22 SES 11 JS, Leadership in Higher Education
Paper Session, Joint Session NW 22 and NW 26
Malaysia is a South East Asian country and its state religion is Islam. Grounded in the principle of justice and equality, Islam recognises equality between women and men regarding their spiritual, intellectual, and physical potential as propounded in the Quran that, ‘O people! be careful of your duty to your lord, Who created you from a single soul and created its mate of the same and spread from these two a multitude of men and women’ (4:1). However, in spite of this innate equality, women in most Muslim societies have often experienced discrimination and marginalisation, with serious implications for equal opportunities in all fields of life including education and leadership (Griffin, 2006; Shah, 2012). The feudal patriarchal structures of most Muslim societies, validated by vested interpretations of religious texts have contributed to female marginalisation through ‘commentaries and interpretations which interpret Islam in ways they want to see it’ (Zein Ed-Din, 1982, p.223). Religion is one of the tools wielded for male domination and control, which interacts with multiple other factors, as explained by Esposito:
The status and roles of women in the Muslim world vary considerably, influenced as much by literacy, education, and economic development as by religion. Men and women in Muslim societies grapple with many gender issues ranging from the extent of the women’s education and employment to their role in the family and the nature of their religious leadership and authority in Islam. (2011, 102)
This paper draws upon data from a qualitative study where in depth interviews were conducted with eight women in senior academic leadership position in three Malaysian universities. When asked about gender equality, each one of the participants emphasised that there was perfect gender equality in her university. However, conversations about their experiences and career progression as well as questions about gender of those in top leadership positions in their universities unveiled that women’s career progress to leadership positions was significantly different from that of men, and high majority of top leadership positions were occupied by men. This raised interesting questions regarding women’s self-perceptions as leaders and progression to top leadership. In response to deep probing it emerged that men with similar qualifications not only moved faster towards top position, but occupied almost all positions of power except an occasional woman in top leadership, which seemed more tokenistic. When probed further, the interviewees emphasised high significance of their responsibilities towards family and their understanding of religious obligations as factors for prioritising the domestic over the professional. The self-righteousness of good Muslim women signals the seductive power of religion that not only can blunt criticality but also poses a challenge to debates on equality as it complicates the issue by blurring boundaries between imposition and seduction:
Power operates visibly and invisibly through expectations and desires. It operates visibly through formal, public criteria that must be satisfied. It operates invisibly through the way individuals think of themselves and operate. (Cherryholmes, 1988, p. 35)
Mies (1986) discusses this as colonisation of women, claiming male superiority in the family and then transferring it to other spheres of activity. Aptheker also debates how women submit, knowingly or unknowingly, to this colonisation technology:
At the heart of the colonisation of women is a belief in the superiority of men, in the infallibility of male judgement and authority and in the absolute priority given to achieving male approval and validation. (1989, p. 8)
The paper will draw upon interview data of this unique study to develop the argument about impact of women’s self-perceptions on their leadership aspirations and career progression.
Al-Hibri, A (ed) 1982, Women and Islam. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Published as a special issue of Women's Studies International Forum: Vol 5, No 2. Aptheker, B: 1989: ‘How to do meaningful work in women’s studies’, in Abel E and Pearson M (eds): Abel, E and Pearson, M (eds): 1989: The Spectrum of Women’s Lives. Gordon and Breach: New York; pp 5-16. Esposito, J. (2011) ‘Customs and Culture’ in What everyone needs to know about Islam; pp 95-132. Oxford University Press. European Commission Report (2008) Mapping the Maze: Getting More Women to the Top in Research. Directorate-General for Research, Brussels. Griffin, R. (2006) Education in the Muslim World: different perspectives. Symposium Books. Mernissi, F. (1993) The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Polity Press, Cambridge. Mies, M. et el (1988) Women: The last colony. London: Zed Books Ltd. Shah, S. (2012) ‘Contested Power! College heads in a Muslim society and leadership challenges’ in C. Gerstl-Pepin and J. A. Aiken (eds) Social Justice Leadership for a global world; Chapter 4, pages 59-76. Leadership for Social Justice Book Series. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc. USA. Shah, S. (2010) ‘Muslim Women in the West: understanding the challenges’, in F. al Yafai (ed) ‘Women, Islam and Western Liberalism’; pp.38-50; Civitas: UK.
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