachelor of science in applied mathematics from Stony Brook University at 14 – the youngest female in American history to earn a university degree. She then went on to complete a master’s degree and doctorate in materials sciences and engineering at Drexel University, while being on record as the youngest person to have received fellowships from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defence.

She is also a brilliant musician, having attended the renowned Julliard School’s music division … She’s no pushover either, as she’s earned a black belt in tae kwon do.

… Before leaving for Konkuk this month, Alia accepted a temporary position at Southern University at New Orleans, a school that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The university is still operating out of trailers. Alia teaches four courses, lives on campus, and maintains her research at Konkuk online. Her students, most of whom are older than she is, appreciate her passion for teaching.

What is in some ways puzzling is the comment in the post that says,

Her achievements shatter the Western stereotype of Muslim women as inherently dim-witted and oppressed. Of course, the opportunities afforded by American society have played a vital role. One doubts that a young Muslim woman (or man) could proceed along a similar path in most Muslim countries. Yet, news reports from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan are trumpeting Alia Sabur’s unique accomplishments.

In fact, many Muslim scientists and engineers I know ask me, “What is this Western problem with women in science?” And in many Muslim countries women are a strong presence in science classrooms, as students and teachers.  See, for example, Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology on Turkey.  This book advances an interesting explanation:  Science is not as highly regarded in the society.


21 thoughts on “Muslim Women and Science

  1. Geez, what a strange comment. Given that Pakistan, for instance, has had a female Prime Minister and the US can’t elect a female President. Women’s progress is uneven historically and across cultures and it doesn’t seem to me that any nation has cause to feel too much better than another when it comes to women’s equality. I know women in Saudi Arabia who are very well educated. Of course, they tend to be very rich as well. But that is more and more the case in western countries as well, n’est-ce pas?

  2. c’mon, it’s just an ordinary things that could b happen in any corners of the world.
    i’m indonesian man, moslem, in my country, there are many women professor in many college…
    what a big deal?
    btw, i wanna say “subhanaLlah !” for Professor Alia.

  3. There is an interesting article written by Pervez Amirali HoodbhoyScience and the Islamic world. The article does not talk specifically about women in science but paints a rather disturbing picture of the status of science in Islamic countries, which lends support to the claim that Alia Sabur’s path would have been more difficult in a Muslim country for a man or a woman. (Of course, science isn’t exactly well regarded in the US either…).

    I agree with Hysperia’s comment that women’s status is rather uneven both historically and across cultures. But, I think, overall, women in Muslim countries face more discrimination than we do in Western countries. A few rich, well educated women do not change that…

  4. Thanks for the impressive story, JJ! She sounds amazing. I find myself troubled (in a way I don’t fully understand) by the article saying that she combats stereotypes of Muslim women as dim-witted and oppressed. The article *isn’t* endorsing the stereotype, but somehow the way that it’s described bugs me. I can’t put my finger on it.

  5. Jender, I wish I had been more careful about that quote. At least from my perspective, putting demeaning language in quote does not remove all its force and ugliness. I was too focused on rebutting what followed.

    Perhaps also one has a sense of how contageous things are. Even denying a rumor, for example, tends to spread it.


    You comment really reminds me that we need to think much more in terms of specific countries. At least according to statistics from 1993 published in an article inScience, Egypt had 70% female science faculty and students. Other countries were not as high, but the average was 35%, which in 1993 probably was not that different from Western countries.

  6. I wonder, too, if the percentage of women scientists is higher in more secular countries – whether in the West or in Muslim countries. I would suspect that the percentage is higher in Europe than it’s in the US Bible belt… (I’ll see if I can find some newer data than the 1993 study you reference, jj.)

    The bottom line to me is reflected in a summary of a UNESCO report: ‘Much talent is being wasted as girls turn away from S&T careers and as women in S&T become discouraged by discriminatory treatment.’ No matter where we are, we’re facing discrimination. And kudos to any woman who makes it despite all that!

