Saturday, January 22, 2011

When a woman getting educated is "news" and good at that...


Ruhksana looks, through the Burka she wears to first grade, like the most beautiful woman in the world, to me.

But it breaks my heart that a woman getting an education is "news" anywhere in the world. Her husband put it best when he said that an educated mother will make for an educated family.

According to the authors of Half the SkyNicholas Kristoff and Sheryll WuDunn, an educated woman also makes for a wealthier family--as she is more likely to budget money for family education and health than if a man is in charge of the family money. An educated woman is also the means to a wealthier, healthier, and more educated society; as she is more likely to form the networks that allow a village to create a greater marketplace (a global one). 

I have a vested interest not only because of my gender.

I attended, from fourth grade on, the Phoenix Hebrew Academy. Despite being an incredibly unpopular kid (in a really small school, you have to have talent to be totally friendless until eighth grade), I can only say that I LOVE the PHA. For everything it taught me--in class and out.

But, of course, the PHA was an Orthodox Hebrew Day School, and I am female. So, there were struggles. I had to wear skirts or dresses (a fashion I now prefer over pants), and so when I decided to play basketball with the guys, who were not too keen on the idea AT ALL, I started wearing pants under my skirts. Same for soccer. I was lucky, though; I had enlightened rabbis and teachers (mostly) who saw my resistance to being gender programmed as teaching moments.

In sixth grade, the decision was made that the class would be split in two for one hour daily. In that hour, the boys would study Mishnah (the books of legal commentary that apply the Torah's 613 laws to society as it progressed from the desert), and the girls would have "choir."

There were 4 girls. NOT a choir

But I had a beautiful voice and loved to sing! In fact, at that age I wandered listlessly behind my mother as she shopped, singing whatever came on the store muzak in the hopes of being "discovered."

And that made what I did next an incredibly difficult thing to do. I made an appointment with the head rabbi and the rabbi in charge of curriculum. Going in, I was expecting that I would be fighting a losing battle and would return to my class and join the choir.

I told the rabbis, basically, that they kept insisting that a woman's role in the Jewish home was not only to have children, but to educate them. They kept telling me that my work as a woman would be more important than any man's because I would be shaping the next generation of Jews. I then said that relegating me to the back of the classroom (a mixed metaphor, since we were actually going to be assigned separate but unequal classrooms) was to hobble me. That I would not be able to educate my children, male OR female, if I were not fully educated. That they were not only discriminating against women and asking us to believe that was a Jewish behavior, but that they were abdicating their responsibility to educate me Jewishly (a responsibility they took on when they admitted me to school).

I was shaking when I left, but I was standing tall. Taller, in fact, than I had ever felt.

The girls hated me because they were being "forced" to study Mishnah instead of being allowed to play in "choir."

And so, I kept living in the world my parents had built: one in which everyone, regardless of any creed, gender, color, etc., had the right to an education. What we made of that education, we were always told, was OUR job.

I fought that minor battle more than two decades ago.

But women today still have to fight the same battle--and only a very few win. There are more women sold, stolen or drugged into human trafficking than there are women enrolled in school in this world. There are more men who still hold to the fascinatingly oxymoronic idea that women hold immense power because of their sexual "wiles" and therefore are somehow inferior. There are still many who believe that women need to be "controlled." And even in our great country, there are many who believe a woman's life is worth less than that of a fetus.

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people, too.

Womanism is the radical notion that men and women will all benefit when they are all brought into the fold of educational and economic power.

I have a radical notion that the world will be called a truly better place when Ruhksanna is not news--when her attendance at first grade will only be remarkable because she will have been the only woman in her village to not have gone at the age of 6.

As we reach the 38th anniversary of Roe V Wade, a decision that made into law the radical notion that a woman's life and health are more important than a man's right to control her reproductive organs, let's keep in mind that we are lucky. That as a lucky nation of educationally privileged people, we have a lot to offer Ruhksanna. 

And let's not keep ourselves blinded to the plight of most of the world's women. Rape only became illegal in Haiti in 2005. Selling girls into sexual and domestic slavery is still legal in many parts of the world. Keeping girls from education is not only legal, but the norm in more than half the world.

It's time to change that. Because even if one's world view is that a woman's place is in the home, raising children and building a family, that world view must take into account that she will do that job so much better if she is educated. Because even if one fears that educating women will lead to the destruction of the family as a unit, one must take into account that not doing so leads the family into a continuous cycle of poverty and ignorance. 

Finally, because educating women is the first step toward making the world a more peaceful, balanced place.