Can we speak of “Mother India”?

The message is clear. No words that I provide can add to this message.

The message is clear. No words that I provide can add to its meaning.

 

In a speech to the United Nations made in September 2015 United States President Barak Obama stated that:-

“One of the best indicators of whether a country will succeed is how it treats its women. And I have to say I do not have patience for the excuse of, ‘Well, we have our own ways of doing things.’”

It should be regarded as appalling that in the twenty first century it is still necessary to be emphasising that in many parts of the world, and in many aspects of life, women still face challenges in terms of being treated with respect and having their basic human rights recognised. Far from having achieved equality, it is true to say that in many instances women and girls remain oppressed and discriminated against.

Yesterday morning, less than a mile from where I am staying in Jayanagar, Bangalore, I came across a wall displaying the paintings shown on this blog page. I was unable to distinguish the function of the building behind this wall as the only indication provided was in Kannada, a language with which I am totally unfamiliar. However, if a picture can tell a thousand words, I think these are more than eloquent in expressing some of the challenges that many women feel exist within Indian society today. Furthermore, I feel certain that these images would resonate with women, and those who empathise with their plight in many other parts of the world.

The treatment of women in India has come under the spotlight and been scrutinised by the media and through the courts on many occasions recently. The death of Jyoti Singh following a savage attack and rape by a gang on a Delhi bus in 2012 is one of the most brutal examples of the dangers that many women and girls face today. But whilst this extreme violence makes the news, inequalities in education and employment opportunities are less frequently debated, despite being an obvious feature of the local landscape. School dropout rate amongst adolescent girls in India remains unacceptably high, despite improvements in recent years, a recent health survey indicated that 56% adolescent girls (15-19 years) in India are anaemic, as against 30% adolescent boys, and the same report shows that girls in India have 61% higher mortality than boys at age 1-4 years. These figures will undoubtedly be disputed and debated, but appear to be a clear indictment of the inequality that exists in twenty first century India.

Fortunately, there are many people here in India as elsewhere who have not only recognised the inequalities perpetuated by a patriarchal society, but are taking action to draw attention to injustice and stand up for those who are subjected to humiliation and discrimination. In 2014 the second Men Engage Global Symposium was held in New Delhi, resulting in the publication of a document that has become known as the Delhi Declaration and Call to Action. The Delhi meeting proposed a number of activities to enable men and boys to debate and understand the impact of discrimination, and to demand a more equitable approach to ensuring women’s rights in all aspects of life. Amongst its most powerful assertions is the following:-

“Patriarchy affects everyone, but in different ways. Women and girls continue to face significant, disproportionately high levels of gender injustice and human rights violation. Men and boys are both privileged and damaged by patriarchy, but are rarely aware of that fact. Men and boys are also gendered beings. Gender equality brings benefits to women, men and other genders.”

The images from the streets of Jayanagar require no interpretation from myself. They are powerful enough to stand without commentary, my only concern being that they are in a back street of a Bangalore suburb and not more prominently displayed. I have a research student here in India whose work is  focused upon the low expectations which still impede the educational opportunities afforded to girls in some Indian communities. She speaks passionately of the benefits that she has gained through education and the support of a family that values the learning that she has gained. She is also conscious of the fact that many others continue to be denied the education that she has received, and she is determined to work as hard as she can to redress the balance.

Life for many women, both here in India and elsewhere, including my own country, has improved significantly. That does not excuse any of us from turning our backs on the many millions of others who still face danger, hardship and deprivation on a daily basis.

How much longer will women feel the need to depict their lives in this way?

How much longer will women feel the need to depict their lives in this way?

 

Donald is not an easy boy to like, but still we must try to include him!

It's difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

It’s difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

Dear Mr and Mrs Trump,

It is with great sadness that I find it necessary once again to write to you regarding both the academic performance and the conduct of your son Donald. I am sorry to say that in recent weeks he has failed to provide any evidence of progress in most areas of the school curriculum, and his behaviour has become an increasing cause of embarrassment to the school.

I am fairly certain that much of what follows in this letter will come as little surprise to yourselves, particularly as together we have monitored Donald’s idiosyncrasies over an extended period of time, and I am sure that like us, you recognise that he gives the impression of living much of his life in a fantasy world, which of late has resulted in the most alarming delusions of grandeur. Indeed, in a recent conversation with the school’s careers teacher he even made the preposterous suggestion that he thought he might stand next year for the post of head boy. Whilst we would not wish to deter any of our students from standing for such a prestigious post in school, and indeed we are proud of our democratic traditions, I have to say I find it hard to believe that any of our students, who have a reputation for intelligence and fair play would be likely to support Donald in seeking such a position.