  7. A bit off topic but fascinating, at least to me: Percentage of women in Parliaments. Top spot in 2004: Rwanda with 49%! Followed by the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. The U.S. is in the 80th spot. (I copied the table into Excle to figure this out). Pakistan is #40. Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen are at the bottom. Okay, back to searching for data on women scientists… Somebody gotta be tracking that! (Maybe I just got distracted ;-).

  8. I only found one report that looks at the percent of women in science across nations. From table 1.9, p. 120, we learn that the percent of female university students in science in Arab States is 53%; compared to 42% in North America and Western Europe, 63% in Central and Eastern Europe (thanks to the communists?). Unfortunately, the only countries broken out are European countries… I am sure that compiling data from various reports presented by The International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists could shed some more light on this.

  9. Rachel, Thanks so much! What impressive figures.

    It looks very much as though another stereotype is being exploded. I do wonder how much the explanation floated in the Athena vol is correct; that is, science isn’t very highly regarded and so its ranks are more open.

    While science is not valued everywhere in our culture, it is a relatively high paying career line, and US universities seem to be putting more and more of their resources into it, at least in many places. “Start-up packages” for young academic scientists are now often over $1 million dollars, and plenty of universities compete to pay that much.

  10. Bwuh? I don’t know any people who think of Muslim women as “dim-witted”. But most of my friends aren’t stupid, so mine is maybe not an unbiased opinion.

  11. pinstripebindi,

    My guess from the signature is that the story was written by a Muslim woman in Canada, and that the words reflects her anger at the way she feels treated. She feels she is seen as “dim-witten.”

    Mind you, at philosophy conferences I can feel like that too. I have vivid memories of going up to a young man at a poster session and seeing his evident conviction that it was all too hard for me. You might be amused by
    which draws on a similar experience.

  12. Islam is very good in treating women. Honestly, We, Muslims treat woman very well and I believe allowing prostitution is worst treatment towards woman(which some non-Muslims country practice).

  13. I believe that their is a stereotype, by many Westerners that muslim woman are oppressed. But i have never heard anyone say that they are dim witted or stupid.

  14. Chris, I don’t know if anyone has actually said that, but I can easily imagine that Muslim women in the West can feel they are treated that way. There are lots of ways of treating people who are “different” that send messages we are unaware of, but maybe should be.

  15. I remember reading something by a woman who had recently started wearing a niqab (face covering). She said that people suddenly treated her as if she didn’t exist, and if they did have to speak to her they spoke really slowly as if to a child. It’s possible that what they actually assumed (wrongly) was that she couldn’t speak English well, but I can well imagine that this would come across as thinking she was dim-witted.

  16. i think islam make big problem for Women ! they think they built for a man and for make Baby for his partner !
    in islam Women is sexy device ! they use for sex … just for sex …

  17. “Akram embarked eight years ago on a single-volume biographical dictionary of female hadith scholars, a project that took him trawling through biographical dictionaries, classical texts, madrasa chronicles and letters for relevant citations. “I thought I’d find maybe 20 or 30 women,” he says. To date, he has found 8,000 of them, dating back 1,400 years, and his dictionary now fills 40 volumes. It’s so long that his usual publishers, in Damascus and Beirut, have balked at the project, though an English translation of his preface — itself almost 400 pages long — will come out in England this summer. (Akram has talked with Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the United States, about the possibility of publishing the entire work through his Riyadh-based foundation.)”

  18. Presently in the United States there is a backlash against women in math and science.Unfortunately we have had this myth of women being inept at math,spatial and scientific logical thinking thanks to a surge of pop psychology writings
    by non other than Micheal Gurian.He established the Gurian Institute which spreads sexist narrow minded theories trying to establish a basis for mass discrimination as a whole across the country.No veil or sexual segragation in the Muslim countries can surpass this veil on the mind of Western women.IK’m hoping the United States might be able to learn equality in mental gifts from the Muslim world before it’s too late and Western women fall under the spell of media manipulation and mythical theories set forth only to hold women back.

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