Tag Archives: International Day of the Girl

Through Peace, Through Dialogue, Through Education

“Education is a power for women.”
Malala Yousafzai

“This question is hard!” a student good-naturedly pointed out to me. “You always ask such broad questions.” “Of course it’s hard,” I said. “I want you all to think, to think deeply, to – how do I put this? – learn things.” I gave her my “Call me crazy” shrug and she turned back to her discussion partner to figure out “What is a girl?”

As we were discussing everyone’s answers to the question, Mia asked, “What is ‘feminine?’” Everyone laughed, and several students jumped to try to look it up on their iPads. “Nope,” I said, halting them. “Dictionaries don’t always tell the whole story. It’s a really important question, and we’ll come back to it when we’ve finished with the main line of thought in the discussion.” About five minutes later, I wrote “Traditional ideas of feminine” and “Our ideas of feminine” on two panels of the white board. Olivia transcribed the students’ thoughts on traditional ideas, and Siobhan transcribed the girls’ original thoughts. Traditional ideas included “how to be proper,” “stay-at-home wife,” “long hair” and “meek and obedient,” among others. Asked to determine what threads ran through these ideas, the students came up with “keep contained,” “be ruled over,” “ideal (not reality),” “how you look,” “no voice,” and “housewife (specific role).” They noted that with every single trait listed, outside forces were trying to control and judge women.

Their ideas on ‘feminine” could not have contrasted more: powerful, strong, confident, being who you are, persistent, independent, awesome, rising… The connecting threads between these ideas which the students identified included positive, actions, having a voice, empowerment, breaking ties/breaking chains/freeing. With every single trait listed, they noted, girls and women were in control of their identities and their lives.

We held this discussion on Wednesday, October 9, coincidentally one year to the day after Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban on her way to school for having advocated for girls’ education. Also on the anniversary of the shooting, the Taliban renewed threats to kill her if she continues to remain outspoken on the policies and practices in Pakistan. Yet, Malala, frequently seen as one of the leading candidates for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (which would make her, at 16, the youngest recipient ever), remains firm in her convictions: “I will be a politician in my future,” she said. “I want to change the future of my country, and I want to make education compulsory.” (Craig and Mehsud)

So as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl on October 11, reflecting on Malala’s courageous example of my students’ feminine ideal, I leave you with her words when Jon Stewart asked her if she had been afraid the Taliban would target her:
I started thinking about it, and I started thinking the Talib would come and he would just kill me. But then I said, if he comes, what would you do, Malala? Then I would reply to myself, Malala, just take a shoe and hit him. But then I said, if you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace, and through dialogue, and through education.
*****
For those interested in learning more, Malala has released her memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Women in media

Truth to Power

Gender is the fundamental construct for how a society understands difference.
Women Under Siege

As international outrage continues to grow over the Pakistani Taliban’s assassination attempt of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for her advocacy of girls’ education, calls to mark the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child – declared by the United Nations to be October 11, 2012 – are also multiplying. The announced theme of this year’s Day is child marriage, and top world figures such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu are working to shed light on and end the epidemic problem. Archbishop Tutu met on Wednesday, October 10 with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who announced initiatives both “to prevent child marriage and to promote the education of girls.” (Lisa Rein) Still, in our current state of shock and with Ms. Yousafzai’s life still hanging by a thread, one can’t help but focus attention on the continued need for and benefits of girls’ education.

In the movie “Steel Magnolias,” Julia Roberts’ character Shelby says of her husband, “He’s so excited. He says he doesn’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl, but I know he really wants a son so bad he can taste it.” (IMDb) Such a preference for boys, undeniably present in our society if not universal, can bring frightening results elsewhere: the organization “All Girls Allowed” estimates that there are over 100 million missing girls today, over half of whom should have been born in China. The natural ratio of men to women should be 10.5:10, but in China it is projected to be 11:10 next year and 12.5:10 by the late 2020s. As Chinese parents contemplate sex selective abortion, they view a first-born son as having 4.3 times the value of a girl. (All Girls Allowed) Similarly, the United States apparently values the work of women less than that of men, as women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, all other things being equal.

As my seventh grade students are starting the transition from girlhood to womanhood, such issues are never far from their minds. One of them recently initiated a conversation with me about the extent of the gender wage gap, and later shared her free topic independent writing with me and a number of her classmates, under the subject header “READ READ READ…” In it, she shared a link to unemployment statistics and added, “As you can plainly see, there is an obvious difference and constant fluctuation between racial unemployment rates, which to me is an imbalance of power in a disguise that is no longer fooling anyone.” (Julia) At the age of 12, she has clearly understood the deeper issues behind a variety of imbalances in society: power, who has it, and how it is used.

One of the most important tools in maintaining those power imbalances is a fundamental gender construct in which men are often seen as “aggressive, rational, dominant, and objective” and as valuing “power, competency, efficiency, and achievement”. Women, meanwhile, are often seen as “passive, intuitive, submissive, and subjective” and as valuing “love, communication, beauty, and relationships.” (Trigiani) In her essay “Masculinity-Femininity: Society’s Difference Dividend,” Kathleen Trigiani goes on to explain that “Scientists have discovered that sexuality has both biological and sociological aspects, thus, they often speak in terms of sex and gender. Sex refers to immutable biological traits while gender is the social meaning given to sex differences.” (Trigiani) By definition, then, society alone determines gender: we as a culture then act in ways that exaggerate perceived differences between men and women and assign arbitrarily-determined value to those differences.

My students appear to have an intuitive understanding of this as well. Recently, I subbed for Ann Sorvino in her Dance 7 course. When this came up during Morning Announcements, somehow the seventh graders became obsessed with my wearing one of their white dance skirts while I taught. I demurred, and we focused instead on the main goal of the class: their performing the dance and working to learn it more fully. But later, in looking back on the afternoon, one of them asked why men couldn’t wear skirts. “I have no idea,” I said, pointing out that girls won the right to wear pants nearly 50 years ago. They looked thoughtful for a while, perhaps considering how “masculine” traits may be more readily adopted by girls than “feminine” traits by boys, and in the end left the conversation there… for the moment.

Of course, it must be added, assuming that gender is binary in the first place marginalizes and renders invisible an entire subset of our population.

In such a context, the value of girls’ education should be undeniable. In an ideal world, there would be no need for girls’ education, but our world is far from ideal. We know from research such as a 2009 study performed by UCLA that graduates of girls’ schools show higher levels of academic engagement, greater self-confidence, an increased likelihood of continuing their study of science and math in college, and a greater likelihood of being politically engaged and involved in social activism. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has also written and spoken of research that shows “One of the most cost-effective ways to bring about change, no matter the issue, is to educate girls. (…) To bring them into the workforce, to bring them into the economy so they can truly benefit themselves, their families and their communities.” (Kristof, quoted in an article by Morgan Jarema)

The need to speak truth to power is clear. The potential power of girls in speaking that truth is also clear; as Kristof points out: “The greatest risk for violent extremists in Pakistan isn’t American drones. It’s educated girls.” (Kristof) But it should not and must not only be girls speaking these truths. Nor is the necessity for speaking up restricted to women and girls both. All of us, of all genders, need to speak up and work to redefine the gender constructs in our society. For if they are indeed the lens through which difference is understood, only by achieving equality for all genders will we ever achieve true equality for all people.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School