The difficulties which Donald presents in school are many, but I feel obliged to draw your attention to a few specific issues brought to my notice by some of his teachers.

Mr Clarke, our excellent head of history has this term been addressing a syllabus that recalls the early settlement of our post-Colombian nation. This most exciting and informative topic is always popular with students who are eager to trace their own origins and explore the possibility that they may have ancestral roots from many parts of Europe, South America, the Caribbean or elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately Donald, who appears to believe that he is of pure “white American” extraction, caused some consternation in the class by suggesting that his classmates Michael Beaumont and Elizabeth Burns may not be authentic American citizens and should be considered for repatriation to France and Scotland respectively. When Mr Clarke ventured to suggest that the name Trump was thought to be of Germanic origin from the term “trumpe” indicating the player of a drum, Donald resorted to his usual strategy of threatening to begin litigation against his teacher. Incidentally I still have thirty badly written letters purporting to be from Donald’s legal representatives on my desk.

Sadly, I can report similar issues from his Geography teacher Miss Grainger, who is in despair over the fact that whilst Donald claims to have a personal connection to young ladies who are the holders of dubious titles such as Miss Venezuela, Miss Panama, Miss Sweden, and Miss Dominican Republic, he was unable to locate any of these nations in his atlas. Miss Grainer is of the opinion that Donald needs to get out a little more. Unfortunately he appears to have little inclination to find out much about the world around him, declaring an aversion to “foreign” and a reluctance to engage with those beyond a small and equally insular coterie.

In citizenship lessons, I’m afraid Donald fares no better. Earlier this week his class were asked to write an essay on the significance today of those magnificent words from Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. I am sure you know them well, but let me just remind you:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Donald took a novel approach to this task by producing an extensive list of exclusion clauses. I won’t trouble you with the detail, particularly as his reasoning was at best flawed and some might well say deranged. However, it would appear that Donald sees no place in the “Land of the Free” for those of the Muslim faith, journalists with disabilities, Mexicans, gay couples or others who may be in dire straits and currently sleeping on the streets of our cities. Furthermore, the recent expressions of ignorance that have poured from his mouth have even disappointed his English pen friend Boris who has announced the cancellation of an intended visit to our school in fear that he might feel obliged to soundly box Donald’s ears.

Despite our continued efforts to accommodate his eccentricities, Donald remains isolated from most of his peers in school and appears to have aligned himself with a particularly disreputable and unsavoury group of youths who congregate outside of the school gate using offensive language, much of which is directed towards other students as they leave the premises. Whilst many of the staff here see Donald as a hapless buffoon, rather in the nature of Homer Simpson, I’m afraid I take a rather less charitable view and see him as being more in the vein of Rasputin or Cruella DeVil.

I trust you will recognise that we have gone the extra mile in tolerating Donald’s bizarre nature. We have been flexible in the administration of our no animals in school policy, allowing him to bring his pet gerbil to class each day; though we still fail to see the reason why he insists on wearing this poor creature on his head. We have made every effort to address the fact that he has difficulty making friends, but sadly his abusive use of social media has made those more respectful students wary of being associated with him.

Reading through what I have written about Donald in this letter, I suspect that what I have to say next may come as something of a surprise. I am sure that there are many schools in this district who would be throwing in the towel at this point, who would be saying enough is enough, and this boy must go. However, this is not our way at the Harriet Tubman Academy, where we pride ourselves on being an inclusive school. Here we have a philosophy of opening our doors to all students, regardless of need or ability. I must admit at a staff meeting yesterday we spent a considerable time revisiting our school principles, but after some debate we have now amended all of our school documentation, and to the declaration that stated that “we welcome all pupils regardless of their race, religion, colour, socio-economic status or sexuality” we have added a clause indicating that “we even do our very best for bigots!”

I do hope that you and your family, including Donald, enjoy a very happy and peaceful Christmas holiday, and that he may return in the new year with a renewed enthusiasm for learning. If you could encourage him to make a single new year’s resolution, might I suggest that keeping his mouth shut whenever something offensive comes into his mind might be a good start.

