Sifting through the Mixed Messages: Gender Bias in Islamic Studies Curriculum Materials

Sifting through the Mixed Messages: Gender Bias in Islamic Studies Curriculum Materials

Tamara L. Gray

University of St. Thomas & Rabata Inc

Sifting through the Mixed Messages: Gender Bias in Islamic Studies Curriculum Materials

Numerous full time Islamic schools and a plethora of weekend Islamic schools educate millions of Muslim children around the world. Moral education, language classes, and religious content areas are forged using pre-packaged curriculum materials, teachers with a range of Islamic and educational expertise, and local expectations. In western countries, Muslims have opened private schools, charter schools, weekend schools, homeschool co-ops, specialized ‘opt-out’ Quran schools and other creative means to provide their children with cultural capital and an Islamic habitus (“…a system of schemes of perception, thought, appreciation and action.” (Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J-C. 1990, p. 35)) in the face of the pervasive culture’s majority norms. If gender norms and expectations are constructed culturally and socially (Hesse-Biber, 1987), and assuming that the Muslim community in North America is building cultural capital in these schools, then it is of primary importance to identify embedded beliefs found in the materials that parents and teachers are using to instruct children in their religion. What are the embedded gender attitudes in religious curriculum materials used in the various forms of Islamic education? Are the materials perpetuating the disenfranchisement and disempowerment of women, effectively going against the Sunna of Prophet Muhammad (s), and inadvertently causing larger social issues?


A long tradition of Islamic epistemology and ontology was interrupted by the modernist movement of the nineteenth century. Responding to globalization and the stresses of colonialism, Muslim revivalist thought called for the rediscovery of truth. It called for a new standardization of knowledge that was ‘directly transmitted’ and rejected the idea of ‘taqlid’ or the following of a school of law, encouraging individual intellectual pursuit regarding Islamic law (Imady, 2013). In this way they adopted the modernists “…doctrines of equality, liberty, faith in human intelligence … and universal reason..” (Harvey, 1990, p. 13). The movement found its way into Islamic schools in the mid twentieth century when the 1965 immigration law opened the door to thousands of professional doctors, engineers, and students to come to the United States. They built mosques and schools in an attempt to reproduce the cultural capital they had come from (Memon, 2009).

The mid-twentieth century also hosted the Nation of Islam movement and the resulting Sister Clara Muhammad schools. The Nation of Islam movement was both political and religious. The religious epistemology moved from radical and unrecognizable beliefs (for traditional Muslims) to mainstream and traditional beliefs under the leadership of Warith Deen Muhammad. Black Muslims, like their immigrant counterparts, began schools and temples (later to be termed mosques) in order to reproduce the cultural capital and religious teachings of their leaders. (Omran, 1997)

Schools opened and curriculum materials were written. The prevalent Muslim epistemologies of the time became the backdrop of Islamic Studies materials.

In recent years Muslim communities have demonstrated a renewed interest in women’s spaces and roles in religious society. The Islamic Society of North America, along with the Fiqh Council of North America prepared a statement, supported by North American scholars, calling on mosques to provide prayer space for both men and women in the main prayer hall and to include women in decision-making positions in governance[1]. Social media leaders have been agitating for better female representation at speaking events, the inclusion of female scholars on panels, and a recognition of female leadership in the community.[2] And Imams across the country speak against domestic violence and other ugly issues plaguing our communities.

Textual evidence against sexism in education is found in both the Quran and Sunna (prophetic words and actions) and recent historical works by Muhammad Nadwi (2007) and Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd (2000) have crushed any imaginings that Muslim women were ‘always’ the subjects of oppression and lack of educational opportunity. Hence Islamic curriculum materials that create a gender bias, disempower women, or send mixed messages about the place of women in society are deviating from the message they proclaim to teach. It is not enough to state that Islam honors women; the principle must be demonstrated within the pages and activities of the program.

