A Story to Tell
In 2005, I was nominated to head Makassed / Khaled bin al-Walid al-Horj College (KBWH). Now just being a candidate to lead KBWH College, was an honor many principals of the 50 Makassed Islamic Philanthropic Association of Beirut (MIPA) Schools worked hard to achieve. Yet for me it was half the way to fulfilling a dream. KBWH is the MIPA Flagship School, thus highly qualified candidates were roaming the central administration, most of them were males, and probably I was the youngest candidate for the job. So, obviously this meant that I had to fight for it.
In the job interview with the President of MIPA Mr. Amine Daouk six years ago, he said: “Hiba, you graduated from this School, and I know how much you love it. I know your high competence in leadership, but we want a “MAN” to lead our Flagship School. Nothing personal, but that’s what is needed since it’s a huge co-ed school. In addition this school is located in a politically and socially sensitive and conservative area
and only a man can handle this job in this politically unstable situation.” Pondering for a while he added, “We need a principal for the Makassed College for Girls, it’s a small beautiful school, and you will do great over there.” Without hesitation, I said that my commitment to MIPA’s cause is to the mission and not to the position. But if the gender issue is the only obstacle then I will fight for it all the way, because as a Muslim, I know well the rights of women in Islam, and MIPA was a pioneer in teaching girls of the Muslim community in the early 20th century when no one in Beirut dared to do so. As a Lebanese, I know that men are partners rather than dominators, so let it be a competition and may the best win. The School started in September 2005 and backstage, gender competition was sizzling. Finally, gender discrimination lost the case, and I was appointed to be the principal of Makassed/KBWH College.
Moral of the story, even if the combination of religious misconceptions and masculine power try to dominate our feminine world, we can win the fight with our determination.
A Historical Perspective
The Arab World consists of three major monotheist religions that emerged in the Fertile Crescent and Hejaz. The majority population is Muslim, followed by Christians and a small minority of Jews. This population is geographically spread out in 22 countries, though they all speak the same language (Arabic); yet differ in traditions and cultures from one extreme to another. This diversity is not related to religion but rather to traditions and social customs.
Historians recognize the major role Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) played in radically improving the stance of women in the 7th century AD. Women who lived during his days and thereafter shared a considerable deal of equity with men. In fact, and specifically in the educational domain, women took part in establishing many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri who founded the University of Al Karaouine in the 9th century. Thus, it is not Islam that deprived women of their rights, but those who interpret it and those who are in power.
Today, women are widely spread in the field of education in the Arab World. In the Gulf area for example, and due to gender separation in schools, all teachers and administrators in girls schools are females, yet most of these schools are governed and/or owned by males.
Even in other more liberal countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, the majority of school governance whether a co-ed school, a girls’ or boys’ school, is in the hands of males. The main factor for this issue is the traditional power that men gained over the past couple of centuries, in addition to social traditions that gave men power in the political, economic, and social fields.
It also is important to mention here that family ties and obligations still play a major role in the Arab world, which places another burden on women. Family obligations that men impose on women hinder them from climbing the stairs of leadership, even if these women manifest remarkable ability, especially in education. While men in some Arab countries express their approval of women working in the field of education, the moment you ask them: why is this preference? Their spontaneous answer would be: they have long vacations, they come home early, and they will be close to their children at school. Thus the leading role of women in educational leadership is rarely recognized.
Unfortunately, International Organizations have no accurate statistics or data regarding educational leadership positions women hold in the Arab world. The reason for that is mainly because we have recently entered the domain of data collection. Therefore getting accurate figures regarding women in the field of educational leadership is almost impossible.
Nevertheless women leadership in the field of education has been increasing in the past two decades. While some Arab countries are still negotiating the approval of women to work, other Arab countries have female ministers and members of parliament. The gap between these two extremes will narrow due to several factors. The first is the wide spread means of communication that has made the world a small village. The second is the political maturity of people in the Arab World, and their rising calls for democracy. Finally, education made women more aware of their rights and even if they do not articulate this awareness frequently, yet some shy trails have been expressed even in the most conservative societies in the Arab world.
Charlotte Whitton once said “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”
Fortunately women are achieving and leading in some Arab countries and, hopefully, will achieve and lead in the future in all Arab countries. This hope for gender fair play is not a call for trading places but a call for equity, where women even in the highest decision-making positions keep their charm, and men, even when changing diapers, maintain their masculine charisma.
A New Vision for Education
To set these achievements on firm grounds, Arab women should realize that actively participating in today’s new world is based on three major factors: education, capacity building and determination. Indeed whenever these factors are acquired, women can become economically independent and committed to a cause. This autonomy and dedication will free her from the cultural and social burdens that have been laid on her for decades. Therefore Arab educators should foresee multiple scenarios of the next 20 years where women leadership in this fast changing world, especially on the technological level, becomes a priority. Consequently equal opportunities for education as well as leadership will prevail.
This gender equity in education and leadership will create a new generation of leaders in the Arab World who believe in diversity, tolerance, and acceptance of others who differ from them in opinion, religion, and race. This gender equity will be the first step into a global world where the coming Arab generations learn how to accept others as they are and not as they want them to be. This equity will not threaten their national and historical identity; on the contrary it will strengthen their commitment to build a better world, where leaders are chosen on the bases of their traits and achievements rather than on their gender, ethnicity, or religion. Therefore educators and policy makers in the Arab world should communicate these concepts pragmatically as well as theoretically, starting with formulating a new vision for education in the Arab World, a deep and continuous revision of their curriculums, setting standards for equal chances in professional development, and making serious efforts in creating an educational philosophy not only for gender equity, but rather for human justice.
For as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.