Tertiary Education of Women in Islamic Countries (OIC) and the Status of Balanced Approach

Document Type: Original Article


Department of Educational Management, Faculty of Education and Psychology, Al-Zahra University, Tehran-Iran



Tertiary education of women is one of the most important investments a country can make in its people and its future because women form almost half of the population of each country. The present research reports the tertiary education of women in Islamic countries. It demonstrates that in two third of the Islamic countries there are fewer women in tertiary education in comparison with men. Although, comparing with the past, more women are majoring in academic fields related to Welfare and Health, the Humanities, and Natural Sciences, and there is even a gender imbalance in favor of women at the tertiary level overall, the significant reduction in the number of female researchers to less than 30% globally indicates that there are serious barriers impeding the full participation of women in Science and Engineering. During the period of transition from Master’s to PhD, the number of women decreases significantly. Therefore, gender parity should be considered a priority by all if the global community is determined to achieve the next set of development goals.


Article Title [Persian]

آموزش عالی زنان در کشورهای اسلامی و وضعیت رویکرد تعادل جنسیتی

Author [Persian]

  • طیبه ماهرو زاده
گروه علوم تربیتی-دانشگاه الزهرا- تهران
Abstract [Persian]

از آنجا که زنان تقریبا نیمی از جمعیت هر کشور را تشکیل می دهند، آموزش عالی زنان یکی از مهمترین سرمایه گذاری هایی است که یک کشور می تواند در مردم و آینده آن کشور داشته باشد. تحقیق حاضر گزارشی از آموزش عالی زنان در کشورهای اسلامی است. نتایج نشان می دهد که در 3/2 از کشورهای اسلامی زنان در مقایسه با مردان کمتر در آموزش عالی شرکت دارند. اگر چه در مقایسه با گذشته، بیشتر زنان در رشته های تحصیلی مربوط به رفاه و سلامت، علوم انسانی و علوم طبیعی در مقاطع تحصیلات تکمیلی تحصیل می کنند و حتی عدم برابری جنسیتی به نفع زنان در سطح آموزش عالی وجود دارد، اما کاهش چشمگیر زنان محقق به 30% در سطح جهان نشان میدهد که موانعی جدی وجود دارند که مانع از مشارکت زنان دررشته های علوم پایه و مهندسی می شوند. در بازه زمانی ارتقا از سطح کارشناسی ارشد به دکترا، تعداد زنان به میزان قابل توجهی کاهش می یابد و این به خاطر تلاش آنها برای صعود از پله های نردبان شغلی است. برابری جنسیتی فراتر از یک پرسش در مورد عدالت یا برابری است. کشورها، شرکت ها و موسساتی که زمینه های مناسب برای رشد زنان را فراهم می کنند، ظرفیت نوآوری و رقابت را افزایش می دهند. نوآوری و تعامل دیدگاه ها و تخصص های مختلف موجب بهره مندی تلاش های علمی می شوند. برابری جنسیتی راه حل های جدیدی را یشرو قرار می دهد و محدوده پژوهش را گسترش می دهد. این امر باید به عنوان یک اولویت در نظر گرفته شود، اگر جامعه جهانی مصمم به دستیابی به مجموعه بعدی اهداف توسعه باشد.

Keywords [Persian]

  • زنان
  • آموزش عالی
  • کشوهای اسلامی
  • ثبت نام
  • شاخص جنسیتی


Tertiary education refers to academic pursuit undertaken beyond the secondary education. It is often assumed that education imparted by colleges or universities is tertiary education. But in fact, higher educational institutions include professional schools in the fields of Law, Theology, Medicine, Business, Music, and Art. They also include other institutions, including Teacher Training Schools and Technological Institutions. Moreover, institutions for training highly-skilled specialists in the fields of Economics, Science, Technology, Culture, and various types of higher education schools are considered tertiary educational institutions since these institutions admit those candidates who have completed their secondary level education. Thus, in general, the term “tertiary education” refers to education at the third level of education and above. Due to globalization, the demand for more qualified higher education has increased. Carnoy (2005) posited that two of the main bases of globalization are innovation and information, and they, in turn, are highly knowledge intensive. Consequently, the demand for education, especially university education, keeps mounting. This is partly because “the rising payoffs to higher education in a global, science based, knowledge intensive economy make university training more of a ‘necessity’ to get ‘good’ jobs”  (Carnoy 2005, p.4 ). Furthermore, the payoffs for a higher educated labor force “increase the demand for university education, pushing governments to expand their higher education systems, and, correspondingly, to increase the number of secondary school graduates ready to attend post-secondary schooling” (Ibid, p.5). Given the significance of the issue, the General Secretary of the United Nations (UN) had announced accessibility and elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education for everyone by 2005, and gender equality in all levels of education by 2015 according to developmental goals of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).


With the growth of Information Technology (IT), the gap between developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries has been widening. From the perspective of economic theoreticians, human resources investment is the main factor in directing the development and reducing the gap. From another perspective, development of information technology has resulted in the emergence of new fields of science and technology, including Nanotechnology, Biotechnologies, and Cognitive Sciences. Although IT has enhanced tertiary education developments, utilization of such technologies depends on the level of the countries’ national income. Thus, in the countries with low national income, the level of education, training, and consequently culture is affected variously. If the level remains static, it would cause inter alia, poverty, and social problems.


Until the 1990s, there were, on average, more male than female students in Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries. Women were disadvantaged by inequalities of access to higher education. Since then, disparities causing the detriment of men have arisen in a good number of countries (UNESCO, 2008). In the present study, the status of women tertiary education is studied with respect to Gender Parity Index (GPI). GPI indicates parity between girls and boys regarding gross enrollment ratio and completion rate. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), GPI for gross enrollment ratio in tertiary education is the ratio of female to male enrolled at tertiary level in public and private schools. GPI for tertiary education completion rate is the ratio of female tertiary education completion rate compared to that of male.


Tertiary Education for Women

Women form half of the world’s population and thus half of the human sources in the Islamic countries. Nonetheless, there have long been strong biases against women, and thereby there has been a tendency to deny equal socio-economic opportunities for men and women. This neglecting attitude towards women’ situation is prominent in many respects, particularly in education. No one can deny the fact that education is the fundamental factor for the socio-economic developments in a country, but women’s access to education has not been fairly treated.

There are two different views of the women participation in tertiary education— traditional and modern. The traditional view believes women education is to equip them for becoming better wives and mothers. The advocates of this view believe that women’s current education is entirely irrelevant to their real lives. In this view, education is only considered a waste of time since it does not help women to solve the problems related to their daily lives. The traditional view suggests that modern educated women are neither happy, nor socially beneficial. The educated woman is misfit in life and needs opportunities for self-expression. However, modern view sees education as an instrument for gender equality and women’s development (UNESCO, 2010).

Theoretically, both male and female require equal higher education. But practically, it could be said that women education is more important than that of men. To highlight this connection, there should be a reference to a statement by the philosopher-president and noted educationist, Radhakrishnan (1948). He posits that “there cannot be educated people without educated women. Women education has two aspects—individual and social aspects. It is education that enables a woman to deal with the problems related to her life, family, society, and nation. Education helps increasing the women’s self-confidence. She considers gender parity among her children regarding health care, nutrition, education, and even career. The fruits of education are reaped not only by the women but also transmitted to the family in later life. In a word, the development of a society, in its entirety, depends on the development of all its members. But if half of its members are kept away from development, there will obviously be hindrances to the entire development.

In past, experience shows that tertiary education has been exclusively restricted to men. Women were not granted entry into tertiary education. Today, the facilities provided for women education have increased and women can enjoy equal opportunities in tertiary education. According to the commission on the tertiary education for women, University of Madras in 1979, education is necessary for men and women to enhance their personal development, ability to learn, character formation, and creative self-expression (Nath, 2014). Moreover, providing statistics and a general picture of women tertiary education in the Islamic countries can be beneficial for policy makers, planners, executives, experts, and analysts of tertiary education in the Islamic countries. The statistical data would include the following indicators: Gender Parity Index for Gross Enrollment Ratio, Gender Parity Index for Gross Completion Rate, Percentage of Women Researchers in each country regarding their different majors, the proportion of each gender in tertiary education, and Adjusted Gender Parity Index (GPI) reflecting the number of women to men and its gender parity. In 2003, UNESCO assessed the range of gender parity between 0.97 and 1.03. In general, seven countries of the world (namely, Guatemala, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Swaziland) have achieved the indicator of Gender Parity. The data of tertiary education of 34 Islamic countries indicate that in 13 Islamic countries, women outnumber men and in 21 countries men outnumber women. In other words, two third of the Islamic countries have fewer women than men in their tertiary education (UNESCO, 2015).

When it comes to women’s participation in research, according to the world statistics (Figure 1), a leaky pipeline could be detected globally. Women are actively pursuing bachelors and masters, and even outnumber men at these levels, representing 53% of graduates, however, their number drops off sharply at PhD level. In other words, male graduates (i.e., 57%) overtake women suddenly. Wide discrepancies occur at the researcher level, with men representing 72% of the global population. The high proportion of women in tertiary education does not necessarily result into a noteworthy presence of them in research.