Theoretical Basis

People often think that religious curricula originates at the standpoint of God. But, of course, Islamic curriculum materials are written by human beings and thus can withstand the same rigorous analysis as any other educational program. Indeed they should be ready to withstand the most vigorous of analyses. Curricular standpoint theory is imperative here, both to demonstrate that by taking the standpoint of women we will have a better understanding of human creation in the curriculum, and that “Given the power and privilege of men in our current social relations, we stand a better chance of getting a clearer, more strongly objective understanding..” of the prevalent attitudes (Au, 2012, p. 70). Curricular standpoint not only supplies the epistemology to further understanding, it is also a foundation upon which to think about methods of research, and continued analysis of curriculum. Critical theory is important as well. Curricular standpoint informs method and analysis, and critical theory provides the underlying question of ‘why’. Curricular standpoint theory “…surfaces the issues of peoples and communities that are either regularly pushed to the margins of school knowledge, actively misconstrued within the curriculum or left out of the curriculum completely.” (Au, 2012, p. 69). It “provides a conceptual and political synthesis that attends to culture/identity and to issues of materiality and practice.” (Au, 2012, p. 69) Curricular standpoint theory points to the questions that need to be asked and the materials will point us in the direction of discovery.


I use content analysis to unpack and analyze curriculum programs used in full time and weekend Islamic schools in Minnesota. Content Analysis is the study of cultural artifacts (Reinharz, 1992). The cultural artifacts of a curriculum are those things found and not found on site. Lesson plans, textbooks, Internet downloads, media, classroom decorations, school architecture, classroom management systems and supplemental reading are some of the artifacts that build a curriculum. For this study, I am looking to deconstruct textbook materials in order to uncover embedded attitudes toward women. Using curricular standpoint theory and critical analysis I constructed five areas of analysis to serve as a guide for the content analysis. These areas are as follows:

Illustrations: Are both boys and girls represented in the materials? Will male and female students see themselves represented in the pages of the textbook in equal numbers of illustrations?
Representation of girls and women: When girls and women are represented, are they happy, neat and tidy? Are they age appropriate? Are the girls in a practical hijab (one that can be worn as opposed to a sloppy draping of impractical fabric)? Are the girls and women only drawn in stereotypical roles?
Does the curriculum text include real women from history? Are women of knowledge and community activism mentioned? Does the program include three-dimensional presentations of women around the Prophet (s), and later followers?
When the wives and daughters of the Prophet (s) are mentioned, are they mentioned as real people or only as flat unrealistic relatives of the Prophet (s)?
What kind of language is used to describe women? Is it positive and empowering or negative and disempowering?
Gender Equity and Islamic Thought

Equal representation, positive imaging, historical truths, three-dimensional personalities and language of empowerment are all part and parcel of gender equity in Islamic thinking. God says in the Quran, “Their Lord responded to them: ‘I never fail to reward any of you for any deed you do, be you male or female – you are equal one to another…” (3:195) Prophet Muhammad (s) warned of gender bias and oppression in his final speech while affirming shared space in society, “They (women) are your partners and committed helpers.” (Ibn Hisham) This verse and hadith are only two phrases of many that form the foundational attitude of gender equity in Islamic thought.

The sīra is replete with stories of empowered women who worked alongside men to build the first community of believers. Women such as Nusaiba bnt Ka’ab (r), who witnessed the second aqaba and demonstrated the manifestation of her oath throughout her life, Rufaidah al-Aslamiyya, who built a make-shift hospital and saw to the wounds of the soldiers of the Khandaq, and Um Waraqa, whose Quranic recitation earned her a mu’athin at her home, are only some of the women that should be mentioned in Islamic studies curriculum materials alongside the sacred stories of great men (Taba’a, 2013). The wives and daughters of Prophet Muhammad (s) have been set forth as examples of humanity, and Islamic studies texts need to introduce them to students as full people, not as flat characters without personality. It is in meeting the full personalities of the women married to the Prophet (s), those who were given the title ‘Mother of the Believers’ by God himself in the Quran (33:6) that students begin to understand the subtleties of the role of women in society. Finally, Prophet Muhammad (s) did not ignore women or speak negatively about them and as such the language in the texts must reflect his (s) elevated Sunna. See Figure 1 for a detailed explanation of the assessment rubric.

