Several years ago, Britain’s first astronaut came to a school near here, to talk to students about the experiences of going into space and orbiting the earth. After being introduced by the head teacher to the audience of enthusiastic students, Helen Sharman turned to him and asked why he felt it necessary to describe her as “Britain’s female astronaut”? Why, she wondered, was her sex a matter of importance? The students in the audience could clearly see that she was a woman – would the headteacher have introduced a man as a “male astronaut”? The point that Helen Sharman was making, was that in having made history when she was a member of the crew on a Soviet Soyuz TM-12 space craft in 1991, she had been selected for her abilities, not because she was a woman.
I find it interesting that in the twenty first century there are still occasions when the press and media feel it necessary to express surprise, when a woman comes to the forefront of a domain traditionally seen as being that occupied by men. I am even more taken aback when I hear individuals (usually men) questioning the ability of women to fulfil various roles.
Education has, of course, played a significant part in enabling greater equality to be achieved in society. A few years ago, when working as a local authority inspector I recall looking at a primary school log book from 1908, in which it was recorded that an inspector had visited the school and examined the boys’ reading and writing and the girls’ sewing. This was most definitely an indication of the expectation that girls should know their place, and should be prepared for a life of domestic service. Should such an approach be adopted today, there would quite rightly be an outcry against such a sexist interpretation of the world. This is of course, a matter of history, and I have no doubt that in 1908 very few people would have questioned the approach to stereotyping the roles of boys and girls. Today this would most certainly not be acceptable; or would it?
A 2013 report from Unesco indicates that there are still thirty one million girls of primary school age who are not attending school. Seventeen million of these girls are expected never to enter school. There are four million fewer boys than girls out of school. Three countries have over a million girls who do not attend school. In Nigeria there are almost five and a half million, in Pakistan, over three million, and in Ethiopia, over one million girls missing out on an education. This in itself is quite shocking, however, there are stories behind some of these figures that are even more alarming.
Bina Shah is an award-winning Pakistani journalist from Karachi, who is a regular contributor to the International New York Times, and writes a monthly column for Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest circulation English-language newspaper. She has stated that – the right of girls to go to school is under global assault. Progress is being impeded not only because of poverty and lack of infrastructure, but also because of political and religious dogma that values girls less than boys, and believes that denial of educational opportunities will ensure that male dominance continues into the future. In Nigeria, a country that has recently seen more than its share of atrocities against school children, and particularly girls, journalist Yousaf Ajab Baloch reports: “This terrorist outfit [Boko Haram] has issued pamphlets warnings all private schools in the district to shut down girls’ education or to face the consequences”. They do this with a claim that the education of girls is against Islamic principles, a suggestion that is most certainly disputed by most of the world’s leading Islamic scholars.
Before anyone suggests that this is a narrow perspective of the world, and the role of women within it, held only by Islamic fundamentalists, one should consider other examples of this perverse situation. In the United States of America, a conservative Louisiana Catholic named Raylan Alleman who fronts an organisation called ‘Fix the Family’ has issued a document outlining eight reasons why girls should not be encouraged to attend college. His arguments include the notion that educated women attract the wrong kind of men, women receiving a formal education won’t learn how to be wives and mothers, and rather bizarrely, It would be a “near-occasion of sin” for the parents to allow their daughters to be in a situation where they might become “impure”. Mr Alleman attributes much of the cause of family breakdown to the fact that we have encouraged the education of girls.
I suppose for many of us who have been brought up in societies where we value and respect equality, what we would see as the strange and extreme views expressed by these individuals and groups seem outdated and unacceptable. But perhaps we need to ask why it is that these people exhibit such a fear of educated women? Why is it that they are in such trepidation of girls who demonstrate that they are at least as capable and intellectually able as their male peers? Is it perhaps an indication of their own inadequacy? Or possibly a fear that women may prove themselves to be more able to manage a society in which they have demonstrated their own limitations?
Wherever girls have been afforded opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in schools they have made an increasing contribution to the societies in which they live. Sadly in too many situations these opportunities continue to be denied. The levels of fear appear to be increasing in many parts of the world and it is important that teachers everywhere continue to emphasise the benefits to be gained by ensuring that every child, regardless of their sex, receives a good education.