Education system in Yemen [Archives:2006/914/Opinion]

January 23 2006

By: Kelly C. Wentworth
[email protected]

When studying Islamic history, especially during the time of Islamic expansion, one thing that always struck me was how well Muslims adapted to the new environments they encountered. They adapted without losing the core of their beliefs and culture. In your article entitled, “Yemeni American Women Striving for Education”, Ms. Ali seems to have lost some spirit of this. In my opinion, she also, however unintentionally, misrepresents America in general, especially in regards to her perceived notion of culture and education.

American culture is not some “Western” behemoth that is an unreachable goal for outsiders. On the contrary, since the number of foreign-born individuals has reached 35.2 million people and make up for over 12.1 percent of the population, according to a recent Center for Immigration Studies Report (2005), there can be no set “American culture”, as such influences would logically create a more dynamic than stagnant culture. If there are 700,000 Yemenis living in the U.S. as Ms. Ali states, then they too could have an amazing impact on American culture. If people in her area are having trouble with someone living in the bounds of their native culture, then I suggest reaching out to those neighbors and educating them on why one would choose to follow one's own culture rather than having to fully become part of the majority culture.

Americans, in general, are surprisingly open and curious about other cultures, especially ones that are very different from what they are used to experiencing. On the other hand, it is important not to become culturally isolated, especially in a place that allows for and has the opportunity to experience so many different traditions.

While education is an important factor in being successful in American culture, it is not a necessity. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the world, is a familiar example. He became a success despite having dropped out of college before completing his degree. I am not trying to downplay what I see as the importance of a good, basic education, but not all people seem to benefit from a traditional education. The nice part about the U.S. is if you have the drive and motivation, then you can succeed without education or even social status. Contrast that to Yemen, where even if one has completed a doctorate or beyond, one is not guaranteed a stable, good-paying job. Having been a former resident of Yemen, I have witnessed this first hand many times. Oftentimes, one is even further limited because of social status or even skin color. Ms. Ali did touch on this in her interview, but seemed to only emphasize success for those who have an education.

Being a Muslim woman leader in the U.S. is not an impossible endeavor either. There are many groups, such as the Muslim Women's League and Azizah Magazine, which work hard to promote Muslim women leaders. I have often seen examples of Muslim women being unable to pursue leadership in the U.S. because of pressure from their own cultural and religious groups. If a person, whether man or woman, wants to pursue a leadership position in the U.S., then there are many groups, Muslim and non-Muslim, that allow for such a thing. I encourage Ms. Ali and others similar to her to do a little research and get involved in such organizations.

Also, if there is an activity that one finds objectionable to her religious and/or cultural boundaries being offered to her children, then she could do what many groups and individuals do in the U.S., which is either try to change it or offer an alternative. When one's children are face with prom, for example, one could offer to throw a prom alternative party that is more in-line with one's tradition. You might even be surprised as to how many of your neighbors might like to participate in such an activity!

When I lived in Yemen, I observed that when it came to basics, American families and Yemeni families were much more similar than different. I do not know where Ms. Ali lives in the U.S., but in my area of the country, the values taught to American children are very close to those taught to children brought up in Islamic households. There are, again, several groups that would help her foster pride in her children not only in the American culture, but also in the Yemeni and Islamic cultures. Muslim Scouts, which are connected to the international Scouts programs in the U.S. and elsewhere, is one group that is great for such a goal. If there is not such a group in Ms. Ali's area, then she could either start a Muslim Scouts group or some other group that would help her foster support for the family's different cultures.

Balancing life as a working mother is also not an impossible endeavor in the U.S. There are often working mother groups that help support those who must work and without encroaching too much on a touchy cultural issue, in a household where both spouses work, it should be natural for the man to help in such things. Islam's own Prophet Mohammed, often helped in such matters, according to traditions ascribed to him. There are also many areas of the U.S. that have a nice enough standard of living where a couple can live comfortably without having to have both spouses working. There are many families that have chosen this way and have done well.

I applaud Ms. Ali's efforts to promote education among Yemenis both inside and outside of the Yemeni community. In promoting education, however, one should do their best not to promote already harmful stereotypes that many Yemeni people hold against American people, and vice versa. It is by finding the similarities in the differences between two cultures that one can ultimately hope to promote education and understanding.