Knowing What We Know: The Education Of Young Girls

by Zubaida Ali


Now that I am in my mid-fifties and expecting the birth of my first grand-daughter, I ponder at the thought of how she will receive her education in life.

Not the academic education that will surely be given to her but the passing on of cultural knowledge such as beliefs and rituals that inevitably will lead to the expectations society has of girls and young women. How can I, as the matriarch of the family, ensure that she be spared the interpretations of cultural practices that are harmful and negative for her? How do women know what they know?

Much of the way we know comes from oral tradition and role models. My mother learns what she knows from her mother. My mother passes what she knows to me and I pass it to my children who pass it to their children. Family traditions such as how to address the elders or other relatives within our family, how we hang on to heirloom recipes and reprise them for certain occasions, unique practices and rituals we hold dear just because we have been doing them all these years.

A friend once shared that in her conservative family the men in her family gets served first during meal times and were given the best cuts of the chicken during family events and celebrations. The women ate later whatever was left.

Even today, I see the female members of my extended family set the table and serve their sons and husbands at meal times, and their daughters follow the same exact footsteps of their mothers to take on the responsibility to prepare and serve the meals.

I once had a request from a participant of an evening class I was teaching to start the class later so she could ensure her husband gets a good meal before she left the house. She emphasised that she has to fulfil her duty as a good wife first. (My answer to her request was no).

In another instance, a young girl came to me with tears in her eyes because her father refused to let her continue her education at ITE believing that it is a waste of time because girls are going to get married anyway and it is about time she stopped wasting her time outside the house.

There are many other instances where daughters are being stopped from going on school trips overseas or taking up sports because they will need to run around and expose themselves by wearing fitness clothing. You may think these are isolated cases but for the young girls caught in these challenges, they are very real barriers to living full and productive lives.

Other harmful beliefs based on religious interpretation have young brides believe that it is a sin to say no to sex with your husband; that if you say no, the angels will curse you. There’s also an interpretation of a hadith suggesting that if your husband requests for sex, you have to drop whatever you are doing and oblige, thus positioning women as sex objects with no rights within the marriage.

Body policing or the obsession over aurah and the showing of skin has become a major topic many young Muslim girls have had to learn is their lot in life. They also learn to suppress any expression of themselves deemed inappropriate or wanton by the family, prevailing systems, or cultural norms. The stories are endless and I am sure if you are reading this, you have some insights of your own to share.

This is not the vision I have for my yet precious and unborn grand-daughter. I want her to be an equal member of her family and given access to all the opportunities available to succeed and realise her fullest potential. If she cooks and serves for her family, which includes her grandma, I want it to be out of love and a sense of nurturing rather than just because she is expected to because she is a girl.

It is said that we make sense of the world through eight ways of knowing: language, reason, sense perception, memory, faith, intuition, imagination and emotion. I hope my granddaughter will be given an education that allows her to fully explore this full spectrum without hindrance and the old baggage of out-dated and potentially dangerous beliefs and practices.


The writer is a speaker and trainer who strive to improve the lives of women through job readiness and personal development programmes at a non-profit organisation. She also runs support groups and community-based programmes for women of all ages.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu