Saturday, April 26, 2014

Obstacles to Women's Pursuit of Higher Education: a talk on education and gender

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. 


  1. I live in Swat and have observed how people here treat their sons and daughters differently. I have been noticing this at my house. My brother has a son and a daughter and spends most of his time tutoring the son. It seems as if to him the daughter's education doesn't matter much. That he has already made up his mind that his son will become the head of the family and his daughter will be given away in marriage at an early age. I even notice that he feeds them differently. He worries if the son doesn't eat properly and keeps pushing him to eat more but doesn't bother if the daughter goes to bed on an empty stomach. I am greatly disappointed and have decided to help my niece with her studies and make her a far better person than her brother. Pray that I succeed in it.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience and observation, Anonymous :) I'm so terribly sorry to know that this is happening in your family. I pray that you succeed in your effort in building a more fair, more just, more honest society, aameen!

      I know many families like that. My own wasn't such when I was growing up - I even grew up competing with a male classmate of mine throughout my education in Swat (from, like, the 1st grade until the 4th grade that I was there), and the whole village knew it and seemed to be supporting me! The shopkeepers would distribute mimpali (peanuts) when I'd announce that I beat my classmate. I am still trying to understand why they were so open to my success. Was it because I was just a child and they didn't expect I'd carry this on my whole life?

      P.S. Now that i know who you are, keep fighting the good fight :) It'll be worth it, always.

  2. Actually, intelligence is pretty sexy, most men I know want intelligent wives and education at least to undergrad degree level is a prerequisite for marriage in my family and the families of all my Pashtun friends. Many women go on to become professionals, traditional attitudes are dying although they still exist in my grandparent's generation. Many women also go abroad to study, or study while living alone in a different city. This simply isn't an issue with us, while it's true the issues you highlight exist on a large scale, it would be best to acknowledge they are not universal.

    As for your mother's advice about education making a woman unhappy, I'd say knowledge is a double edged sword and ignorance is bliss. To know is to question, and therefore anybody who seeks knowledge, whether male or female should be prepared not to be as happy as somebody who is happy to just go on with life.

    As for motherhood, if two people are to marry and have children, the woman will have to nurse or look after the kids in their early infancy at the very least until they can be looked after by hired help. Biological reasons predispose the mother for this role, concerns about career vs motherhood are founded in this biological reality. Of course nobody is saying a woman has to take this course in life, she is free to do as she wishes.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, POA! Great to hear from you after so long :)

      I'll have to post this in parts because apparently, I've written too long a comment for one go! Oops.

      PART 1:

      No, it's never all, you're right, and it's important to point that out. But it's certainly not only in our grandmother's generation. It's still extremely common in our generation, and I frankly think no one would know that better than a female herself who has to encounter this perspective almost on a daily basis :) We still have to fight to get our way, we still have to fight and in some cases even break ties with families and relatives, or hide from relatives or do things in secret to pursue our dreams and goals. So I would urge you not to conclude that it's rare in our generation and that it's from our grandmother's generation mostly. It's not. It's very much alive.

      And not just among Pukthuns or Muslims or South Asians and such groups - it's also terrible among women in the West (I'm talking about whites, blacks, Latinos, and others who have been in the West for more than several centuries).

      The symposium had many male and female speakers talking about gender discrimination and bias in the workforce, in higher education (or even in lower education, like high schools, elementary schools, etc.), and gender and power in the Western society more broadly. This discrimination is sometimes manifested in the way that male and female candidates are interviewed for the exact same job or are paid for the exact same jobs. The questions are different for both genders, and females, especially if married, are generally less preferable, for example. (Hence, over 70% of adjunct faculty in the U.S. are female. Adjuncts are the lowest paid among all faculty, they don't get health insurance, and they can be laid just like that. Too many people ignorant of the reality of being a woman in the west in the workforce even today, in 2014, go, "Well, that's because women don't really dream higher, and they give up easily, or they focus on family and stuff." Um. No. Not quite. There's a bigger problem.

