By Nushin Arbabzadah
29 May, 2014
Boko Haram's kidnapping of Muslim school girls in Nigeria has turned the education of Muslim girls into an internationally debated question. I come from Afghanistan, the first country where Muslim girls' education was turned into a global cause célèbre in 2001. The global media gave the impression that the country's future depended on just that, the education of those little headscarf-wearing girls. This assessment was accurate given that females are a numeric majority in Afghanistan and hence, a great potential for positive change. Subsequently, much energy and money was spent on building girls' schools and the number of girls enrolled rose significantly. However, what was neglected in the process was the content of the education that was offered at these schools. I would argue that it is this content, alongside with the values that the teachers transmit through their own attitudes and behavior as role models that are crucial for creating a real rather than symbolic change. By real change, I mean a change in the mindset of the girls.
About three years ago, I returned to my old school in Kabul to see for myself what kind of education was imparted to these by now internationally famous little girls. This is what I discovered.
The first thing that struck me was the eerie quiet of the schoolyard. It was break time but unlike in my time in the 1980s, the girls were not running about, playing tag, shrieking and laughing. As we all know, playing is a crucial part of children's education, it encourages not only creativity but also social interaction and negotiation skills. But the young girls of my former school were not playful and through their controlled, quiet, adult-like demeanour they displayed submissiveness as if this was the price they had to pay in return for the privilege of attending school.
Needless to say, in a society such as the Afghan society, where predatory politicians sustain their power through imposing outdated and downright reactionary attitudes, the encouragement of such submissiveness is downright dangerous. Submissiveness mentally disarms girls, turning them into passive subjects rather than active members of a society that every five years risks lives for the democratic process of elections. Such submissiveness has become even more dangerous now that Afghanistan has democracy. Owing to their submissiveness women have become an easy target for enforcing block voting for this or that candidate.
The footage of a busload of female voters bullied into block voting in the first round of the presidential election was an illustration of this abuse of democracy made possible through a culture of submissiveness that is actively encouraged at schools in the name of national, cultural and religious values.
I found out that the principal of my former school had banned a pupil from attending a summer camp in Europe even though she had won the competition. She was deemed too outspoken and self-assured to be a worthy representative of Afghan girlhood abroad. This was just one example of the way female self-confidence was punished while another girl, who was chosen for her so called Islamic credentials, was sent to the summer camp as a reward for just that. The signal given to the girls from the top was clear: if you are confident, you will be punished.
Similar anti-democratic, hierarchical attitudes were evident in the teaching methods, too. The structure of the classrooms had changed, with desks arranged in u-shape to encourage debate. But authoritarian attitudes were on display when teachers denied the classroom even the basic right to interpretation. Inoffensive, classical poetry would be read out aloud and would be followed by the official, presumable state-sanctioned, interpretation. I recalled that when my family fled Kabul and I resumed school in Germany, I found myself incapable of expressing an opinion and offering my own interpretation as I was asked to do by my German teachers. The first time I was asked for my opinion in my German classroom, I was startled.
What if my answer offended my teacher, was my first thought followed by "but I am a girl, too young and a pupil and not supposed to have an opinion of my own." My Afghan education had not prepared me for an open and democratic society. It took me two years to catch up with my German peers and discover that I had a mind of my own.
What is the point of investing in democracy in Afghanistan when the basic, authoritarian mindset is left unreformed? The contradiction of living in a democracy where authoritarian attitudes are reinforced systematically from the top down is bound to trigger cognitive dissonance in the very class of educated girls who are supposed to be active agents of change in Afghanistan. As a result, instead of creating a class of educated, self-aware girls, we end up raising a generation of confused girls whose minds become paralyzed, grappling as they have to do with the contradictions of a society that simultaneously reinforces two sets of contradictory attitudes, an authoritarian one in social, educational and professional settings and a democratic one in the official definition of the country.
This predicament ultimately boils down to the fact that in their approach to girls' education, the international community focused on the outward, measurable appearance of change, the facts and figures of school buildings and girls enrolled at the cost of neglecting the very essence of change, a change in the mindset of the next generation of educated Afghan girls.