I recently attended a symposium to talk about gender and education. Below are parts of my talk. This weekend, I hope to write a little blog post about some of the things I learned (depressing!!) about women in academia, in the workforce, in education, in leadership roles, and so on.
To illustrate my main point of this talk, I’m going to start off with a personal story and experience. And my point will be regarding what I believe is one of the most threatening obstacles to women’s education and success—to their achieving their dreams and doing it while having the love and support of their families and communities. Mostly, I'll try to address the double standards with which we raise our children when they are young but aren't sure what to do when they grow up and enter real life - be it by entering the work market or higher education or otherwise attempting to pursue their dreams.
I’m a 3rd-year PhD student of Islamic Studies. I grew up in a Pashtun family that values tradition, Pashtun culture, and Islam, with a mother who has been urging me to get married ever since I was in my late teens (just a side note: marriage was actually a threat: “If you don’t behave, I will marry you off!”). My mother is well-educated, she was a teacher and a professional in Swat and an influential figure in the community whom everyone respected and looked up to. She valued women’s education and made sure that all the girls in at least our neighborhood were enrolled in school. However, as a professional woman in a society that still has a long way to go in terms of respecting and acknowledging their worth as contributing members of society, she eventually came to see women’s education as an obstacle to their happiness. She now tells me, that the more educated a woman is, the less happy she will be in her personal life. We argue back and forth over why this is so, and we eventually agree that, yes, it’s because the more education a woman achieves, the more she is breaking tradition, the more she becomes a threat to the tradition and hence to the community. In turn, the community taunts her for being “too” educated. (“You don’t need to get a PhD to survive. Just marry a rich man," we get told as PhD students.) If the woman has had to leave her home town to attain this level of education, the community taunts her family and challenges their honor and reputation: “Are you sure she’s going to school there? How do you know she doesn’t live with men?”
My father, however, when I was growing up, never mentioned marriage. He always emphasized education’s being the most important part of a human’s life, without which one could never attain happiness and security. His perspective is based also on his personal life. He’s the only one in his family who went on to pursue education at higher levels under all circumstances, even without his parents’ support. Yet, sadly, in 2011, when I told him that I want to pursue a PhD and that I've been accepted at a university for it, he at first said that wasn’t a bad idea—except, the next day, he told me that I should get married. I was offended. All this time when he and I both thought that I would be going into medicine, he never suggested marriage to me. And now when I want a PhD, he tells me I should marry right away?
Why would he say such a thing? His response: “Because our men don’t marry women who have PhDs.” Why? Because a good education can make a woman a critical thinker; she’ll become critical of her position in society, especially in relation to man, and she might strive to do something about that, thereby investing all her energies, skills, and time in working for society—i.e., other people—instead of getting married, having kids, and serving her family.
Fair enough. I know many women (here at my university) who, the higher they reach in their education and career, the more difficult a time they have finding compatible husbands. For women who do want to get married, this can be quite an ordeal. And let me emphasize here that this is not just for women in Pakistan or for Muslim women—this is a problem for women in the western society as well, it’s a problem everywhere, this problem of men’s perceived intimidation of educated women. But at the same time, is it really true that men are intimidated by women who pursue higher levels of education?
But the perception is there, and for those women for whom it is a reality, it is because of the gap in the gendered values we instill in our young male and female children: we teach and force our boys to become men (strong, independent, the heads of their household); we expect them, not our daughters, to become leaders, intellectuals, scholars. We teach and force our girls to become women (strength and independence are perceived as masculine traits, so they don’t matter but if they end up being such, it’ll do; it’s just not a priority); we raise our daughters as future wives and mothers, not as potential leaders, scholars, and intellectuals in addition to whether or not they might want to be mothers or wives. And so when the time comes to build careers and maybe get married for those who want to get married, there is an unsettling gap in what the men and women have been taught and what they expect, both in themselves and in each other.
Now, I said earlier that I wanted to talk a little bit about what I believe is the main obstacle to women’s education. This obstacle is the same practice across cultures but has different words in different languages and cultures. In Pashto, we call it peghor; in Urdu and Persian, taaney; in English, taunting. But the English word doesn’t carry much value, although it is very much common in our daily lives. Think of, for example, when we tell our boys, “Be a man!” Or we tell our girls, “Don’t be a pussy!” This is a form of taunting – we’re mocking them, their abilities, their preferences, their actions.
In Pakistan, among many other countries, the main reason a woman’s success, public appearance and acknowledgment, leadership, and higher education are feared is that her family fears the taunting from their community. It starts from the female’s young age, and most women live with this idea of avoiding shame and shaming their families. Educated women generally do not have a good reputation because the assumption is that they cannot be and will not be good mothers, wives, and daughters-in-law, that they will not take their marriage seriously and if the marriage fails, it is entirely their fault (then again, it’s always their fault, no?).
While this perception of the highly educated woman may seem removed from our mindset as westerners in the 21st century, it is actually not. Think about it: women are generally made to feel scared of pursuing higher education—or their dreams, really. Education isn’t sexy, we’re told; intelligence isn’t sexy. Men don’t want women who are that educated or career-oriented. And let’s face it: we still have this idea so deeply ingrained in our culture that a woman can be either a good mother or a career-person. But a man, of course, can be both.