      To be ctd.

    2. Part II:

      A lot of my PhD student friends (females) lie to new guys they meet or are dating about who they are - they believe that the guys will be turned off, will be intimidated out of insecurity issues, or will just break up right away. Some of these friends are just seeking someone to be with, so they'll either hide their status as PhD students or will downright lie. Until they believe they're ready to tell the truth. And these friends are not Pakistani or South Asian or anything - they're mostly white or black. Some are Muslims as well, and their chances of marrying a Muslim man are significantly decreased because of their age and their focus on education/careers.

      @ your last paragraph: ouch. And wrong. There's nothing biological about women being with their kids during infancy or anything like that. We know today that fathers are just as crucial in that stage as mothers are. We also know that not all mothers breastfeed, or even if they do breastfeed, as long as the milk can be stored in some container, the mother isn't the only one who has to feed the child. (Side note: I learned a couple of weeks ago that men, too, can produce milk through nipple stimulation and that there have been accounts of men doing this. But never mind that for now - it might make you or some other readers laugh, but do look into it if you're interested. Yes, though, women obviously naturally create milk more easily.)

      However, even if all of this was true and if biology supported the claim that women should be the one looking after children and all (and why does this always shock me that this view is still popular in 2014 despite how much our knowledge has improved on this issue from a biological perspective? Dang it), some countries deal with it quite well: Holland, Canada, Denmark (most "1st world" countries except the U.S.) give almost a whole year of maternity and paternity leave to new parents; in some countries, the mother and father get to take turns so that one gets the first 6 months, the other get the next 6 months. What an excellent system! The U.S. and other countries have something crucial to learn from this. In the U.S., maternity leave is no guarantee; you get "sick leave," it's unpaid, and it's less than 2 weeks - but it depends on the employer as well. She/he might choose to pay you while you're on leave, but institutionally, maternity leave is not required.

      So many obstacles for women to become mothers if they want to be, to dream higher, to become something bigger than the limits imposed on them ... and people tell us it's because women are naturally inferior to women.

    3. It's a biological fact that women become pregnant and give birth to kids, - there's no denying it. It's also a biological fact that while some men may be able to breastfeed it takes additional effort and clearly is not a role that the male btody was designed for, motherhood and the hormones associated with it are typically female. The mother plays a crucial role in child development at an early stage. Nobody is denying the importance of fatherhood so your point about it is moot.

      Breast feeding = antibodies
      Language acquisition = mother tongue (children always speak what their mother speaks)

      It's clear that I'm no scientist so I won't go into the nitty gritty of all of this and pretend that I know it all but let's take economics, it's clear that families cannot survive without an income / a hunter gatherer. From an economic perspective it makes sense that women with their specialized bodies and hormones for whom infant bonding is more natural and comes more easily should be the ones to care for children in their early infancy.

      Yes a man can perform these functions, but not as well and with additional effort (to induce lactation for example).

      Therefore it makes little economic sense for a man to perform these tasks, if it made economic sense for a man to do this, you would see this sort of arrangement more often. Have you ever asked yourself why women all over the world raise children? Because of some worldwide male conspiracy? I think not, there's a plain and valid economic argument for the way things are today; to suggest otherwise is feminist garbage.

      Also here :

      "Qrratugai said: There's nothing biological about women being with their kids during infancy or anything like that"

    4. Virtually everything I agree with you on (and the statement that you quoted me on at the end was in the context of the little importance or need for women to work because they need to be with their kids, so taken out of context, no?) - but the part I don't agree with you on is your suggestion that because women are biologically capable of producing kids and it's always health-wise a better idea for mothers to breastfeed their children (there are infinite benefits of breastfeeding), men should be the one working because it economically and biologically makes sense. Even for women who want to breastfeed, who have to, and who do, there are many ways employers can deal with that. Why haven't we figured out a way after all these millennia?

