More female engineering students is not an indicator of gender equality

Americans love to think of Muslim women as an oppressed group as part of a greater narrative of Islamophobia in this country, yet they would be surprised that Muslim women in the Middle East are closing the gender gap in engineering.

Participation in engineering in Jordan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia by women is up to 50 percent, according to Nehal Abu-Lail, an associate professor in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU.

Abu-Lail and other WSU researchers will conduct a study to find out why Muslim women are more likely to pursue engineering and graduate education than women in America and western societies.

In a Sept. 15 article from The Daily Evergreen, Abu-Lail said she is struggling to retain female students in the field here at WSU.

Geographical and cultural context is significant in understanding why certain demographics excel in fields where others may lack.

In this example, the disparity may be due to the different ways that western women are socialized versus women in the Muslim world.

Fadumo Ali, a female Muslim student here at WSU, said this phenomenon has less to do with ideological beliefs as it does with upbringing.

“It’s a matter of understanding American and international educational systems,” Ali said. “The reason so many Muslim women are good with engineering is a matter of understanding where they grew up and how what they’ve learned from previous institutions helped them excel in their area of study.”

Because of American stereotypes, the general attitude towards Muslim and Arab women is one of pity at their plight of lack of freedom.

In reality, most of the world, including the western world, suffers from patriarchy and sexism.

The difference is that each country’s patriarchal ways manifest in different manners.

Gender socialization in America encourages sexism and the minimization of the abilities of women.

Women are encouraged to take on more “lady-like” roles and roles that are assumed to not require as much thought.

One example is the conversation surrounding Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton on the possibility of her becoming the first female president.

Many people have asked what would that make Bill Clinton? And would he be picking out flowers and chinaware and doing other typical First Lady jobs?

The ideas of what jobs belong to which gender have become so naturalized in American society that our biggest concern about possibly having our first female president is who then will be picking out the flowers.

This of course mirrors the more conservative values that are becoming more prevalent during this election cycle.

Although levels of patriarchy are not much better in these predominantly Muslim countries – for example, Saudi Arabian women only recently acquired the right to drive – gender socialization and oppression has a different manifestation than in the west.

One might be deceived by the modesty in attire that Muslim women are traditionally seen in.

These symbols of religion and modesty are usually mistaken for oppression rather than a willing part of that Muslim woman’s identity.

This often leads to the notion that she is also suppressed in other areas such as education and the workplace.

A possible contributing factor may also be that as a result of the conservative nature of Islam – Muslim women are less likely to be choose roles where their sexuality is on display, such as careers in modeling and entertainment.

This is perhaps what makes roles in the science and engineering fields more open and appealing to Muslim women in the Middle East.

Despite the clear gender roles that are emphasized in Muslim countries and culture, women are perhaps thought of as more intellectually equal in the workplace if not socially equal in the home.

American society runs on symbols. Although our women appear to be free and empowered because they enjoy the liberty of wearing two-piece bathing suits, are they intellectually free from the restrictions of patriarchy like they think they are?

Does our society empower women to deconstruct ideas of what is traditional to men and women, specifically in the education and workforce fields?

Different forms of patriarchy cause women to be suppressed and to be empowered in different ways depending on their geographical and cultural context.

Patriarchy exists in almost every corner of the globe, however differently it rears its unpleasant head.