Islam Isn't Holding Back Muslim Women's Education—Here's the Bigger Problem

Researchers at Pew have said their analysis of data on the educational attainment of Muslim women across the world shows that religion plays a much less significant role in limiting their achievements than the wealth of the societies in which they live.

High-profile cases of Islamic extremists targeting schoolgirls—such as the kidnappings by Boko Haram of schoolgirls in Nigeria and the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan—fuel the perception that Muslim women are at an educational disadvantage primarily because of their religion, especially those who live in conservative societies.

But while it is true that Islamic cultures, societies and communities' chauvinistic attitudes to women can be limiting to their education—for example some are expected to marry young and build a home—in general that is no longer the case. It is the economic strength of a society that plays a much bigger role in determining the educational success of Muslim girls.

"The findings bolster conclusions from the global analysis that Islam's influence is more historical than contemporary," says the Pew Research Center study, called Women's Education in the Muslim World. "Among large Muslim populations, economic development, not cultural attitudes or conservative family laws, appears to be the key determinant of Muslim women's education levels and progress toward gender equality."

Muslim schoolgirls
Yemeni schoolgirls attend class in the capital Sanaa on February 8, 2015, two days after the Shiite Huthi militia seized power dissolving the government and parliament. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The study, published in the journal Population and Development Review, contains three particular findings from the analysis of data on education and religious beliefs.

It says: "First, at the global level, Muslim women were less educated and had wider gender gaps than all other religious groups except Hindus... However, Muslim women also made large educational gains in recent cohorts. As a result, Muslim women are catching up with other religious groups in average years of schooling, and educational gender equality is increasing."

Secondly, those education gains of Muslim women are seen throughout the world and are not confined to any particular region or country.

"Our third key finding was that country income was the strongest factor distinguishing countries where Muslim women are doing well from those where they have made more modest gains," the study says.

"Muslim women had higher levels of educational attainment and saw larger increases in education levels across cohorts in richer countries than in poorer countries.

"By contrast, the Muslim share of the population, the level of gender discrimination in family laws, and the level of religiosity—factors that proxy Islam's potential influence—were not associated with Muslim women's education levels or cohort change."

Top performers were Muslim women who lived in the U.S., U.K., Malaysia, Qatar, Germany, Kuwait, and Bahrain, all among the wealthiest nations per capita in the world. Meanwhile, those among the poorest—such as Chad, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Yemen—were where Muslim girls fared worst in education.

Muslim schoolgirls