It is clear that my female inquirer was brought up in a conservative family which strongly disapproves of co-education. There is no doubt that Islam prefers single sex schools, particularly in middle and high school, when students are teen-agers and experience great physical and psychological changes. It is much safer not to burden adolescents with close contact with the other sex because this may lead to problems.
Having said that, I wish to make it clear that an in-depth study of the corpus of hadith and history reveals that society in the early period of Islam, including the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the Rightly Guided Caliphs, was a mixed society. Gender segregation is not a principle preached by Islam. In fact, much misunderstanding surrounds the role of women in a Muslim society. In Islam, a woman is an equal partner with man; she helps him in all aspects of life. However, the division of roles and responsibilities makes it preferable for a woman to stay at home, particularly when she has a family and children in their formative years.
Since Islam permits women to work outside their home, this means that it permits them to get an education. In fact there were many woman scholars in the early periods of Islam when Islamic civilization flourished. The chains of transmission of many hadiths contain many female scholars who taught both men and women. The best example is Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, who narrated more than one thousand hadiths. All the narrators in the chain of transmission after her were men, demonstrating that they heard the hadiths from her directly.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to take one of his wives with him every time he traveled by drawing lots to see who it would be. Umar Ibn Al-Khattab appointed a woman as the marketplace supervisor. This meant that women frequented the market to do their shopping. It is clear from this and other reports that there were also women shopkeepers. In fact women participated in all spheres of life on an equal basis with men.
This is natural because women make up half of the population and there are many situations where a woman needs to work or conduct her business as an independent person. There is nothing in Islam to prevent this.
In our modern world, there is a great need for qualified women to work in different professions. The inquirer mentions the medical profession—doctors and nurses—as well as teachers. But there is need for women in other professions. A Muslim society should work hard to have a sufficient number of women who achieve excellence in various areas of medicine, such as gynecology, obstetrics, internal medicine, so Muslim women need not be attended by male doctors. So far, mixed gender medical schools are better and have greater resources and facilities than ones that teach girls only. In this situation, it is better for our women who wish to study medicine to attend such universities. There is no harm in doing so provided female students observe the proper manners and dress. The reader’s father need not fear for her because she seems to be a responsible and religious person who was brought up with the right values.
In fact, it is better for the inquirer to study in her home town, in a co-education college so that she may be looked after by her family than to travel alone to a different city to attend a girls only university.
May God help her with her studies so that she will be a fine doctor.
And God the Almighty knows best.