Courage and bigotry captured on camera

Tess Asplund. making a stand against bigotry

Tess Asplund. making a stand against bigotry

There are some photographic images that appear to remain embedded in my mind for a very long time. Sometimes these are retained simply because of a personal interest in the subject, such as the stark but beautiful portrait of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown, or the 1946 image of Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel in close conversation by Kulwant Roy. Others impose themselves because of the sheer horror of the stories they represent, as is the case with many of the works of Don McCullin taken in Vietnam or the image of a drowned Syrian child who was simply looking for a safe and better life when he was washed up on the shore in Turkey.

A couple of days ago my mind was taken back to a chilling image from 1989. A solitary man stands before a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing; he holds a bag in his left hand, as if he has come straight from shopping at the local market. We cannot see his face, but instinctively we know that if we could we would recognise fear, but also bold defiance as he makes his protest and expresses his disgust at the oppression of a brutal political regime. In her excellent and horrifying book “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” Louisa Lim visits survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the parents and friends of those killed by the Chinese regime, many of whom had never previously seen this famous image of the anonymous individual who has simply become known as “Tank Man.” Even today she found many who would not talk about the photograph or did so only in circumstances where they were sure they would not be seen or overheard.

The reason that my memory brought back this powerful picture so recently was the publication of a similar image of a young black woman named Tess Asplund that was published in the Guardian newspaper on May 5th, and no doubt in thousands of other newspapers around the world. In this picture an individual lady, once again with a bag at her left side, stands defiantly before a hostile crowd of racist neo-nazi marchers on the streets of Borlänge in Sweden. The self-styled Nordic Resistance Movement has gained momentum in Sweden despite the numerous racist and anti-semitic outpourings of its shadowy leadership. The photographer David Lagerlöf has captured the bravery and defiance of his extraordinary subject as she stands in the middle of a road silently but powerfully confronting those who hate her because of her colour, her culture and her opposition to their narrow view of the world.

Such acts of non-violent protest require tremendous courage on the part of the individual, but it is highly perceptive of this single determined lady as she states:-

“I hope something positive will come out of the picture. Maybe what I did can be a symbol that we can do something – if one person can do it, anyone can.”

I am not convinced that she is correct when she says that anyone can take such a courageous stand. Hers was an act of bravery which should be seen as a motivation for all who oppose racism or other acts of collective violence, but I wonder if I would have the courage to behave as she did?

The action taken by Tess Asplund gives a powerful message. But let’s imagine that the photographer David Lagerlöf had not been present at the moment. How many of us would have heard of this solitary act of defiance? Photo-journalism, as with other forms of reporting can play an important role in communicating not only the news, but also the best and worst aspects of humanity. This is why the image of Tess Asplund, along with that of Tank Man, and many others which depict the human spirit at its strongest will leave an indelible mark on many of our minds.

Watch your language!

Having enough language to be polite is something we should all be able to achieve.

Having enough language to be polite is something we should all be able to achieve.

The beginning of a new year is often seen as a time for making resolutions. These personal commitments, most of which are invariably doomed to fail and to pass into oblivion by the middle of January, appear to be a means of assuaging the accumulated guilt in respect of things left undone, or even those done which are now best forgotten. Apparently the most common of these annual false aspirations relate to losing weight (presumably a direct response to Christmas over indulgence), or getting more exercise. Whatever the selected form of self-improvement, it is variously reported in the popular media that more that ninety percent of new year’s resolutions fall by the wayside within weeks; though many are likely to be resurrected on an annual basis. It is in part, through an awareness of this dismal failure rate, that a number of years ago I made a new year’s resolution not to make new year’s resolutions. Unlike most, this is one to which I am happy to report I have adhered with minimal difficulty.

Those who may have been searching for resolutions at the end of 2015 might just have noticed a suggestion being made by the British Council, an august body that supports international collaboration and fosters cultural events in many parts of the world. Representatives of the British Council suggested that in 2016 we should all consider making greater efforts to learn a foreign language. Language learning, it was suggested, encourages greater cultural understanding, can contribute to international co-operation and may also be a sociable and an enjoyable experience. In a world where inter-cultural exchange has increased, our experiences of meeting, socialising and working with people from other countries could be greatly enhanced by extending our linguistic competence.

I had given little further thought to this suggestion by the British Council until yesterday when I read an article from the Deccan Herald titled, “Mother Tongue for Educational Success”. In this article Dr Aradhana Mudambi argues that in India, increased mobility through the late twentieth and early twenty first century, means that many families now have a multi-lingual base which can be seen as either a challenge or an opportunity. She presents scenarios in which a man from Gujarat marries a woman from Kerala and they find themselves living in Bangalore. Here is a possible opportunity she suggests, for children to be brought up in a family where Gujarati, Malayalam and Kannada are spoken, probably alongside English, and even a little Hindi. Dr Mudambi proposes that children brought up in this way would have many advantages, not only in respect of their linguistic skills, but also through maintaining their family’s cultural heritage.