Yours sincerely

A. Lincoln

School Principal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good news about teachers just doesn’t sell newspapers!

 

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

Sometimes it feels like the opinions of teachers count for very little when judgements are being made about the quality of education provided for children. It is often the case that when children are perceived to be under performing in schools, or there are media reports about discipline issues, fingers are quickly pointed at teachers as the sole cause of the problems reported.

Here in England there was a time when the views of teachers were eagerly sought by education policy makers at local and national levels. Politicians and administrators were keen to obtain the opinions of those who were working in classrooms in order to inform their ideas, influence policies and bring about change. Sadly, in recent years this has become a less common approach, with a great deal of educational policy made by politicians without recourse to the opinions of teachers, who are often then seen to be held responsible when things don’t quite work out as intended.

It was therefore heartening yesterday to read a research report titled “The Voice of Teachers” which within its introductory pages states that it :-

“aims to move beyond cliché and misrepresentation, bringing to the fore teachers’ own perceptions regarding the education universe they inhabit”.

Perhaps at last, I thought, we have a report that will respect the views of those who work most closely in classrooms, and can provide insights into their professional lives, with all of the concomitant successes and challenges that typify every day school life. Indeed, within a very short time of commencing my read I found that the experiences of the 823 teachers and 441 head teachers interviewed for this research were being presented and discussed in a manner that was respectful, empathetic and realistic in interpretation. There was little evidence of rose tinted glasses in the report’s presentation of facts and figures, but neither was there an apportioning of blame where specific difficulties were identified and shortcomings discussed. Overall the document presents an honest appraisal of school life, drawing upon the perspectives of experienced school professionals alongside a review of significant facts and figures. On reaching the final pages of the report I found myself wondering, why more reports should not draw upon this rich seam of data, provided by teachers and presented in a well-balanced and lucid manner. If only I could find such a document within my own country!

Ah yes, you see, the report in question adopts an approach seldom seen in today’s English education system and comes in fact from Pakistan.

Alif Ailaan is a campaigning organisation in Pakistan that encourages public discourse around education in Pakistan. Interestingly, it is in part funded by a grant from the UK Department for International Development. The organisation has a stated goal to “get every Pakistani girl and boy into school, keep them learning and ensure that they receive a quality education”. This is the kind of statement that is made by many government and non-government agencies across the globe. However, in the case of Alif Ailaan the approach to achieving such a goal appears to be considerably different from that adopted by many others. They are certainly not afraid of being critical of teachers where they feel that this is necessary, but rather than simply apportioning blame, they are committed to looking beyond the headlines to understand the conditions in schools, and how teachers can be supported to address these. This is apparent early in “The Voice of Teachers,” which reports the research commissioned by them in which a clear and balanced statement is made:-

“The teacher is at the heart of the education system. In Pakistan, however, the discourse on education often attributes to teachers virtually everything that is wrong with the system. There is little doubt that teacher performance in the classroom is below par, considering the consistently low learning outcomes recorded through examinations and assessments at all levels of schooling. But is the teacher entirely to blame for this situation?”

The research that informed this report provided data from both questionnaires and interviews, and identified examples of both good practice and shortcomings in classrooms. Among the issues which were identified as problematic in Pakistan’s schools, were overcrowded classrooms, poor quality textbooks, a lack of facilities and equipment, and inadequate professional development opportunities for teachers. The report does not overlook the impact of poverty, stating quite clearly that there are many children attending schools who are malnourished and therefore lack the energy to learn effectively.

Despite the many challenges faced by teachers, the authors of the report described them as being willing to learn and improve their performance, and certainly not lacking in motivation. Many express the opinion that they gain great satisfaction from enabling their students to learn.

The researchers identify many shortcomings in the education system within the country, but at the conclusion of the report they state that:-

 “If there is one clear message from our study, it is that responsibility for the failure to deliver high-quality education does not lie at the doorstep of teachers alone. In fact many of the challenges that teachers face daily have as much to do with their own capacities as with policies and procedures far removed from ground realities and in dire need of an overhaul. It is up to provincial governments to take on this challenge”.

Having read what I consider to be a fair and evenly presented report, which judging from the data that is clearly presented within its pages gives an honest appraisal of schools within Pakistan, I found myself wondering how it would be reported in the press. Dawn, the influential Pakistan national newspaper, often provides well written and interesting articles depicting life within the country. Surely then I would find a report within its pages that would praise the efforts of teachers, whilst discussing the poor resourcing of schools, inadequate training opportunities and large class sizes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, but sadly I found only one article discussing this report and far from praising the work of teachers, this reported that:-

“Over 70 per cent of teachers in Pakistan agree with the statement that corporal punishment is useful.”

