This is the first article in a two-part series on women's education in the Middle East.
There are several stories that run concurrent to one another when we talk about women’s education in the Middle East. One story relays a decrease in gender disparity in enrollment in primary and secondary schools since the 1990s. It’s a tale of improvement, where an increasing number of women are going on to enroll in universities, surpassing the number of male students in many countries.
Another story, however, reminds us that half of all Middle Eastern countries still stand to miss the Millennium Development Goal’s target of achieving universal primary education for both boys and girls by 2015. It’s a story where families repeatedly choose to keep girls at home to honor strict religious and cultural codes. As you can see, when we talk about and assess what might benefit the region in the future, we must keep in mind that finding a just solution may be one that is quite complex, and one that requires innovation at almost every level.
The Middle East stands to benefit a great deal in educating its female population. When a girl is educated, her livelihood not only improves, but her family and community also gain immeasurably. In one respect, the Middle East is sitting on a tremendous source of untapped capital. This region could gain an enormous amount of productivity and overall livelihood by allowing girls and women to participate in its educational system and the workforce- possibly doubling it in size.
Productivity is not the only thing that stands to increase, as education comes with an intrinsic value that can promote the social wellbeing of society. Repeatedly in development, when the education of a female population increases, lower birthrates and child and mother mortality rates follow, as do increased family health through avenues such as better nutrition. Education gives women the means to make informed decisions, and it empowers them by giving their decisions weight. When we look at the Middle East, however, where the advancement of women is not universally sought after, the need to argue for education from a non-Western lens becomes critical. One of the ways we do this is by understanding the distinct challenges facing girls in the region.
The climate for girls’ education in the Middle East is quite unique for many reasons. For one, many countries are still facing the deep challenges of poverty. Like many other developing nations, there is a definite difference between girls’ livelihood in rural and urban areas. This poses the challenge of catering to geographical locations, specifying the development needs that must come before girl’s education (i.e. having the proper infrastructure for a school building).
Alongside these economic challenges, the cultural and religious identity of the Middle East creates yet another uphill battle for girls and women’s education. Conservative Islamist influences often create a barrier for women who traditionally are expected to take care of their families and spend their days at home. Domestic responsibilities, in the eyes of many, do not require education, and therefore the possible costs of sending a girl to school are not justifiable. Within every country, these traditional expectations manifest in a variety of ways that make it difficult for women to break traditional roles. For example, the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia may hinder a mother from taking her children to a higher quality school in the city, or, may discourage a recent high school grad from attending college, as she is unable to find a consistent ride. What may meet the eye as a set of simple social codes stand to create even more difficulties as the modern world emphasizes adaptability and momentum.
On top of poverty and cultural norms, many countries in the Middle East are posed with the unique challenge of navigating social turmoil. What was once pronounced an Arab Spring for millions of people has drawn out into amultiple year upheaval from normal life. The political and economic atmosphere remain unstable, and waves of displacement for many families are nowhere near being resolved. These forms of instability, according to many, pose the greatest threat for women and girls. Not only are they likely to bear the brunt of poverty’s effects, but they must face increasing dangers of violence and bodily harm. In 2013, the UN put out a disturbing study that cited 99.3 percent of women in Egypt as having been sexually harassed. How are girls expected to get to school on a daily basis if their world is driven by fear, constant migration, and instability? These factors help us to understand the many layers that make educating girls in the Middle East so difficult.
A major part of the solution rests at the heart of the problem itself. Few are able to properly argue for uneducated women and girls at the policy level. Many women in positions of power, most notably in legal and political spheres, are far lower than they ought to be. In order for women to climb the ranks socially and gain better representation, they not only need a solid, consistent education, but they need a quality education. Bad facilities and poor teaching are two culprits in the Middle East that warrant attention if the region is to truly help its young people to prosper. It’s especially alarming to note that when the quality of education is bad, girls are more likely than boys to give up and drop out, seeing less of a benefit in their time away from home. High standards will help promote the success of women as they seek to gain more credibility in the working world.
We all have the opportunity to take place in the unfolding story of girls’ education in the Middle East as advocates for human flourishing. When girls have such a basic thing as a quality education, they will see their range of opportunities grow. While the challenge of developing and implementing a thorough solution is intricate and complex, it is worthy of our time and attention.
-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she graduated with a degree in International Affairs. She is headed to Washington D.C. for a year-long volunteership in the fall, with hopes to continue to pursue her love of writing and encouraging leadership among young women.