Sadly, for many families in this situation, the easy choice is to become dependent upon English. After all, English is widely spoken amongst educated people in India, and is the preferred medium through which many parents wish to see their children educated in schools. Here Dr Mudambi sees a problem. In some homes, she suggests, it has become increasingly difficult for children to communicate with their grandparents and others of that generation. They have become proficient English speakers, but have lost anything more than a rudimentary understanding of their mother tongue. This denies all of the family an opportunity to share stories and heritage that we know to be so important in enabling the development of a secure identity. More effort is needed to protect mother tongue not only for the preservation of Indian languages, but also to promote effective learning and cultural identity. As Dr Mudambi states:-

“By building their native language abilities while not neglecting their English development, students will have the best of all worlds”.

I wonder to what extent the English language has become a problem. Competence in English is most certainly an advantage. It has become the preferred language of business, academia and social media in many parts of the world, and it is increasingly noticeable that those who have little English language are restricted in their employment, education and social opportunities, even in those countries where it was not introduced until the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. This situation clearly places those of us who are native English speakers at an advantage. But does it also make us complacent and lazy? What incentive is there for me to learn another language if I am one of those fortunate individuals for whom English happens to be my mother tongue?

It is true to say that I speak some French, and gain particular pleasure even from the limited opportunities I have to practice this most beautiful language. I also have what can best be described as “pigeon German” (should that be Deutsch taube?) but in all honesty even the most educated of Germany’s pigeons despair at my grammar! Being proficient in English enables me to enjoy the original words of Shakespeare and Milton, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens who were influential in shaping the art and culture of my native land. Whilst I am aware that these authors have been ably translated into many languages, it does seem a privilege to be able to engage with the original language as presented by these giants of the written word. Am I missing something when I read the works of Kenzaburo Oe, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka or Naguib Mahfouz in translation? Possibly not, though to be able to appreciate the lyricism of their original form must be wonderful.

I feel this as an Englishman who enjoys reading the works of authors from around the globe, albeit in translation. I can’t help wondering how it might feel to have been the son of a Gujarati father but unable to read the works of Narayan Hemchandra in the language of that state, or to have been born in Karnataka and not to be able to see the plays of Thanjavur Paramasiva Kailasam produced in the original Kannada.

Language is an important means through which we maintain the heritage of our countries and states. In a world that is becoming increasingly Anglicised there may be a danger that some of our most precious history and art could be lost. It does seem to me that Dr Mudambi makes some important points about the need to encourage a greater understanding of the languages of our home nations. I also have sympathy with the argument put forward by the British Council in suggesting that we should all make a little more effort to appreciate the richness of the many languages that surround us.

Never too late to learn!

Learning: a shared experience

Learning: a shared experience

A short article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper here in the UK reports the sad death of a school pupil in the Nigerian city of Kano. Whenever a school student dies it is a cause for grieving, but perhaps on this occasion the reason to be saddened is rather different than it might have been with others on the school role. The demise of this pupil may not have come as a shock as it might well have done with other students, though he will undoubtedly be missed by his classmates.

Mohammud Modibbo, the student in question, was described by his teacher Abdulkarim Ibrahim as an “easy going and jovial learner”, whose dream of going to university was sadly not to be realised. He recalled how this keen student was “very attentive, and asked questions when he didn’t understand.” He was seen by this teacher as an excellent student who had the potential to progress much further with his studies.

Mohammud Modibbo was clearly a model student, but perhaps what made him stand out from others in his class was his age. You see, this latecomer to school has died at the age of 94 years, having begun his primary schooling in his mid 80s. He was clearly not a typical secondary school student; had he been a fifteen year old, I suspect his demise would not have been reported in the international press. His thwarted ambition to gain university entrance is a matter for some regret, though we should take many positives from this otherwise sad story.

The most heartening aspect of this news report is a recognition that one is never too old to learn. Our current obsession, at least here in western countries, with age related norms and expectations that learners travel a journey at a similar pace, is given the lie by stories such as these. The fact that a primary school was willing to enrol a pupil aged eighty years plus, is both commendable and spirited. Even more remarkable is that this gentleman, whose life experiences were clearly significant, was willing to enter school and learn beside pupils who might well have been his great grandchildren. I am sure that many of his fellow pupils will have benefited from the wisdom and sagacity that he brought to school. Both the school teachers and Mohammud Modibbo should be applauded for this positive and inclusive attitude to learning.

If there is a truly sad aspect to this story, it must be that Mohammud had to wait for so many years to be given the opportunity to become a school pupil. I have no doubt that he will have learned much throughout his life, and that this will have enabled him to contribute greatly to the learning of his far younger classmates. He clearly grasped the opportunity to engage in formal learning with alacrity, and relished the opportunity to accept new challenges and greater insights into the world.

The article reports that acceptance of more senior citizens into schools is not uncommon in several African nations. A great-great- grandmother by the name of Priscilla Sitienei reportedly enrolled in primary school in Kenya at the age of 90 years. I have no doubt that there are other such stories to be told not only from Africa, but elsewhere in the world.

These students, and the schools who have opened their doors to them provide us with inspiring stories of inclusive approaches to education. There is much that we can all learn from the teachers who have welcomed these mature students.