This was indeed a finding from the research, and I should not have been surprised that it was singled out for attention by the media. I too was appalled that corporal punishment continues to be seen as a legitimate means of maintaining order in Pakistan’s schools, but just for once it would have been good to see a report that emphasised some of the more positive characteristics of teachers working for the benefits of children, often under the demanding of circumstances. Reporting fairly on the findings of this research could well have provided a much needed boost to teacher confidence – but then, good news rarely makes for attention grabbing headlines!

 

Moggies against terror

 

Brasmble may not look as if she is politically motivated, but she wishes to express solidarity with the protesting cats of Brussels!

Bramble may not look as if she is politically motivated, but she wishes to express solidarity with the protesting cats of Brussels!

I have always been fond of cats. Whilst there was a time during which I favoured dogs as pets, I now recognise the great individuality of cats, many of whom appear to be far more intelligent than myself, and have a much more relaxed attitude to life. Indeed Bramble, the cat who kindly allows us to share her home here in Northamptonshire (there is little doubt that this is how she sees the situation) spends much of her time seeking the sunniest and most comfortable resting places in the house, and seldom exerts herself beyond the casual walk to her bowl in search of food. I sometimes contrast this with my own lifestyle, but if I consider this for too long it can become depressing.

Often when I am working at home in the study, Bramble will spread herself comfortably on the sofa, occasionally opening one eye to ensure that I am still slaving over a keyboard before returning to her slumbers. I used to think that she chose this position because she liked my company, but have more recently come to believe that she is keeping an eye on me to ensure that I don’t disturb the order of the room which is, I suspect, arranged just as she likes it.

I haven’t written about cats before on this blog, generally believing that they have only a tenuous link to education, save for some excellent literary felines as exemplified in the verses of T.S. Eliot, or several stories by Rudyard Kipling, and that they probably have even less impact upon children’s rights. However, yesterday I found myself initially amused, and then pondering more thoughtfully on the role that cats were playing in the day’s news. This all began with a headline on the BBC website that stated:

“Brussels Lockdown: Belgians tweet pictures of cats to confuse Isis terrorists.”

Not being a user of Twitter, simply because it takes me too much time to master the technology associated with this simple blog, I must confess that I have only minimal understanding of how it works. But I was certainly intrigued by the headline and couldn’t resist reading further. It would appear that as Brussels began its third day living with the highest level of alert in relation to potential terrorist activity, a request was made by the police and other authorities not to disclose details about police activity through the use of social media. Recognising the sense of this request, this has apparently initiated a response by Twitter users, and not only those from within Belgium, who have now set about showing their concern and determination to defeat the terrorists by posting pictures of cats on their accounts. Goodness knows that the situation in Brussels is anything but a laughing matter, but it would appear that the human spirit is able to rise above even the most dire of circumstances.

Apparently thousands, if not tens of thousands of cat images have now been posted on people’s Twitter accounts (I understand that this is usually referred to as “tweeting”, but in view of my usual association of this term with birds, it seems inappropriate to use it on a blog about cats). Many of these photographs can be found on news sites and from the pages of newspapers. Some of the images simply show rather cute kittens frolicking at home. Others have been portrayed more creatively, in poses of mock surrender, or armed with guns or bombs or hiding in a vast range of receptacles.

I would not normally give articles such as this too much attention, but having wasted several minutes smiling at a number of the pictures, I found myself reflecting on an article I had read in the previous day’s Guardian written by the excellent Marina Hyde, in which she argued that one way of confronting those who wish to inflict terror on our communities is through the use of comedy to mock them, and show them up for the mindless cowards that they truly are. Thinking about what Marina Hyde had to say I was soon in accord with her ideas, remembering how some of the great comedians of the past have helped us to see the stupidity of those who try to impose their warped view of the world on others.

Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film the Great Dictator, used comedy to highlight the despicable nature of Hitler, Mussolini, antisemitism, and the Nazis with great effect. Cartoonists all over the world such as Steve Bell, Satish Acharya, Laxman and Jeff Stahler have helped to expose corruption and enabled us to laugh at the perpetrators. Whilst satirical television programmes like “That was the Week That was,” and “Spitting Image” have tackled political cant and pomposity with many a belly laugh. Now it would appear that thousands of largely unknown people are using cats to good effect to highlight the futility of terrorism.