The Rubric:

Figure 1
Category 0 1 2
Illustrations Zero or less than 50% of boy representation For every two boys there is one girl illustration Even distributions (for every illustration of a boy there is a girl)
Representations of girls Drawings are not happy, faithful, energetic, clear faced (non sexualized) girls Drawings are mostly happy, faithful, energetic, clear faced (non sexualized) girls Drawings are all happy, faithful, energetic, clear faced (non sexualized) girls
Women in the text Stories of real historical sahabiyyat and/or historical women are not included Stories of real historical sahabiyyat and/or historical women are included rarely Stories of real historical sahabiyyat and/or historical women are included often
Wives and daughters The female family members of the Prophet are not represented as contributors to Muslim society outside of their relative status The female family members of the Prophet are represented as contributors to Muslim society outside of their relative status rarely The female family members of the Prophet are represented as contributors to Muslim society outside of their relative status often
Language of empowerment Pejorative language or silence about women Neutral language, or stereotypical language, and/or semi-silence Positive language and women often mentioned

Using the rubric, we can analyze each textbook for positive messages about girls and women. I analyzed nine textbooks. Using the rubric, any textbook can be quickly analyzed for appropriate representation of women and girls.


I chose textbooks that are actually taught in weekend schools across the greater Twin Cities area in Minnesota. The publishing dates range from 1991-2013, though most of the books used were published within the last ten years. I looked at the textbooks meant to be in the hands of students, not curriculum guides, workbooks, worksheets or curricular schemes of work. I stayed in the elementary range (grade one to grade five) in order to focus on the images and stories that are foundational to learning. These are the years wherein children are sent to Islamic schools whether they want to go or not, once children are older, they must be won by the school either through great programming or materials. See Figure 2 for titles, publishing companies and levels of the textbooks examined.

Figure 2
Title Level (s) Publisher Author (s) Yr published
Weekend Learning Series: Islamic Studies 1,2,3, Weekend Learning Publishers Mansur Ahmad, Husain A. Nuri 2011
Life of Rasulullah: Madinah Period (not leveled- upper) Weekend Learning Publishers Husain Nuri 2013
I Love Islam 3,4,5 Islamic Services Foundation (Team) 2006
Muhammad Rasulullah:The Last Prophet Grade 1 Iqra’ International Education Foundation Dr. Abidullah Ghazi
Dr. Tasneema Ghazi

Mercy to Mankind; Makkah Period Junior level (about grade 5) Iqra International Educational Foundation Abdullah al-Ansari Ghazi Tasneema Khatoon Ghazi 1991


I examined each book and assessed them based on the rubric in figure two. A score of ten indicates that the textbook is empowering, deals fairly with stories about women and girls, and is consistent with the attitudes of Islamic thought regarding gender. A score of 9 or 8 indicates that the book has a passing grade. A score of 7 indicates that the illustrations and text are problematic, but could be supplemented by the instructor to counteract the gender bias. A score of 5 or 6 indicates that the teacher will have to use counter measures in order to build self -esteem rooted in faith and Islam in the female students. A score below 5 is a failing grade and really should not be used in the classroom. The final scores are as follows:

Name Illustrations Representations of girls Historical women in text Wives and daughters of Pr. Muhammad presented as three-dimensional Language of empowerment Total out of 10
Weekend Learning Series: Islamic Studies
Level 1

