Monday, March 16, 2009

458)Muslim Women in Math and Science: Sheema Khan Gives Us the Straight Goods

We've done the math and, yes, we women have it in us

From Monday's Globe and Mail
March 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT

A while back, I was given the task of teaching a Grade 12 remedial class in physics. Since the failure rate always hovered around 50 per cent, I was told to expect the same. Besides, most of the incoming students had failed high-school physics and thus were expected to do so again. I refused to accept this cynical outlook.

On the first day, I told the students: Attend all lectures, complete all assignments and tests, and you will be guaranteed a passing grade. Hard work will be rewarded. Having taught remedial courses in chemistry and math, I knew the key was to make the subject matter relevant to everyday life.

Isaac Newton's equations of motion made more sense when used to calculate the braking distance of a speeding Mazda RX-7 (or the distance a human body would be thrown without a seatbelt). Gustav Kirchhoff's laws of circuits were plain to see when I almost electrocuted myself during a lab class. X-rays and camera filters were a natural segue into light scattering and polarization. By the end of the course, students had analyzed an MIT article on airport-screening machines based on costs, energy efficiency and civil liberties. Their assignment: "You're the airport manager. You decide which machine is the best purchase." Intelligent, nuanced arguments buttressed each student's conclusion. In the end, only one constant no-show failed.

The key ingredient to their success: confidence. Why think students don't have it in them to understand physics? Why imprison them to the past? Before parting ways, I advised: Never believe you can't tackle a challenge.

The power within should never be underestimated. Yet, there are some who believe that biological determinism trumps the human spirit. A few academics now say women don't have the genetic makeup for math. Obscure scientific theories and dubious experiments are given as proof - much like 19th-century European tests that "proved" the inferior intelligence of blacks by comparing the skull size of black Africans and white Europeans. (Guess whose skulls were always bigger?)

Biological determinism is a blunt tool used by elites to thwart the aspirations of those whom they wish to control. Mirroring this are those religious elders who insist that women don't have the intellectual capacity of men. They dismiss demands for equality as espousal for sameness. Within many Muslim cultures, there is the accepted ideology that women lack intelligence, are too "emotional" and "weak." Yet, there is no theological proof for these assertions.

Syed Abul A'la Maududi, an influential 20th-century Indo-Pakistani scholar, argued in the misogynous tract Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam that the dearth of female Nobel Prize winners was proof of their subpar intelligence (reasoning echoed by the archly secular Shah of Iran to Barbara Walters). According to his logic, then, the lack of Muslim Nobel Prize winners proves the subpar intelligence of Muslims - a conclusion that belies the astounding scientific achievements of the Golden Age of Islamic civilization.

Those who insist that Muslim women are inherently intellectually deficient willfully ignore their accomplishments across 14 centuries in fields such as jurisprudence, theology and science.
Similarly, the sheer numbers of female mathematicians, physicists and engineers challenge the "women can't do math" mantra. Thankfully, there are enough educators who don't believe the cynics. I was fortunate to have nurturers of the mind throughout my education in Montreal. Not once did I meet discouragement. At Harvard, I pursued my love of math and physics as one would pursue a love of music. Spherical Bessel functions, Feynman diagrams and the like resonated in my spirit. My doctoral thesis involved the application of mathematical physics to statistical mechanics, resulting in a theory (albeit obscure) of electrolyte solutions.

I, along with a growing female sorority, stand on the giant shoulders of pioneers such as mathematician and physicist Emmy Noether. Today, 19-year-old wunderkind physicist Alia Sabur is poised to go where no man (or woman) has gone before. For those who tell us "you don't have it in you," we say: We've done the math, and found infinity in the palm of our hands.

Easy Nash

The Qur'an itself repeatedly recommends Muslims to become better educated in order better to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
The Quran tells us that signs of Allah's Sovereignty are found in the contemplation of His Creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
This notion of the capacity of the human intellect to understand and to admire the creation of Allah will bring you happiness in your everyday lives: Aga Khan IV(2007)
Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2006)
The first and only thing created by God was the Intellect(Aql): Prophet Muhammad(circa 632CE)