According to the world statistics of 101 countries, for every 10 countries representing the least proportion of female students, six of them are from Islamic countries (UNESCO, 2015). Three countries, namely, Qatar with 64% female students, ranking seven in the world and UAE and Tunisia with 60% female students, ranking 17 in the world enjoy the highest proportion of females in tertiary education. The lowest ranked countries are: Mali with 29%, ranking 96 in the world; Mauritania with 28%, ranking 97; Afghanistan with 18%, ranking 99’ and Chad with 15% female students, ranking 101.


The other indicators of discrepancies are the Gender Parity Ratio of Gross Number of University Registration and Gender Parity in All Educational Programs.

University enrollment numbers are influenced by many factors including the economic climate, public policies that support attendance at university, the population size of the related age group, the rates of secondary school graduation and excellence, absorption capacity of the institutions, and appropriate balance between higher education and the labor market.

Global tertiary enrollment increased from just fewer than 100 million in 2000 to 181 million in 2010. By 2013 (the latest year for which figures were published globally), the number of students enrolled in tertiary education had grown to 196 million (UNESCO, 2015). Globally, GPI for tertiary enrollments has not changed over time with a male bias in Togo (0.39) and Mali (0.43). In 12 countries, there exists a female bias in tertiary enrollments. In three countries, the GPI of female to male attendance has almost doubled. These countries are Bahrain (2.18), Kuwait (2.24), and Qatar (6.66). 

As indicated in Table 1, in Azerbaijan, the Gender Parity Ratio of Gross Number of University Registration was 1.05, almost equal to one, and Gender Parity in All Educational Program was 0.66. It is also shown that Gender Parity Index for Gross Completion Rate among Islamic countries indicates that Qatar enjoys the highest status (2.17), while Togo (0.14) has the lowest distance from GPR in completing education.


Women Fields of Study

The presence of women varies according to the fields of study. Women now have a noticeable presence in the fields of Health and Welfare in most countries and regions, but not in the other fields. The majority of Health and Welfare graduates in Kazakhstan (88%), Oman (84%), and United Arab Emirate (83%) are women. The second most popular field of study for women is the Humanities. In 24 (out of 27) countries, females make up 50% or more of the tertiary graduates in the Humanities. Current trends in Natural Sciences tell an interesting story. In most countries, up to 60% of Natural Sciences graduates are females. Nonetheless, women are consistently the least represented in Engineering, Manufacturing, and Construction. In many cases, Engineering has lost ground to other sciences, including Agriculture. The highest scores come from Jordan (73%) and Tunisia (70%).


Scientific Development

Research in science and technology is of great importance and key to progress towards a knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy. It promotes better understanding of different aspects of life and helps to improve the standards of living by generating new knowledge and technological innovation. Today, there is sever competition among countries to become the most competitive and knowledge-based economy in the world. Gaining a comparative advantage against other countries which is of particular importance to the OIC member countries in catching-up with this competitive world of knowledge economy depends on how well they perform in research activities.


The availability of abundant and highly qualified researches is an essential condition to foster innovation and promote the scientific and technological developments of a country. Inhabiting 661 researchers per million people on average, OIC member countries fall well behind the world average of 1643. The gap gets even wider when compared to the European Union (EU) with the average of 5101 (SESRIC 2016). In terms of female researchers, women represent around 35.6% of the total researchers in the OIC, higher than the world average of 22.5%, and EU average of 33.1%. In the recent decades, women, with better access to training and education facilities have become more qualified and motivated to participate in the labor force. However, the progress achieved so far in the field of research and development seems unsatisfactory neither globally nor at the OIC level. Worldwide in 13 countries, the percentage of women researchers is higher than that of men. In Myanmar and Bolivia, the percentage of female researchers is as high as 85.5% and 62.7% of total researchers, respectively (SESRIC 2016).