I tried showing some of the pictures to Bramble yesterday evening, and asked her for a suitable quote (yes I know – but there’s no harm in trying). At first she feigned some slight enthusiasm, but eventually curled herself back into a comfortable position turning her back on me with barely disguised contempt. The only message that she seemed to convey was something along the lines of – “I spend my whole life making a mockery of you, but you are not bright enough to notice”.

Comedy is dismissed in some quarters as having little of substance to offer in our interpretation of the world or the ways in which we might confront its challenges. Perhaps we should reconsider this view and allow the cats to continue in their excellent venture to scoff at those who would do us harm

May the pictures below raise a smile!

Laid back cat. Just wake me up when it's all over!

Laid back cat. Just wake me up when it’s all over!

Comedian cat - mocking anyone who wants to disturb his peace

Comedian cat – mocking anyone who wants to disturb his peace

six shooter cat! Part of the cat peace keeping squadron

six shooter cat! Part of the cat peace keeping squadron

Para-military cat. Keeping the cats of Brussels safe

Para-military cat. Keeping the cats of Brussels safe

Boozy cat - it's enough to drive a cat to drink!

Boozy cat – it’s enough to drive a cat to drink!

Book cat - educating himself to understand what it means to live peacefully in a diverse world

Book cat – educating himself to understand what it means to live peacefully in a diverse world

 

The long road to liberty

Magna Carta (1215) a launch pad for later legislation to protect the rights of individuals

Magna Carta (1215) a launch pad for later legislation to protect the rights of individuals

I spent most of yesterday at the Palace of Westminster – home of the British Houses of Parliament. I have visited this readily recognised landmark on several occasions, but never cease to be impressed by both the grandeur of the architecture, and the sense of the history that surrounds the place. On arrival, most visitors enter The Houses of Parliament via Westminster Hall, the oldest part of this magnificent building. Westminster Hall was built at the command of King William II in 1097 and was reputedly the largest hall in Europe at this time. The hall contains many splendid features, though it is the superb hammer beam roof commissioned in 1393 by Richard II that impresses me more than any other aspect.

Westminster Hall has witnessed many significant historical events including the trial of Sir Thomas More (1535) and of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plotters (1606), but most famously, this was the scene of the trial of King Charles I (1649) prior to his execution.

This is the only part of the Houses of Parliament where visitors are permitted to take photographs, and today I was particularly pleased to have this opportunity. As I arrived at the hall my attention was immediately drawn to a series of colourful banners hanging at regular intervals along the walls. With twenty minutes to spare I spent the time examining this display which had been assembled to commemorate a significant point in English history.

800 years ago in 1215 Magna Carta was issued by King John under some duress from a number of Barons, or noblemen at Runnymede near Windsor on the River Thames. Throughout this year there have been a number of events to commemorate this important occasion, which is often seen as a significant landmark in establishing the protection of the rights of individuals in the country. Probably the most famous quotation from Magna Carta is:

“To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.”

This has been interpreted in many ways, but is usually seen as establishing that every individual should be treated fairly and receive justice and protection by law.

This is, of course, a noble sentiment, but it was educative to examine the banners displayed in Westminster Hall today, which indicated how it has taken many centuries since the issuing of Magna Carta to ensure that rights and justice have been recognised and assured for a broad range of groups and individuals. The banners, each created by a different artist provide an interpretation and information about a number of significant pieces of legislation. These include the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807), the foundation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (1897) that eventually secured votes for women (1918), the Race Relations Act (1965), the Sexual Offences Act (1967), and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995). Each of these landmarks was significant in securing the rights of groups of people who had suffered discrimination and marginalisation. None was obtained without vigorous campaigning by individuals and pressure groups, but all have had a radical impact upon the lives of significant numbers of people.

A fine example of the sacrifices made by individuals who have campaigned for the rights of their fellow men and women is depicted on a banner that reminds us of the courage of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who, in 1834, having organised agricultural workers to campaign for improved working conditions, were convicted of being members of a Friendly Society, a forerunner of today’s trade unions. At the time, swearing an oath of allegiance to such an organisation was illegal. George Loveless and his fellow agricultural workers were sentence to transportation to Australia, though their convictions were later overthrown following a vigorous campaign by other workers across the country.

