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Riba, Women, and the Western Education System


I know two young women who have exorbitant amounts of college loans with no way to pay them back. There are lots and lots of people like this in the US (that’s why it’s called the college debt crisis), but these two particular people are in my own life.

One woman finished her undergrad, then went on to medical school, and also got her MBA by doing a dual MD-MBA program. Then she went on to do her residency, the final grueling step before finally becoming a practicing licensed doctor.

But she never finished it–she completed only two of her three-year residency program before the immense pressure and prolonged stress gave her a psychological disorder that got her kicked out of the program.

“You are not keeping up,” the head of the residency program told her gravely. “You are not seeing as many patients an hour as you need to be. We have to let you go.”

She was ground up by the system, chewed up and spit out.

She can’t find a job as a doctor. Completing four-fifths of the medical training is not enough for employers. She is a woman in her mid-thirties with an MD and a MBA but no job. There are too few jobs and too many applicants competing fiercely for them.

And even if there were enough jobs to go around and competition was not cutthroat, she is now too sick to work. Her mental health is in tatters, along with her physical health. She had been healthy before, and attributes her illness directly to the unrelenting rigors and unbelievable pressure of medical school. It’s a broken system designed to break people, depriving them of sleep (with regular all night “graveyard shifts” and forcing med students to eat junk food from vending machines in the hallways of the hospital). It eventually took its toll on her mind and body.

And it took her most youthful years, the best and most carefree time of her life: her late teens, early twenties, into her late twenties and early thirties. The time of peak energy and fertility. Gone. No way to get those precious years back.

But the saddest thing of all is the debt. She has $285,000 of loans to pay back. That’s the cost of a house. But she doesn’t have a house, or a degree either. She is in dire financial straits and in deep depression, with crying episodes and even feeling of impotent rage almost daily.

The loan amount started off closer to $250,000 but keeps increasing daily–to this day– with the accruing interest. Riba is how college loans work. She is sinking deeper and deeper into a huge pit, with no job. She is unemployable but mired in mounting debt. A nightmare.

The other young woman is 30 years old, with a bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts university in New England. She has been struggling to find a job in her field for years and finally found a basic low-paying job as an administrative assistant at the college she attended, in one of their graduate offices. She has about $190,000 in loans to pay back.

We recently had a conversation that was eye-opening, where she told me, “I know a girl who works in the same university office with me. She is one year younger than me (29 years old), and has finished paying off all her college loans and just bought herself a house!”

Surprised, I asked, “What did she major in? What kind of job did she get with that kind of money?”

She said, “Well…she took a different route.”

“Only Fans?” I guessed.

“Close. She went on one of those sugar-daddy websites! There are basically these websites that match women who need money with men who have money but need company and female attention. A woman signs up to be a sugar baby and get with a rich sugar daddy, and they specify the terms of their relationship: what she is and isn’t willing to do, what he will pay, etc. So she made an account there and started seeing these rich men! She was like an escort, always being flown to accompany these men on trips to Paris, London, Milan, etc. She made enough money to pay back all her college loans that way, and more on top of it. She has her own house now.”

This is the western higher-education system.

This is how it works, how it’s designed. It forces people to acquire exorbitant amounts of debt to get a basic four-year bachelor’s degree, and much much more for an advanced degree like an MD, JD, PhD, or MBA.

You may or may not finish your degree, but either way you are stuck with the loans. Trapped with no way out.

Then as soon as you graduate, you race to find a job, anything that pays enough to begin to cover the shocking amounts of money you owe. If you’re lucky, you land a job with a salary that can slowly start to make a dent in the massive mountain of debt you’re carrying.

But–oh no! You have to race against time! There is riba, usury, that is involved. You are forced to pay back as much as you can as quickly as you can, because every day, the interest adds more money to your loans. You end up being forced to pay back three or four times the amount of money you actally received from the lenders. There is a reason why riba is haram; these predatory lending practices and the ever-growing interest system ensure that a person can never really get out of debt. It creates a form of debt slavery which is difficult to escape from.

The worst case scenario is what I started this post with: having the massive loans from an advanced degree that you couldn’t finish due to the stress so you end up totally unemployable but STILL having daily-increasing loans. You are trapped in quicksand, every day sinking more and more deeply into it until you are fully submerged and suffocated.

This college education model is so unforgiving that it has pushed women into literally prostituting themselves. These are the “creative solutions” that some women resort to, faced with the grim reality of debt for the college education they received.

College girls resort to being “aerial dancers” (strippers) in “gentleman’s clubs” and “escorts” (prostitutes) for rich older men if it means paying back their school loans. This is why things like Only Fans are booming: internet prostitution.

This is the real face of western education and its tragic consequences. Not the glamorous sanitized facade of “you need to broaden your horizons and learn critical thinking!” No.

What happens after you do that?

At best, you jump into a hamster wheel of racing against time to pay off your massive loans, delaying marriage, family, and children. Delaying your own happiness as a woman.

At worst…you lose your very iman, your dignity, your honor as a woman.

For men, providing for a wife and kids is an *obligation,* but even men must be careful to steer clear of riba. But for women– who do NOT have an obligation to provide financially– why take such a dangerous risk?

As a Muslim community, we need to be aware of this unsavory underside of education, and pause to reflect before we blindly push *all* our girls and young women into colleges and universities in the name of “championing women’s education!” and “women’s rights!”

We have to mature as a community and move the discussion past the tired cliche of “But the first word of the Quran was Iqra!”

Before you get riled up and the accusations come flying that I am pushing women’s illiteracy (smh) and enabling domestic violence (!!), I invite you to just pause and think:

Are we doing young Muslimas any favors by uncritically, reflexively, blindly pushing them into college and higher education?

Have we critically examined the weight of the hefty riba-based college loans and the impact this predatory debt might have on the trajectory of a Muslima’s life in this dunya and Akhira?

Can we envision or aspire to a better system as Muslims?

Umm Khalid Haqiqatjou


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