RESPECTING THE CULTURE
“A girl will play a very important role in her community, but she will also play a very important role in socializing her children and their upbringing. If she has this sense of justice inculcated in her, she will also inculcate it in her children.”
Girls and women endure numerous violations of their human rights, from social and economic discrimination to physical, psychological and sexual violence, to exclusion from positions of power within and outside the family. Among all the issues facing girls and women, why has education taken centre stage?
Rima Salah: Let me start by quoting a girl that I met in Darfur at one of the camps for displaced people. She said, “Education is light. When you don’t know how to read and write – ignorance is like darkness.” And she told me, “Please continue to give us light, because we don’t want to stay in darkness.” So that’s how it is really, in all the cultures, and particularly in my Middle Eastern culture. When we talk about education, it is like light. Education is the means to empowerment of women, empowerment of girls.
I think families in the Middle East, wherever they are, will do everything, every sacrifice, so that the children will go to school, and also girls. Of course, there are some countries where girls’ education is still maybe lower than others, but girls’ education has been very important. Why? It starts with the Hadith. The Prophet said that “Education is a duty for all of you; educate everyone, both Muslim and Muslima.” Which means women and men, the feminine and the masculine. He also said, “Give education to children, even if for your education you have to go bring it from China.” Because China was considered the very far point of the world. He insisted on education. So this is part of the culture.
If you want to be a Muslim, every Muslim, you need to read, because you cannot be a Muslim if you don’t read the Koran. The first word of Islam starts ikra – ‘Read’. So it is embodied in the culture and the religion.
I lived in a refugee camp for one year [as a cultural anthropologist] and my study was on the changing status of Palestinian women. I looked at education and economic empowerment and I looked at their political participation also. But the most important finding was education. Just to give you an example: When I said to a grandfather who was 90 years old, “Why are all your granddaughters in school?” He said, “Because education is something that you cannot remove from them. We lost our land in 1948, we lost again our land in 1967, and our land was perfection to our daughters and granddaughters. But now we don’t have land, we are living in a refugee camp. All we have is education.” So education is also a way of protecting girls in that culture.
When I was in Africa, seeing how much my parents also sacrificed that I go to school and that schooling for them was so, so important, I tried to pass on this message. It was a little bit difficult, the value of education, but of course I tried.
And I tried in Pakistan, for example when I was in Kakar, which was one of the tribal societies, and only 10 per cent of girls went to school, although it is a Muslim society. But sometimes Islam is misinterpreted. Islam is thought about as a hindrance, blocking women’s and girls’ lives, which is not the case. My knowledge of the Koran, of the Hadith and my knowledge of the Arabic language had helped me to advocate. This is what Hadith, this is what the Prophet is saying about education.
So my mission was to open more and more schools for girls. And we did this. Because there you have separate boys’ schools and girls’ schools, so it was more difficult because you have to find teachers, and particularly women teachers. So we trained teachers. And before I left, we had opened maybe 100 schools.
How would you say that a girl’s education affects her relationship to her family, to her community and her country?
RS: When a girl is educated, all the status at home changes. Even if her parents are not literate, they listen to her because she says this is what I’ve learned in school. So her relations with her parents change because they listen to her, and also her relations with her brothers. And this is in my dissertation on Palestinian women, I looked at how those relations change the family as a whole, the extended family and also the community. The educated woman is valued and given a voice in decisionmaking at home and in the community.
You have spoken about the importance of reaching out to the indigenous population. Could you speak about that?
RS: One important role of the woman is to translate and to pass on traditions. It’s so important that she keeps the culture and the traditions. But at the same time, education will help how would she translate, how would she really socialize her children so they adapt to the larger culture? Because it’s important. I was in Viet Nam, for example, where children from the indigenous or minority groups want to keep their culture, want to keep their traditions. But at the same time they have to adapt also to the wider culture. So it is so important for the indigenous mother, the indigenous girl, to go to school. But when we design curricula and programmes, we have to take into consideration also the traditions and the values of the society. That is why we have girls apart from school, because they don’t feel any ownership. When I was in Burkina Faso in old West Africa, it’s French education. We started a programme where we have bilingual education: the first, second and third grade with their language, and then we added French. When we did an assessment, we found those girls did better, all those children, than others. This attracted them more to school and also attracted retention of girls in school.
What do you say to parents who are fearful that if their children get education the traditions of their culture will be lost?
RS: The mobilization of parents is very important. You cannot just send daughters to school and not work on the parents, tell them that education never, never loses traditions. Of course, it loses some traditions that are negative. But in fact, education reinforces values and traditions. The participation of parents is very important, and it has helped us in Burkina Faso and others where you have committees for schools managed by the parents themselves, so that they feel the ownership of it. They know that it’s not some people coming from outside, that they are doing it, that they are part of it. And I think they need to understand the value of education. Because also these parents in Burkina and others mostly are poor. How important that education is going to help them maybe fight this poverty.
Girls’ education helps the families?
RS: They lift the family. Sometimes people think that when parents are not educated they cannot understand. But parents, particularly, they know intrinsically. They know; they feel. So we need to talk to them and explain to them. We cannot go and tell them, “Give us your daughter, we have to put her in school.” The discussion is also important.
People think that school feeding attracts girls to school. This is one factor. It’s not the only factor. Of course, school feeding is an incentive for parents that are poor to send their daughters to school. Donors think that things that are concrete [will bring them to school]. But poor people also have their own pride and have their own values. So explaining to them and discussing with them are also very important.