0 0 1 0 1 2
Weekend Learning Series: Islamic Studies
Level 2

1 2 1 0 1 5
Weekend Learning Series: Islamic Studies
Level 3

0 0 0 1 0 1
Life of Rasulullah: Madinah Period n/a n/a 0 0 0 0
I Love Islam, Level 3 1 2 1 1 1 6
I Love Islam, Level 4 1 1 1 1 1 5
I Love Islam, Level 5 1 1 1 0 1 4
Muhammad Rasulullah:The Last Prophet 0 0 0 1 0 1
Mercy to Mankind; Makkah Period n/a n/a 1 1 1 3

The books were a dismal failure. The only book with a passing grade is one of many levels, and as such only passes for one school year. Needless to say, the content analysis is not comprehensive. I was looking for illustrations and text that empower young girls and encourage them in the foundational equity of their faith. In this regard I was greatly disappointed. Illustrations are few across the board, and when girls are drawn they are often in messy hijabs, or messy clothes. There are many boys drawn in prayer and giving charity. Girls are drawn around texts about cleanliness. The numbers of illustrations of girls are far fewer than boys. When girls are drawn, they are often mothers or teachers, not students participating in the practice of Islam.

The presentation of information about early women was blatant in its absence. Nusaiba bint Ka’ab (r) was ignored in the story of Uhud and Asma bint Abu Bakr (r) was not mentioned in the Prophet’s (s) hijra. When women were presented in historical narratives, they were passively interacting with their faith, though the Quran presents the women as actively faithful. The wives and daughters of the Prophet (s) were flat and their accomplishments were not mentioned. Khadija (r) especially was stripped of her active participation in the early dawah. Finally language about women and girls included a girl who failed a science test, girls who clean up, and girls who are quiet. The books were silent regarding Muslim girls who are active, good students, and concerned about issues in their lives. Our students are getting mixed messages about gender and the role of women in society. Our books are disempowering and disenfranchising women and girls from their own faith.


“Cultural documents shape norms” (Reinharz, 1992, p. 151) and curricular materials are some of the most important cultural documents that a community provides. Our children are receiving mixed messages. In Islamic school the materials point toward a gender bias that favors boys over girls. Yet our Prophet (s) and the Quran speak often and strongly about the dangers of such bias. Are our children seeking fairness and equity outside of Islamic institutions? What does this say about the next generation of Muslims? We need to look carefully at the institutions we rely upon to reproduce our religious and cultural capital, and critically analyze sources of gender bias in the community. Where the curriculum is at fault, work must be done to develop new programs that encompass traditional Islamic thought and provide a foundation of fairness and equity.


Au, W. (2012) Critical curriculum studies: Education, consciousness, and the politics of knowing. New York and London. Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. (1990) Reproduction in education, society and culture. Los Angelos. Sage publications.

Harvey, D. (1990). The condition of postmodernity. USA: Blackwell Publishing.

Hesse-Biber, S. N. Ed (2012) Handbook of feminist research: theory and practice USA: Sage publications

Zayed, S, (1994) Mukhtasir al-jāmi’ fī al-sīra al-nabawiyya, Damascus: Maktab al-Salam

Imady, O. (2013) The rise and fall of Muslim civil society. California: MSI Press

ISNA Statement

Mack, B. & Boyd, J. (2000) One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, scholar and scribe. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Memon, N. A. (2009) From protest to praxis: A history of Islamic schools in North America. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. NR61032)

Nadwi, M. A. (2007) Al-Muhaddithat: The women scholars in Islam. London: Interface Publications.

Omran, A. O. (1997) A study of the historical perspectives and factors contributed towards the development of full-time Islamic Schools in the United States.(Unpublished doctoral dissertation) Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

Reinharz, S. (1992) Feminist methods in social research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Taba’a, A. (2013) Stars in the Prophet’s Orbit Damascus: Maktab al-Salam


[2] Twitter and Tumbler are replete with blogs, twitter conversations and twalaqas agitating for feminist issues in Muslim communities.

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