This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
In my post last week, I tried to look at the question of Muslim Women Scholars in the Golden Age, that is whether there were a number of Muslim female scholars/scientists during that great era of intellectual activity and achievement, whether the fact that we know of so few female names says something about the culture of that time (Muslim and other), or whether we are just to some extent ignorant about small but important episodes of history. And though my piece and the comments that ensued were far from scholarly investigations, we seemed to conclude that there was an element of both (largely male culture, even among the elite, as well as ignorance of some bright spots/names in our history).
In this post, and in continuation of the theme of Muslim women and scholarship/science, I want to look at the present and focus solely on Science. As you see, I am highly interested in women’s place, role, and contribution to society, particularly in its relation to Science and education, as I think that says quite a lot about the prevailing general mindset of the society.
Indeed, this is not the first time I raise this issue and address this theme, from one angle or another. About a year ago, I posted a piece on Irtiqa titled “Science, Education, and Women in the Arab World”. And last December, I posted a piece titled “Awards for Arab Female Scientists”.
One of the important things I noted in last year’s piece was that the percentage of females enrolled in Science fields in the Arab world is (see figure below), in most places, higher (sometimes substantially) than in western countries. In the (rich) Gulf states, the ratio of young women to young men in Science (university) fields is as high as 3 to 1.
I also mentioned the results of TIMSS 2007, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) being an international, standardized test administered to students of Grades 4 and 8; those results, while showing pretty depressing performances by Arab/Muslim students, showed better results by the girls than by the boys, rather consistently.
Clearly, Arab/Muslim women are venturing into the sciences in large numbers these days, and they seem to be performing better than boys/young-men, though school performance is not always equivalent to scientific creativity. However, even at the PhD level, one often finds larger fractions of women. It is unclear whether that is going to translate into greater numbers of women scientists (university professors and researchers), because so far we have not seen any such phenomenon, though the trend is perhaps too recent, and one must wait some more. (In universities around me, women make up less than 10 % of the science and mathematics faculty.)
In my December piece, I mentioned the Arab Women of Science prize that the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF) and the Regional Bureau for Unesco have created in partnership with L’Oreal to recognize 5 Arab women for their substantial contributions in various science fields. I listed the recent winners and briefly described their fields of research. I should also refer to the ASTF’s ‘Arab Women in Science and Technology’ website.
I would also like to mention the Ahmed Badeed Prize for Arab Women of Science, which was created in 2008 to acknowledge Arab women who have chosen scientific research as a career and who have particularly distinguished themselves through their work. This prize, given out in Paris (at the Institut du Monde Arabe), was awarded to Drs. Ilham Y. Al-Qaradawi of the University of Qatar and Asmaa Abada-Zeghal of the University of Paris XI for the year 2008, and to Drs. Arifa Ali-Khan, of the University of Yemen in Taïz and Nabila Aghanim of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Orsay, for the year 2009. I don’t think it was given out for 2010, and I don’t know why.
Let me also mention a few names of women who have become famous to some extent in the Arab/Muslim world for their scientific works and achievements. (I would also like to invite our readers to remind us of or introduce us to other important female Muslim scientists of today.)
· Professor Bina Shaheen Siddiqui made substantial contributions to medicine and agriculture through her study of indigenous plant materials. She received numerous awards and patents for anticancer constituents and biopesticides; her CV mentions 213 research articles and 77 chapters in books. The Pakistan Academy of Sciences elected her as a Fellow, and she has received many prestigious awards, including the Khwarizmi International Award of Iran and the Salam Prize in Chemistry; she co-founded the Third World Organization for Women in Science.
· Professor Samira Ibrahim Islam, who was nominated by UNESCO as a distinguished scientist of the world for the Year 2000, for the significant contributions she made in drug safety through her work on the Saudi profile for drug metabolism. Prof. Islam held academic leadership positions in her country as well as international posts with the World Health Organization. She spent many years working diligently to build the academic infrastructure to support women studying science in higher education in Saudi Arabia.
· Professor Farkhonda Hassan, now 80 years old but quite active (at least until very recently), is an Egyptian professor of Geology; she worked tirelessly in national and international organizations (including UNESCO and UNDP) to promote issues of Women and Science in this part of the world (served as Vice-President of the Executive Board of the Third World Organization for Women in Science); check out her article, “Islamic Women in Science”, published in Science in 2000.
The last point I would like to make is actually related to the case of Farkhonda Hassan, who is indeed more known for her “activism” than for her scientific achievements. Indeed, we need both. And in fact, nowadays we find a number of highly competent and distinguished female Muslim scientists, but few of them are vocal participants in the cultural debates of our time, including and particularly the place of Modern Science and its harmonization with the Muslim culture, the place of technology, policies of human development, the role and space accorded to women, etc.
We Muslims have made great progress in encouraging girls and women to get as much education as they can and, whenever possible, to become accomplished scientists, but we have not yet encouraged them to become full and prime players in the social and cultural debates.