What all of the banners have in common is a celebration of justice and a commitment to recognising and respecting the rights of individuals, many of whom had been subjected to abuse over many centuries. The brief time I had to view these works of art today did much to reinforce my faith in human nature and the desire that most people have to ensure justice and equity for the vulnerable. These thoughts were certainly with me as I stood in a minute’s silence along with tens of thousands of others  around the world today as a mark of respect for those who were murdered in Paris by criminals who would probably rather not be confronted by the messages conveyed on these banners.

I present the banners below for you to peruse at your leisure.

Click to enlarge

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It sometimes takes extraordinary courage to be a teacher

 

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised, but I was a little disappointed yesterday when having mentioned the name Sakena Yacoobi to a group of students, I found that none of them had ever heard about this amazing lady’s work. As they had not heard of Dr Yacoobi or her commitment to education, it was hardly likely that they would have been aware of The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) which has achieved so much in that desperately poor country.

Dr Sakena Yacoobi is a formidable lady who has, for many years campaigned for the rights of those from poor communities, and especially girls, to receive an education. Having determined to take affirmative action to secure educational opportunities, she has on more than one occasion put her own life at risk and found herself under threat from powerful organisations and terrorists. However, her own personal educational experiences – she was the first member of her family to receive a formal education beyond the early years of schooling, and then found herself living as a refugee outside of her native Afghanistan, has reinforced her commitment to support others to achieve their potential.

As a refugee in the USA, Dr Yacoobi worked to gain degrees in biological sciences and public health. Her academic work was highly regarded and eventually she was made professor at an American university. Such is her commitment to the people of Afghanistan, however, that she decided to return home and develop a number of schools for children in some of the poorest areas of the country. At a time when the Taliban were in power, Dr Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which supported underground schools with a specific intent of ensuring that girls received a good education. This was a brave action which she entered into fully aware of the risks she was taking.

There are a number of stories about the courage of this extraordinary lady. In particular, reference is made to the occasion when armed members of the Taliban came to a school she was running and tried to impose their narrow beliefs upon her and her staff. With considerable courage Dr Yacoobi invited these armed men into her school and served them tea, whilst arguing in defence of the education of girls, quoting freely from the Quran in justification of her actions. She admits that she thought that the men would kill her, and possibly others within the school, but eventually she persuaded them to leave and went calmly back to providing lessons.

During the period of Afghanistan’s Taliban occupation it was estimated that underground schools organised by Dr Yacoobi and her colleagues were educating up to 3,000 girls. Many have since spoken of the opportunities that these schools afforded them and the gratitude they feel towards this courageous lady.

In 2011 The WISE Prize for Education was established to recognise the services given by outstanding individuals. This prize now has an important international status and is awarded only to people who have made a significant contribution towards changing the lives of others through education. This prestigious award has just been presented to Dr Sakena Yacoobi by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of the Qatar Foundation. On receiving the prize Dr Yacoobi emphasised that many in her country still live in extreme poverty, and are certainly not free from terror. She further indicated that many of the people in Afghanistan continue to suffer and have feelings of helplessness. However, she sees increased educational opportunity as one part of the equation that can assist the inhabitants of Afghanistan towards a better life.

Whilst Dr Sakena Yacoobi remains largely unknown here in the west, there are certainly many in Afghanistan who are indebted to her for her courage and determination. Let us hope that life for those who continue to suffer in that country improves in the near future, with the inspiration of Dr Yacoobi this must be a possibility.

Details of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) can be found at the link below.

http://www.afghaninstituteoflearning.org/

Do please take the time to watch the brief video below in which this extraordinary lady tells part of her story

 

Being respectful should not require silence!

Protesters against and supporters of President Xi stand shoulder to shoulder in London. Could this scene be replicated in Beijing?

Protesters against and supporters of President Xi stand shoulder to shoulder in London. Could this scene be replicated in Beijing?

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” 
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

 

For many years now I have had the privilege of travelling to work with teachers and researchers in many parts of the world. Sharing ideas with colleagues and sometimes wrestling to interpret these in different cultural contexts has been a great privilege, and has afforded me opportunities to see how other people live, work and try to make sense of the world. Amidst all this, I hope that the experience has taught me to be respectful of other societies and to be prepared to engage in critical discussions whilst making an effort to understand a broad range of motivations and contexts.

