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Pressure for sex equality comes from Muslim community

Marie Parker-Jenkins and Kaye Frances Haw interview Islamic girls. "We talk about superstars and pop stars ... and everything they (other girls) talk about but we ... think more of ourselves as girls, that we have an equal right to everything."

Muslim girls are proud of their religious identity, but as this typical comment shows, they are keen to achieve greater equality.

Many of the girls that we questioned (see survey details, right) wished to challenge the culturally-based traditions which were seen to place women in an inferior position. They felt they should seek fresh interpretation from the Koran on their proper place in society because as one girl said: "It doesn't make us want to question our religion, our religion says that women have rights. It's just that men are interpreting it the wrong way."

For some the patriarchical arrangements within Muslim communities were exemplified by the predominantly male governing bodies, typical of most of the Muslim girls' schools in our study. One pupil commented: "There should be ladies as well, other women would know how we feel."

And where were they getting these ideas from? Not from "out there" but from "within"; from the teachings of Islam in their communities. Perhaps surprisingly, we found that the challenge "from within" was coming from the madrassahs where Muslim children receive religious instruction.

This supplementary education for children aged 5-13, takes place after school and at the weekends. Arabic is taught for understanding the Koran, and instruction is given on the duties and responsibilities of Muslims. Imams or male scholars of Islam normally supervise the education in these schools, but there are also female teachers, sometimes known as "alimas", who have a bigger role in female education.

What the girls in our study were taught, and how they were taught, depended on the nature of the madrassah they attended and its views on the position of women in Islam. One pupil said: "Our teacher knows more about Islam than my parents, she shows you the proper view of Islam: the same freedom for boys and girls."

Conversely, the parents we interviewed were convinced that restrictions on girls were necessary. Although they were prepared to adapt their views in a non-Muslim society, they invariably relied on cultural conventions inherited from their country of origin.

Predominantly first generation, they felt themselves strangers in Britain and tended to close ranks to protect their children, especially the girls. They wanted their children to learn about their religious heritage but, preoccupied with economic survival, they turned to the mosque - and alimas - for Islamic teachings.

Accordingly, children's understanding of their religion is potentially in conflict with their parents'. Our study confirms that many girls are pushing the boundaries of what it is to be a Muslim woman.

A similar trend can be witnessed among Muslim girls in state schools. But, as we have said, Muslim girls may wish to debate their position in society in such a way as to leave intact their religious identity. Western, non-Islamic models and concepts may therefore be inappropriate as they search for equality on their own terms.

The teaching of gender equity in schools' personal and social education classes consequently needs to take on board the diversity of the student body. Otherwise we are in danger of applying one concept of what female equality and advancement means, effectively excluding the one which extends horizons but leaves intact a pupil's sense of self and sense of identity.

Dr Marie Parker-Jenkins and Dr Kaye Frances Haw work in the School of Education, University of Nottingham. Their study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Dr Parker-Jenkins is the author of Children of Islam (1995) Trentham Books, and Dr Haw is the author of Educating Muslim Girls: A Feminist and Post-structural Analysis, which is to be published by the Open University Press next year.

Sample surveyed

Dr Parker-Jenkins and Dr Haw carried out an in-depth study of a private Muslim girls' secondary school in the Midlands.

Ninety-seven per cent of the 120 girls completed questionnaires, and 80 per cent volunteered to be interviewed. Parker-Jenkins and Haw also interviewed the girls' teachers, headteacher, and a sample of governors, parents and ex-pupils.

Five other private Muslim girls' schools were chosen for comparative analysis.

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