Among the Islamic countries, Azerbaijan has the highest number and proportion of researchers in all fields as shown in Table 3. Table 3 shows that only four (out of 40 member countries with available data) have higher women researchers than men. These countries are Venezuela (56.29%), Azerbaijan (54.27%), Tunisia (53.90%), and Kazakhstan (51.46). On the other hand, there are also countries, including Saudi Arabia in which women’s proportion is less than 5%.Women researches embody around 35.5% of the total researches in the OIC region, which is higher than the world average (22.5%) (SESRIC 2016). Table 3 indicates that considering all sciences, Turkey, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan have the highest rate of female researchers in the Islamic countries (UNESCO, 2015). UNESCO has declared the following reasons for the low proportion of women researchers:


  1. Maintaining balance between life and work
  2. Sex-stereotyping
  3. Evaluation of efficiency and elevation criteria, government, and role of researchers in society


In scientific systems of countries, the evaluation criteria for women and men candidates are not equal. Therefore, women are promoted less than men and remain at lower levels. This does not mean that the countries fail to utilize their human resources properly. This issue will more likely have negative effects on innovations and consequently the rate of economic growth and reduction of poverty. Enhancement of the participation of women as well as their access to science and technology will have substantial effects on poverty rate reduction, provision of career opportunities, and development of agricultural and industrial products (UNESCO, 2007). In all scientific fields, the world ranks ranging from two to ten belong to Turkey, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan (Table 4).



In half of OIC countries, GPI of the enrollment ratio of women is higher than that of men, and as indicated by the GPI that is greater than 1. Empirical research highlights three reasons for the growing participation of women in higher education. First, higher levels of schooling are required to attain social mobility (Mahrouzadeh 2012a; Takyi-Amoako, 2008). Second, higher education leads to individual returns in form of higher incomes, even though women must have more years of education than men to secure jobs of comparable incomes; a pattern found both in industrialized and developing countries. Finally, there has been an ongoing diffusion of ideas on the subject of gender parity across countries.


Gender parity in tertiary education differs from country to country and has changed over time (Jenson, 2006; Megahed & Lack 2011; UNESCO, 2012). In Bhandari and El-Amine’s study of seven Arab countries (i.e., Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and UAE), the researchers found that both men and women comprise about 50% of higher education enrollment. There are, however, significant differences between universities; for example, a handful of universities in the Persian Gulf countries are designated as single gender (male-only or female-only), and accordingly female enrollment ranges from zero (male-only) to 100% (female-only). Some universities, particularly in Saudi Arabia, admit both men and women but have separate campuses for each gender, while other universities allow both genders on the same campus but teach them in separate classrooms. About 85% of the universities analyzed in this study are entirely co-educational. The researchers identified Morocco and Lebanon as the countries with the highest level of gender parity in terms of enrollment and co-education.

 Statistics indicate that throughout the world, women are mostly attracted by the field of education, whereas in Engineering and Construction they show less interest. Even in developed countries such as England, Japan, USA, Switzerland, and Germany the proportion of graduated women in these fields is one tenth to one fifteenth. Uruguay and Mongolia are the only countries that have gender parity in these fields. Among Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, Math, Statistics, and Computer, women show more interest in Life Sciences.

In Arab countries, women have shown the most enthusiasm for Journalism amongst Behavioral Sciences, Social Sciences, Journalism and Informatics, Trade, and Management. In general, most graduates in Journalism in the world are women. With the exception of Central Asia, women outnumber men in the field of Law globally. Even though the rate of university admission and graduation is important in upgrading the scientific and cultural level of individuals and accordingly the society, what is more important in reaching sustainable development is the proportion of women in production of science and research. In OIC countries, on average, between 60% and 65% of graduates are women in Health and Welfare, Natural Sciences, and the Humanities (almost two women graduates for every man). The rate is less than 60% in Social Sciences, between 45% in Agriculture, and 25% in Engineering (three men for every woman).

The gap gets smaller when compared to non-OIC developing countries with an average of 827 researchers per million. However, the gap is even larger when compared to the EU average of 4651, which is more than 10 times of the OIC average. More strikingly, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have at least 20 times more researchers than the OIC average (SESRIC 2016). Nonetheless, women form just 28% of global researchers in the world. Women are highly represented in Southeast Europe (49%), and in the Caribbean, Central Asia and Latin America (44%). One in three researchers is woman in the Arab States (37%), the European Union (33%) and the European Free Trade Association (34%), which are closely followed by sub-Saharan Africa (30%) (UNESCO 2015). In most of OIC countries, women represent less than one-third of the total number of researchers. Among these, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have achieved gender parity.

Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, and Venezuela are the member countries that have more women researchers than men. Malaysia, Egypt, Albania, Kyrgyzstan, Brunei, Uganda and Sudan—all with over 40% women researchers—are also close to achieving gender parity.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) should be considered an important factor in daily life and other fields and one of the achievements of 21st. Revolutionary progress in this field has instigated the development of convergent sciences and technologies, such as Nano-technology, Bio-technology, and Cognitive Sciences (NBIC). Nano-technology is literally concerned with making things in their atomic scale. As one of the most dynamic and the fastest growing field, Nano-technology has expanded in its function to prepare material for engineering, chemistry, pharmacological materials, and other sectors. Although there is a wide gap between developed and Islamic countries in the fields of science and technology, simultaneously, in some Islamic countries such as Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt there has been increased advancements in these technologies. But they have also confronted certain obstacles (Mahrouzadeh 2012b). Bio technology is concerned with the discovery of new medicine, preventive medicine, and genetic therapy. Within this field, the functions of Artificial Intelligence are complemented by studies of the human mind. Cognitive sciences is a branch of science that has emerged via integration with other sciences with the aim of nurturing the power of thinking (i.e., creative and critical thinking), and expansion of knowledge. Also with critical thinking nurtured, social events and human science achievements based on humanistic values can be critically assessed.

IT has created exceptional opportunities in economic and cultural developments as well as empowerment of people in various areas, such as education, health, environment, and trade. All over the world, people encounter limitations in accessing and using IT due to certain economic, social, and cultural conditions. Although IT is rapidly growing, its utilization is mainly dependent on the level of income of the countries. On the other hand, the expansion of IT in developed nations with higher level of income and discrepancies in income distribution has been an important factor in affecting the economic growth and higher quality of life in industrial countries. In fact, we have entered the new era without fully analyzing the coordination between technology and our social conditions and related matters. The UN has announced the accessibility of IT as the third factor for the backwardness of women, after poverty and violent abuse of women. The next issue that needs to be considered is misuse of girls and women by this technology.

One of the important potential usages of IT is creation of digital networks (such as the Network of Women Scientists of Islamic World), which can have considerable effect on cultural-social changes. These networks are a mixture of technology and individuals as human resources. The virtual space can be recognized as a new source of science with a new essence. Technical education in this area should not only be limited to knowledge grounded for its structural usage, but must include reception and utilization of information, production and manner of information development, and method of drafting policies and strategies in planning.

ICT plays an important role in education of women and girls, especially in distance learning. As an example, the distance learning program in India has been one of the most successful programs in operation (Kassim et al. 2015).

In order to overcome the problems such as poverty, prostitution, and unemployment, the first and most important step is education and training in different levels, from elementary to university. General education is the necessary basis for socio-cultural development, but having expertise in different areas is dependent on the development of tertiary educational system. Therefore, one of the indicators of the developments in the first conference of women ministers of Islamic countries was the provision of equal opportunities for women to access quality education and training (Mahrouzadeh 2012a). Reforming the educational system by making changes in Goals, Curriculums, Tools, and Methods of education is the first priority. The traditional education and training is based on industry-oriented approaches, where students were trained for the purpose of keeping the wheels of industry turning. With the development of IT and in order to keep up with the rapid pace of scientific and technological changes, the educational system is forced to train flexible, capable, and thoughtful learners in networked thinking so that, firstly, they can adapt themselves to the fast scientific and technological changes and, secondly, they would be able to analyze and criticize the effects of scientific and technological achievements on social events.


Nowadays, the gap between the developed, developing, and less developed countries is widening day by day due to fast scientific and technological changes. Integration of scientific fields, creation and expansion of interdisciplinary scientific areas and fields of study, and the convergence of different disciplines, such as in Nano-technology, Bio-technology, Cognitive and Information technology have made economic, cultural, and social developments feasible (Mahrouzadeh 2012b). In addition, it has resulted in knowledge management, reorganization of development, and change of policies in educational systems of countries.


Knowledge is valuable when it is developed to be shared and accessed by others. Therefore, nowadays, strategy of “knowledge management” has become an important tool that enables gathering and organizing the existing knowledge. We need to develop culture in a way that provokes cooperation, trust, sharing of knowledge, learning, and creativity. Knowledge management is trying to prepare the ground for participation of interactivity among experts. The goal is to create a society where there will be enough expertise and a common language. For reaching such purpose, it is necessary to pay attention to two important factors which are: knowledge-based organization and tacit knowledge, and the way of learning and expanding it.

To conclude, the final suggested strategies are as follows:


  1. Empowering of women and entrepreneurship in small and medium size industries and trade
  2. Empowerment of women in IT areas
  3. Establishment of virtual networks for communication of women scientist, thinker, entrepreneur, with the purpose of strengthening them in new sciences and technologies.
  4. With the high proportion of women in education and training areas, their capability can be used for enhancement of education and training in different levels in Islamic countries.
  5. Establishment of knowledge management network by Islamic countries, similar to international network management of knowledge in Europe.
  6. Holding seminars and workshops for experts with the theme of changing educational systems in Islamic countries.
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