AKKAR—Wearing a black veil covering her hair and shoulders, Manal is holding her books with two cold hands and hiding walnuts and dried raisins in her pockets for a snack in the classroom. She gives some food to her friends, Fatema and Khadija, as they laugh in an attempt to change the routine of Sharia lessons. She does not care about the lessons, she reads her lessons casually just before the exams.
She endures all this educational boredom only to avoid staying at home cleaning, doing chores and caring for her young siblings. Her father, a religious man, refused to let her attend the nearest university because it is two hours from her small village. So she enrolled in one of the Sharia and Islamic studies institutes in Akkar.
The 19-year-old Manal, who did not want her real name to be used, said “Life is cruel and unfair. If I were a man, things would have been different. A girl in our rural society cannot study away from her family.”
Akkar, one of the eight Lebanese governorates in Northern Lebanon, has 478,000 people living in 216 villages and towns. But the absence of universities or higher education institutions forces many students, especially women, to enroll in Islamic institutes. The situation of Manal and her classmates illustrates the circumstances that face many young Arab women who live in rural areas, far from cities that bustle with university life.
“I did not choose to wear a hijab or study religion,” said Manal. “I dreamed of being a doctor, which I could not do because of the absence of a university in our village and due to our social traditions. I had to bury my dream.”
Today there are more than seven Sharia institutes affiliated with religious associations and some directly affiliated to Dar El-Efta (the official Islamic Legislation Authority). These institutes specialize in teaching Sharia, linguistic, and philosophical studies from an Islamic perspective, granting certificates after three years of study. Although these certificates are recognized in Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese Ministry of Education only recognizes the certificates issued from institutes affiliated directly to Dar El-Efta. The only available jobs after graduation are teaching in one of the institutes. Female graduates mostly become housewives.
During a quick visit to one of these institutes, a male reporter was not allowed to stay in students’ classes for more than ten minutes. The teacher, who refused to give her name, said “Islamic education is not obligatory; it is optional. Girls, who do not want to study, do not have to do so.”
But she believes that studying in Islamic institutes has a special importance for students, even if they don’t work later. She said “Studying helps students bring up their children and establish a Muslim generation who understand their religion fully.”
There are more than 40 private universities in Lebanon but most of them are located in main big cities. The University of Balamand in Tripoli is the closest private university to Akkar. Due to its high tuition and its Christian Orthodox affiliation, the University of Balamand does not attract conservative Muslims. A single three-credit course at the freshman level at the university costs about $1,200, according to the university website. On the contrary, studying at the Islamic institute in Akkar does not cost more $400 annually. Moreover, the disciplines offered by Issam Fares private Institute such as agriculture, marine science and technology do not meet the girls interest.
The closest branch campus of the only public university in the country, Lebanese University, is in Tripoli, and only the faculty of science is there.
Another student, 20-year-old, says that studying Sharia helps her to better understand her religion, and that her fiancé encouraged her to do so. But she wanted to study French literature. She said “My family would not let me study away from home, so I had to study Sharia—better than nothing.”
Just as with Lebanese universities, Islamic institutes do not have to go through complex procedures to get a license. It is enough for them to be affiliated to an Islamic charity or specific association to obtain a license. The Ministry of Education does not supervise the selection of books or the curricula.
Hossn Khalaf, an advocate for women’s rights and an expert on education, said more opportunity should be provided to the young people of Akkar, especially the women. “The solution depends on politicians in Akkar,” she said. “They should seek to open new branches for the Lebanese University at least to ensure access to higher education for all.”
But not everyone thinks that would be a good idea. Ibrahim Haidar, a professor at Lebanese University and the editor of the education section in the Lebanese Al-Nahar Newspaper, defends the importance of establishing universities only in major cities. “This helps students mingle with others from different locations,” he says, “and allows them to know more about each others’ cultural backgrounds, and come closer to each other in spite of their sectarian, cultural, and societal differences. Establishing universities in small villages would only increase [students’] isolation.”
But he would like to see local governments “encourage the change of peoples’ mindsets and help them accept to send their daughters to study away from their homes, and give them a suitable means of accommodation and transportation.”
Until some change takes place, female students at Akkar will still have only two choices—study in Islamic institutes or stay home.
Bana Baydoun, a Lebanese author and poet, said “Religion can be a kind of prison, if it is not left optional.”