Gender-Based Discrimination in Muslim Homeschooling

Gender-Based Discrimination in Muslim Homeschooling November 18, 2014

Provided it is not used to isolate children socially or deprive them of an education—or to hide child abuse—I don’t have a problem with homeschooling. I am a homeschool graduate myself, and I would consider homeschooling my own children if the need arose. I do, however, have a problem with homeschooling being used as a tool of gender discrimination. I’ve written about the gender discrimination that can take place conservative evangelical and fundamentalist homeschooling, but it turns out that that’s not the only place this happens.

LODI, Calif. — Like dozens of other Pakistani-American girls here, Hajra Bibi stopped attending the local public school when she reached puberty, and began studying at home.

Her family wanted her to clean and cook for her male relatives, and had also worried that other American children would mock both her Muslim religion and her traditional clothes.

. . .

Across the United States, Muslims who find that a public school education clashes with their religious or cultural traditions have turned to home schooling. That choice is intended partly as a way to build a solid Muslim identity away from the prejudices that their children, boys and girls alike, can face in schoolyards. But in some cases, as in Ms. Bibi’s, the intent is also to isolate their adolescent and teenage daughters from the corrupting influences that they see in much of American life.

. . .

In some cases, home-schooling is used primarily as a way to isolate girls like Miss Bibi, the Pakistani-American here in Lodi.

Some 80 percent of the city’s 2,500 Muslims are Pakistani, and many are interrelated villagers who try to recreate the conservative social atmosphere back home. A decade ago many girls were simply shipped back to their villages once they reached adolescence.

“Their families want them to retain their culture and not become Americanized,” said Roberta Wall, the principal of the district-run Independent School, which supervises home schooling in Lodi and where home-schooled students attend weekly hourlong tutorials.

Of more than 90 Pakistani or other South Asian girls of high school age who are enrolled in the Lodi district, 38 are being home-schooled. By contrast, just 7 of the 107 boys are being home-schooled, and usually the reason is that they were falling behind academically.

As soon as they finish their schooling, the girls are married off, often to cousins brought in from their families’ old villages.

The parents “want their girls safe at home and away from evil things like boys, drinking and drugs,” said Kristine Leach, a veteran teacher with the Independent School.

The girls follow the regular high school curriculum, squeezing in study time among housework, cooking, praying and reading the Koran. The teachers at the weekly tutorials occasionally crack jokes of the “what, are your brothers’ arms broken?” variety, but in general they tread lightly, sensing that their students obey family and tradition because they have no alternative.

This article is from 2008, so I’m a bit late coming upon it, and I don’t know how things may have changed since. But what I find fascinating is how similar some of this rhetoric sounds to what I heard growing up. Some of it is different, such as the concern about being mocked for Muslim clothing and customs. But some of it—like keeping children away from drinking and drugs, wanting to ensure that the children retain their parents’ culture and beliefs, and squeezing studying in amongst a heavy load of chores—sounds very familiar.

Of course, a big difference here is that the girls are being homeschooled, but not the boys. In the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist homeschooling community I grew up in, both genders were seen as equally in need of protection from the temptations and influence of the world. The difference was that girls were pushed toward homemaking while boys were pushed toward finding a way to earn a living to support a family. In some families, this meant that girls were not given the same education as their brothers, because what are girls going to do with algebra anyway? In other families, both boys and girls had deficient education, because it was building godly character and discovering who you were in Christ that was really important. In my own family, both genders were educated well, but we girls were carefully taught not to entertain a thought of having a career outside of the home. Had we attended school or had influences in our lives outside of our close community, this might have been different.

In some sense, these Muslim girls’ teachers (they are homeschooled through the school district rather than independently) don’t really have a lot of options. According to the article, these girls would have been sent back to their families’ villages in Pakistan where (the article later says) they often would not have any access to education, so staying here in the U.S. and being homeschooled through the school district is a better education than they might otherwise have, even if their brothers are attending school in person. I suppose in a sense being homeschooled through the school district is a sort of middle ground compromise—the girls get an education, but without as many of the potentially subversive influences.

It’s worth noting that not all Muslim homeschoolers homeschool to isolate their daughters. The article contains quotes from a variety of Muslim homeschooling parents talking about their efforts to involve their children in a variety of extracurriculars, their efforts to ensure that their children don’t fall behind academically, and their interest in protecting their children from the bullying they received in public school. The impression the article leaves is that while some Muslims homeschool their daughters in an attempt to keep them from the corrupting influence of the public school district, this is not the case for all (or likely even the majority) of Muslim homeschoolers.

Homeschooling parents have more control over their children’s education and over who their children have contact with than do other parents. So I suppose it’s not surprising that just as there are Christian parents who homeschool to keep their children from “worldly” influences and prepare them for futures delineated by religious ideas about gender (i.e. the girls should be homemakers), there would be Muslims doing the same thing.

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