Underground literacy in Afghanistan: a man’s job?

April 7, 2010

This picture is from The Independent‘s article: Afghanistan’s women defy militants to learn to read.

Ehsanullah Ehsan has devoted his life to educating women in some of the most culturally conservative places on earth.

I respect what this man, and others like him, are doing in places like Afghanistan. I’ve respected these people for years, since long before I decided to start teaching, and definitely before I started working with Canadian students with low literacy rates.

Here’s one of the parts of the article that I found most interesting:

A recent report by Human Rights Watch highlighted how important education is in combating the mishmash of honour codes and Islamic fundamentalism that has evolved in Afghanistan, not only condemning women to lives of servitude but also aiding the rise of the Taliban.

“Education has profound implications for the intellectual and social development of girls and young women and their ability to exercise and enjoy a range of human rights,” it said. Without schooling there is little chance of most women breaking out of the cycle of “early marriage, segregation, responsibility for household work, and childbearing” – and the brutality and repression that accompany them.

This cycle of “early marriage, segregation, responsibility for household work, and childbearing” is largely imposed by males. Other men, like Ehsan, are helping to fight against these problems.

I’ve seen numerous stories over the years about people like Ehsan – usually men – working to form underground schools in Afghanistan and other places in the Middle East. An example is an article called “Inside Kabul’s secret school for girls”, yet another initiative organized by a man.

Often, these education initiatives are couched in direct lies and manipulation about what is going on. The initiative that this article focuses on is no exception:

“You can’t start in villages by announcing, ‘Hey, send your daughters, send your wives because we’re teaching school subjects’,” he explained. “No. We tell them: ‘Your women need to understand prayer. Don’t they?’ They say, ‘Yes’. And I slip through school books.”

Why do most stories of this nature feel like they are are about men breaking the rules in order to “save” women from the horrors of supposedly backwards societies?

I agree that people like Ehsan are doing great work on women’s literacy and education in Afghanistan. All I’m saying is … can’t we focus a bit more on what women themselves are doing to help each other?

3 Comments

  • Nymeth April 7, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Yes yes yes – I absolutely agree. As admirable as Ehsan’s work is, I’m a little tired of stories about the male Knight in Shiny Armour.

  • Trisha April 7, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    I don’t feel quite as strongly about it, but that may be a sign of my own prejudice. I think we need to have as many of these Knight in Shining Armour stories as possible to sort of bribe men into taking a stand for women’s rights…sort of role models for them, examples they can strive for. Of course, all of that sounds a bit like I’m thinking of men like children, but I swear I don’t mean it in a condescending way. I swear! I do, however, think we need more stories about the amazing women who are out there every day fighting for equality.

    • Nymeth April 10, 2010 at 4:43 am

      I see what you mean, Trisha. It’s not that I don’t want to hear stories about the men who try to make a difference, as they ARE important in all the ways you mentioned. It’s more that I’d like some more balance.

      (I hope you don’t mind that I’m chatting in your comments section, Carina :P)

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