Angélique Kidjo said that sometimes parents resist what they perceive to be Western education.
RS: Right. That’s why I’ve said categorically that programmes are very important. Who said that education is Western? Education started in other cultures long before. So they have to know that education is not Western. That is why it is easier to explain it in Middle Eastern and Islamic countries, because they know that education started a long time ago. Education is part of their culture and part of their tradition. Some parents don’t know how to read or write, but they are involved even in the programme development of the school. Education doesn’t have a nationality.
They need to have role models in communities: she went to school, but if she’s from Benin, she’s still Beninois, she still follows the cultures and the traditions.
That’s why, at UNICEF, we do a lot of mobilization before opening a school. It has to come from themselves. Let me tell you, for example, for FGM, female genital mutilation, in villages where in Senegal, this tradition, along with others, are discussed. It was discussed and discussed again. Then it becomes part of their own, what they believe in and then one day they do a declaration and say, “We’re not going to do it, that’s it.” And I saw men, after being convinced, going from one village to the other, trying to preach and advocate against it. So that is why cultural anthropology is very important. You cannot do education just with people that are specialists of education. You need other people who will also try to change society.
How has your training as a cultural anthropologist and your work in development influenced your belief in the importance of girls’ education?
RS: Training as a cultural anthropologist makes you more tolerant, more open to understand other cultures. So it has helped me not only to value education, but to value everything I saw when I was in my missions in different countries, from Pakistan, to Africa, to Viet Nam, to West Africa. My training as a cultural anthropologist helped me to have a different view of things, a different perception of development, and valuing more people. It has helped also to feel comfortable with a leader, like a president, or a person, a woman in the village. We need to have more and more people – sociologists, cultural anthropologists and others – in the UN system. The World Bank and other agencies used to employ cultural anthropologists. But I don’t know how much really it has affected development because I think we have failed in many ways in development.
Can you say more about that?
RS: Yes. It is because we did not have enough social analysis, understanding people. For example, education – more than 100 million are out of school, which means we have failed. In this time and age, when we have the technology, when you have all the resources, and we didn’t do it, I think we have failed. And because we have failed in this, we have failed in other aspects of development. It is because we didn’t go deep within society’s values, traditions. We tried. We say it, we employed anthropologists here and there, but I don’t think we really succeeded at this. We need more of it. Because for me, poverty is not lack of money, it is not economic poverty. Poverty for me is isolation. It is isolation of communities, of families, by the mainstream of development. One of the factors why we have failed: because we didn’t involve really the people. In fact, we isolated them, and they are not mainstreamed in development. So we need to have more, maybe, social economists that will understand the economy and also society.
Do you feel like that point of view can be taken on?
RS: I think so. And I’ve been discussing this with many of my colleagues. But some people, we’re afraid to say that we have failed. Why do we have violence? Violence is linked to poverty; violence is linked to lack of, let’s say, happiness in what you’re doing. So, I think that development is linked to peace. We don’t have peace in the world now because we did not really succeed in development.
Does the education system have a part to play in peace?
RS: I think so. And that’s what I’ve been also preaching, that children could be messengers of peace instead of being child soldiers. We have to have it in our curricular presentation. Because if you don’t start with a child, it will be, I think, too late. We were talking about minorities and the indigenous people. It has to start in school; it has to start on this bench where two children are sitting together. You have to also inculcate justice in children, the spirit of justice.
Do you think you can connect that to girls’ education?
RS: I can, because a girl is very important. She will play a very important role in her community, but she will also play a very important role in socializing her children and their upbringing. If she has this sense of justice inculcated in her, she will also inculcate it in her children. What’s happening in the world, the violence, is also because we don’t have a sense of justice. Because we keep talking about peace, right? But if you don’t have justice with this peace, you cannot have it. All these are, I think, the values that we can get in school. And, of course, boys are important, but more importantly for girls because of the role she plays in socialization.
Is there anything you want to add?
RS: Girls’ education is very important. So how can we invigorate it, how can we revive it? I was more and more convinced of it when I saw a child dying, when a child died in front of me two weeks ago in Niger.
Niger is suffering a food shortage. So I went to a hospital, which is run by Médecins Sans Frontières – Doctors Without Borders – with UNICEF’s help. This hospital received children that are severely malnourished. And all of a sudden, this bed here, there was a mother sitting here and she started crying. We didn’t understand why. And I saw a nurse coming. The child had an IV in his arm, 12 months –1 year old. She was removing the IV. And I said, “What? What are you doing? Why, what’s happening?” And she said, “It’s too late, it’s too late.” I said, “What do you mean, it’s too late?” The child died that minute when we were there.
So I was thinking the whole problem there is really, of course, food shortage, but also related to the status of women and illiteracy. Because the woman cannot manage. Of course, she saw her child sick; she walked for miles and miles to bring the child, but it was too late. So when she told me “Too late,” this word resonated all the time. I was too late, maybe; UNICEF was too late; the international community too late and the mother was too late. Why are we too late? Of course, there are so many causes. I’m not going to blame the mother. She was crying, and now she was going to carry this dead child to her village. But, of course, education is very important. The mother cannot manage if she doesn’t know when her child is very sick and that she has to bring the child to the hospital. In Niger, 10 per cent of women are literate; 90 per cent are illiterate. So that reinforced my mission. My mission is really to put girls in schools.