After six months of connecting minds, ideas and people from around the world, Expo 2020 Dubai closed its gates in triumph last week. With the end of this global exhibition, one clear idea formulated in my mind: this project was led by a woman.
Reem Al Hashimy, the UAE Minister of State for International Co-operation, led this giant project from planning to execution, attracting more than 20 million visits, including many from world leaders. She was present on-site throughout, managing the event to the smallest detail. I saw her welcome visitors, attend events and even drive a golf cart around the vast Expo site. Such dedication and success was only possible with the full trust and support of Dubai and the UAE’s leadership; this was the very definition of women’s empowerment.
The theme of empowering women and entrusting them with critical projects is not unusual for the UAE. Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology, is another woman who has achieved a huge milestone for this country. She worked tirelessly to turn the UAE’s dream of reaching Mars into reality by leading the Emirates Mars Mission. In 2020, the UAE's Hope Probe was launched from Japan to outer space, and in 2021 it orbited Mars. The UAE made history again, with a woman taking the lead.
Emirati women are empowered in many other areas here. They occupy 50 per cent of Federal National Council seats. More than 77 per cent enrol in higher education after secondary school, and a remarkable 61 per cent of university graduates in scientific fields are women. Examples of women’s empowerment are endless. Beyond the borders of the UAE, however, the horizons for women in the region remain narrow.
Across the Mena region, female empowerment and the gender gap are longstanding concerns. Women’s labour force participation in the region stands at 24 per cent, compared with the global average of 48 per cent.
Illiteracy is also an issue. According to Unesco, the adult literacy rate in Arab states among people 15 and older is around 75 per cent, while the world average is 86 per cent. The gap begins to open at primary school age. More than 1.5 million girls in the MENA region do not attend primary school. In South Sudan, an astonishing 73 per cent of girls do not attend primary school – the worst record of any state in the world.
The reasons for this gender gap and lack of female empowerment vary across the region, but the case of Afghanistan stands out. The struggle of Afghan girls and access to education has been well documented in recent weeks. Girls who were forced to leave school by the new regime were promised the chance to return. Then, after months confined to their homes in anticipation, when the government finally allowed secondary school girls to return to their classrooms their opportunity was once again withdrawn. On their first day back at school, the girls were sent home. The reason given was that the students required uniforms that covered them appropriately and must only be taught by female teachers.
But, as was also widely reported, the schools did have female teachers, and the girls’ uniforms were modest. And yet the Afghan government still chose to use religion to override the girls’ right to education. To Muslims and non-Muslims alike, an old question arises once more: what does Islam really say about educating women?
Through the Quran, Islam has taught us the importance of learning and seeking knowledge, something which is encouraged for both men and women equally. The first-ever verse of the Quran received by the prophet Muhammad from Allah is “Read, in the Name of your Lord Who has created”. Also, there are many other verses that encourage knowledge seeking, such the one in Surah Taha: “So high [above all] is Allah, the Sovereign, the Truth. And, [O Muhammad], do not hasten with [recitation of] the Quran before its revelation is completed to you, and say, 'My Lord, increase me in knowledge.'"
Seeking knowledge can apply to religious studies or general studies in medicine, engineering, mathematics and more. Universal education helps to shape a robust society, and history is full of Muslim women who were empowered to participate in developing their communities. Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of Muhammad, was a successful merchant in Makkah. Another celebrated and powerful woman was Khawla bint Al Azwar, an Arab Muslim warrior renowned as one of the greatest female soldiers in history. Mariam Al Asturlabiyy was a 10th-century female astronomer and maker of astrolabes in Aleppo. Queen Amina was a Hausa Muslim who ruled the city-state of Zazzau. There are many more examples of Muslim women who were educated, surpassed men in their knowledge and power, and created breakthroughs for their communities and humanity.
What has happened in Afghanistan this month is a violation of Islam. Preventing girls from being educated or women from taking part in society does not represent Islamic teachings or religion. Such acts are ideologies developed by groups to accomplish their own agendas and priorities.
The other question I have been asking myself is, what role can I play as a young Muslim woman in challenging this? To spark change and correct misconceptions, we need to start by spreading awareness. We must speak up and say that it is not acceptable to deprive women of their education rights. A clear line must be drawn between actual religious teachings, and how those teachings are being deliberately misconstrued. I know I must stand by the brave Afghan women who are fighting for their rights to education and add one more voice to be heard for change to happen.