An Educational Identity: The Intersection of Gender, Class and Islam

Joshua Duke

This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of the FSU College of Education's TORCH Magazine.

Dr. Ayesha Khurshid
Dr. Ayesha Khurshid

What is the purpose of education? It’s a question that has many answers depending on who you ask. In the United States and several other Western countries, we typically view education as a way to gain skills that will help with our future careers. Curricula in primary schools also help students become better citizens by teaching them about history, culture and government. Some countries even take their school system a step further; for example, in Germany, students attend what Americans would consider primary school until fourth grade, at which point they can go on to one of four different schools depending on their interests and academic performance. Some students pursue vocational training while some engage in rigorous coursework in preparation for higher education.

But different cultures approach education from different perspectives. In fact, the whole concept of “being educated” looks very different depending on what part of the world you live in. It’s something that Ayesha Khurshid, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, has spent much of her career examining. “I really want to understand how culture—these practices, norms—really shape our understanding of what being educated means, what value it holds, what it does or doesn’t do for us.”



During the course of her career, Khurshid has traveled the globe, investigating what children learn in different countries, and in particular looking at the way that gender and cultural norms shape students.

Her own educational journey started in her native Pakistan. There, she earned her bachelor’s from Punjab University in economics and mathematics before earning her master’s in economics from Quaid-i-Azam University. Upon graduating, she went to a research institute where her supervisor conducted ethnographic research in Islamabad, Pakistan.

“Most of my educational experience was more theoretical, because that’s how the education system is in Pakistan,” Khurshid explains. “But [my experience at the research institute] was the first time for me where I actually was part of a project where they developed the research design, actually collected data, and then we would analyze it. It just seemed so fascinating to me to go deeper into people’s experiences and learn about not only what is happening in their lives, but how they make sense of it.”

At the research institute, Khurshid and the team observed a religious and caste minority community in Pakistan, and she became captivated with the idea of conducting ethnographic research. She became interested in “how the world can be seen from so many different perspectives, and those perspectives are very powerful in shaping who we are and what we think is possible for us and opportunities that we can access or not.”



With her background in economics, it is no surprise that Khurshid frequently explores interdisciplinary topics, but her primary focus is on the way that international education affects citizenship in different settings. More often than not, she travels to rural areas to observe how gender, class and Islam intersect to form identities for female teachers and students.

Her most recent project has her and doctoral candidate Melba Marin-Velasquez examining a small Mayan community in Chiapas, Mexico that has converted to Islam. One of the women she interviewed sent her two daughters, aged 15 and 16, to Turkey to receive Islamic education. It’s this multilayered, multicultural intersection that fascinates Khurshid the most; here is a community, which traces its roots to pre-colonial times and the original indigenous population of Mexico, that has now converted to a new religion and works with a country half the world away to provide education for some of their children. “I’m interested in looking at how their cultural norms, indigenous heritage and this kind of new system of belief, which is Islam—how they combine them to make sense of who they are,” Khurshid says.

Education shapes the identities of these students, but students also seek education for different reasons, Khurshid discovered. In a previous research project, she interviewed women in rural Pakistan. While many of the women were interested in better jobs and employment outcomes, “they articulated very eloquently that the reason that they want to get an education is to build their character, to become better people.”

“It’s so interesting that these are the women who really need these jobs, who really need the wages that they’re receiving from these jobs; in some cases, it is an issue of survival,” Khurshid continues. “Still, when I spoke to them and asked them, ‘What does being educated mean to you?’ they would say, ‘Well, it means that I can be a better person. I can be a better Muslim. I can understand how to build good relationships with my family, with my children, with my in-laws, with my community.’”

This might seem somewhat unusual to American readers. As Khurshid points out, American school systems place a large emphasis on economic outcomes. “Even when we are thinking of issues of social justice and equity, it is about making it equal in terms of economic resources and job applications,” she says.

Students in Pakistan also think about education differently because of the history of their country. For decades, the British Empire ruled over Pakistan, the effects of which can be felt to this day. “English has a particular status in Pakistan,” Khurshid explains. “It reflects certain social status and certain cultural knowledge.” Because of this, education focused as much on teaching English as it did on content knowledge or critical thinking skills. Khurshid has observed a shift in some classrooms away from this mindset, where they treated English as simply a language. This helps increase accessibility to quality education, while at the same time works towards dismantling the hierarchical system of education in Pakistan which privileged English-based instruction.



Whether going to school to gain access to better jobs or to become better people, the role of education around the world is undeniably transformational, and as more and more women become educated, new doors open— sometimes literally. Being able to read and write means that women gain more independence, and women in Khurshid’s study reported about how exciting it was to be able to travel to the city on their own, thanks to understanding things like public transportation schedules. Being able to read and write gives them “the sense of confidence that they are able to negotiate, make their way and do what they want to do.”

Receiving an education can even change the way that people look, at least according to Khurshid’s participants. One of her favorite memories involved interviewing some of the students in Pakistan who were elaborating on how wonderful educated people were. When she asked them what they meant—how they could even tell who was educated and who wasn’t—they said, “educated people look different. And they kept repeating it. I would ask them how they look different, and they would say that they dress up differently, speak differently.” It was at that moment that Khurshid really understood that “education was a way of being rather than the ability to get a job. It was something that reflected in people’s mannerisms and their opinion in the way they spoke, in the way they dressed up. Education was a mark of distinction, and that distinction was something that they carried in their day-to-day lives.”

Education does not solve all problems. Khurshid points out that despite gaining an education, many of these women still have to go home and perform the same domestic responsibilities that non-educated women do. But for many of these women, education is inextricably linked to their identity and is more than just a means to economic freedom; education is the reward in itself.