The British media today is dominated by reports of the visit to the country by China’s President Xi Jinping. Yesterday he was afforded all the pomp and ceremony in which this country excels. State banquets, an audience with the Queen, an opportunity to address the UK Parliament and a ride along the mall in a carriage more suited to a performance of Cinderella than to the streets of twenty first century London. Unsurprisingly the President’s visit has divided the nation, with those who are in favour of accepting potentially high levels of investment from China into the development of UK infrastructure, juxtaposed with others who believe that we should not be welcoming a dictatorial leader who has overseen increased human rights atrocities in his country.

I have visited several parts of China on a number of occasions and over the past fifteen years have made a number of good friends and colleagues in the country. I have also worked with some outstanding Chinese students who are now making a significant contribution to education back in their homeland. These valued contacts have often afforded me kind hospitality in their country and sometimes in their homes. As with others from around the world, they are proud of their country with its rich history and traditions, though in private many are also critical of the many injustices that they see as characterising modern day China.

China is a vast country and I cannot claim to have seen much of its broad spread. However, I have seen enough to form some idea of the rich diversity within its peoples and culture. As well as Han Chinese colleagues in the East of China and Beijing, I have enjoyed time with friends in the Muslim Uygher communities in Xinjiang Province, and recognise that not all citizens of this vast country have the same interpretation of what it means to be Chinese. I am quite sure that my brief visits to China have shaped much of my thinking about the kind of society that has been created in this diverse part of the world. These thoughts have been very much to the forefront of my mind as I have watched the red carpet treatment given to President Xi Jinping following his arrival in London.

It seems to me that when visitors come to the UK, whoever they are, we should ensure that they receive a warm welcome and that they are made comfortable. Inevitably if they are a Head of State we would expect that they should be granted access to those in positions of responsibility and leadership in the country. However, if we are welcoming visitors as friends, as was implied by both the Prime Minister Mr Cameron, and by President Xi Jinping in speeches yesterday, we should expect that a frank exchange of views, as is common between friends might ensue.

Yesterday in the Guardian newspaper there was an interesting article written by the exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian whose excellent books Stick Out Your Tongue, and The Noodle Maker won international praise. Having been at the receiving end of Chinese Government oppression over a number of years he is fully justified in making a number of observations about how President Xi Jinping’s visit will be reported in China. Emphasising the dangers of being critical of the administration in the country, Ma Jian writes:-

“The message from the Chinese tyrants to their subjects will be clear: if the queen of the UK, the oldest democracy in the world, lavishes your president with such respect and approbation, then what right have you to criticise him?”

Freedom of speech is something which was hard won and is now treasured in many of the world’s great democracies, including the UK. Ma Jian has every right to voice his opposition to Chinese Government oppression, and it is to the credit of the UK Government that he has been made welcome as a resident of this country and is provided with a platform from which to express his opinions. Sadly there are many other Chinese nationals who are in a similar position to Ma Jian and find that whilst their work and ideas are appreciated and indeed honoured outside of China, they face imprisonment and torture if they express themselves within their own country. The artist Ai Wei Wei has received many plaudits for his exhibition currently to be seen at Royal Academy in London, the Nobel Prize winning writer Liu Xiaobo is currently being held as a political prisoner in Jinzhou, Liaoning, whilst his work is honoured in most parts of the world, and the lawyer Xu Zhiyong founder of the Chinese New Citizens’ Movement which has campaigned for the rights of Chinese citizens is similarly incarcerated. These individuals and many thousands of others who, being less well known have escaped the attention of the western media, do not appear to have a voice in the current negotiations being conducted between the UK Government and the Chinese President.

Unlike some who have written in the British press or appeared in interviews on the radio, I do not believe that we should have refused President Xi Jinping entry to the country. However, if as Mr Cameron suggests, there are opportunities for strengthening bonds between the governments of two countries, I would hope that he provides the kind of critical friendship that in recognition of those values of human rights and social justice that are often said to characterise the UK, enables him to express his abhorrence of the repression and ill-treatment of those who voice opinions contrary to those of the totalitarian regime that administers China.

Having been lavishly entertained at Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament President Xi Jinping may now be in need of a day of leisure. If so, he could do far worse than visiting the Royal Academy to see the work of his fellow countryman Ai Wei Wei. I suspect that this is an unlikely scenario as it would demand a willingness to engage in a learning experience that could be in danger of broadening his perspectives.