Perhaps when my grandchildren begin school I might be permitted to re-enrol alongside them in order to gain all the exciting learning that I missed first time around!

 

A flickering light gives hope for education

 

Those of us who can assert that education is not a crime are the fortunate ones.

Those of us who can assert that education is not a crime are the fortunate ones.

“They can destroy books and computers, or they can imprison people.

They can confiscate property and shut down classes.

But they can’t confiscate education.

They can’t end the love of learning, love of teaching”

Supporter of the Bahai Institute of Higher Education, in exile

Is education a right or a privilege? What happens when individuals or groups of people are denied access to education? To what lengths will people go in order to obtain an education, or to ensure that others do not gain access to learning? These questions, and other similar points of debate were the focus of a discussion held yesterday evening at the University of Northampton.

The debate around these fundamental issues was provoked by the showing of a film “To Light a Candle” made by the Iranian journalist and film maker Maziar Bahari, whose other films include Of Shame and Coffins (2000) and Along Came a Spider (2003). He has also been involved in the production of television documentaries, including programmes for Channel 4 and the BBC in the UK. Bahari is not unfamiliar with controversy and oppression having spent time in an Iranian prison accused of anti-state activity after filming and publicising “illegal demonstrations” and “illegal gatherings” in Tehran. “To Light a Candle” is certainly unlikely to enhance his popularity amongst the current rulers of Iran as it continues Bahari’s theme of recording oppression and denial of human rights.

“To Light a Candle” tells the story of the Bahai community in Iran and their struggle to obtain education and fair employment. The Bahai’is are a significant minority religious group within Iran, where their faith was originally founded in the nineteenth century. Ever since their foundation, during the time of the Ottoman Empire they have faced persecution, but they have always resisted this oppression through determined non-violent resistance.

In modern day Iran Bahai’is are forbidden access to higher education and are not allowed to teach in universities. Some of those who have sought a university education elsewhere and have returned to Iran have been denied the right to practice their professions, and the degrees that they have obtained from well-established universities have not been recognised within the country. One of many examples of this level of persecution is the story of Faran Hesami who graduated in 2003 with a Master’s degree in Educational Counselling from the University of Ottawa, Canada. On her return to Iran, where she hoped to work for the benefit of her local community Faran Hesami was arrested and tried and informed that her degree was illegal, and therefore she had been practicing as a counsellor illegally. The court sentenced her to four years imprisonment.

“To Light a Candle” is in many respects a depressing film, and not surprisingly, those of us watching, representing many different nationalities, cultures and a range of secular and religious beliefs, were horrified at the level of oppression depicted. Everyone present at the showing of this film had benefitted from education from primary school days through to university, and there was a general consensus that our experiences left us better equipped to make a contribution to the countries from which we come. Whilst the sense of injustice around the room was palpable, there was however, one aspect of this film that gave everyone present hope that things will be better in the future. On several occasions individuals from the Bahai community shown in the film demonstrated their commitment to obtaining an education and their preparedness to go to great lengths to assert this right. The point was strongly made, that whilst it is possible to deny access to universities or libraries, to destroy learning materials and resources, and to attempt to stop people learning together, determined individuals will find ways of circumventing legislation and oppression and will continue to learn.

Within Iran students and academics, supported by many Iranians who are not of the Bahai faith have organised themselves to create the Bahai Institute of Higher Education (BIHE). Through this underground movement classes are organised and qualifications obtained. Though the Iranian authorities do not recognise this institute or its awards, the organisers of this movement persist and are continuing to assert the right to education. Academics from around the world have supported this movement by giving their time to teach courses at the BIHE at a distance through internet links and the production of teaching materials. The film showed professors from Canada and the United States of America engaging with students on a range of courses and enabling them to have access to high quality teaching.

The showing of this film to a small audience enabled those present to reassert their commitment to the concept of education for all. Many of the students present have been involved in researching and debating aspects of inclusive education over the past few years, and their tutors in some instances for far longer. Discussions about the exclusion of children from education because of disability, poverty, caste or conflict have been a regular feature of the work of those present. This film added a new dimension to our attempts to understand the impact of exclusion and the importance of  gaining a holistic view of the meaning of inclusion.

The courage of individuals, who are struggling in the face of danger to obtain an education, should encourage all of us who have opportunities to learn in freedom alongside our peers and colleagues, to value what we have. The overwhelming view within the room was that education is indeed a right, but that perhaps those of us who have had educational opportunities should recognised how privileged we are, by comparison to others who live under oppressive regimes. Whilst members of the Bahai community in Iran and others around the world continue to be denied their right to education, it will be essential that those of us who do have the freedom to learn continue to debate these issues, and bring them to the attention of others.

Education is Not A crime, is a movement campaigning to bring the denial of education to the Bahai community to wider attention. You can find details at:-

http://www.educationisnotacrime.me/

To see a trailer for the film “To Light a Candle” go to:-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7aE27GyMMo

 

 

Why do some men fear educated women?

Not every girl will wish to become an astronaut, but they should not be denied the opportunity to try, if that is what they do want.

Not every girl will wish to become an astronaut, but they should not be denied the opportunity to try, if that is what they do want.

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.