      I'm still surprised that this conversation is taking place between two educated humans in 2014, so I am hesitant to get into this further. You also do know that many women simply cannot breastfeed (and others choose not to breastfeed - it's a choice after all), and even those who do breastfeed, it's quite silly to suggest they don't need to work because they have to breastfeed.

      Women have still always worked since the beginning of humanity, but I wonder when we'll actually acknowledge their work by giving it economic value, since that's the main reason most women work. We also can't claim that man is enough for working. In much of today's world, even two incomes aren't enough for a decent living.

      P.S. Don't *ever, ever* tell anyone else from this century that you think that it's biologically and economically better for men to work. And so many other things you believe about men and women. lol. I can handle it because it's too common an opinion (and some think it's a fact) around me, but it's an unacceptable thing to think in a time when you have so much access to so much revised knowledge and information on this issue. And this revised knowledge also has a LOT to say on this question of yours: " Have you ever asked yourself why women all over the world raise children?" Scholars--feminist, non-feminist, anti-feminists--ask this question all the time. I know, even in the 21st century. Such a sad thing to not be able to move forward from, right?

    5. On a note actually related to the above talk, check this out:

      "I guess, Amal, that you didn’t see the memo about men not liking smart women. Oh, you didn’t see that? It’s the one that gets reinforced just about every other day in pop culture, encouraging women to dumb it down from the time they’re adolescents, in the hopes that staying perky, dim and silent will make him — any him — love you."

      From an article called An open letter to the future Mrs. Clooney (I hate the "Mrs." part because I hate the assumption that every woman will change her last name/identity after marriage, but meh.)

      Seriously - our culture (not just Pukhtun or Muslim cultures - "culture" overall, especially western cultures), our society, our media simply don't think intelligence is a sexy thing in women. Women shouldn't be invested in their schools, careers, intelligence, learning ... it's just not what the ideal woman or wife does. It decreases her chances of finding a mate. One thing we get told is, "Oh, you wanna get married? Really? Strange. Why did you wait so long?" ... I could write a book with the kinds of comments I alone receive from people of every background.

  3. Just to clear my name, I never said women shouldn't work, I never said they aren't as capable as men. I'm a great fan of women who made it in the rather unfortunatley male dominated sphere of politics (Benazir/Thatcher) even if I didn't like their policies one has to recognize that they really achieved something.

    So no, in no way am I suggesting half the things you've put into my mouth. I'm simply making the economic and biological argument that these things are more natural. For instance, men are more suited to roles in the military, this isn't because men hate women, it's the truth.

    As for my future wife, I will encourage her to work, pursue further education, and pursue a career in whatever she wishes to be, I don't want some stay at home housewife, but at the same time when my kids are born/ still infants I'd like her to take some time off and handle them before they're old enough to be cared for by others.

    You've made confounded my rather down to earth and scientific argument with something bigoted. It's only bigoted if you can't stand the fact that you're a woman.

    You're right female labour should be valued, and they should be paid for having children. I agree with you - and this would serve to make women PROUD of being women - instead of idolizing men and male roles.

    Men are put through a lot of shit thanks to gender roles too, it just isn't apparent from your side of the fence.

    Anyhow, no hard feelings. I just felt like having a quick argument, but the last thing I want is to antagonize you personally.

    1. No hard feelings at all, POA! :) I appreciate your input, always have, and I hope you know that.

      It's actually true that men, too, suffer in the hands of the double standards that our society smothers us all in, and I recognize that. But let's be fair here ... it's usually things like the expectations that we have of them as MEN. "Be a man." "Man up!" "Don't cry! Don't be emotional!" "Be strong!" "Be the breadwinner!" etc., etc. As opposed to what it is for women: "You can't and will not be allowed to do this because you're a woman, and only men are allowed to or can do this." (Religion offers many examples of this - e.g., no marrying outside of the religion when Muslim men can do that; no leading gender-mixed prayers when men can; no marrying someone of your choice with permission from a fatherly figure when men. And so on. But society, religious or non-religious, is just as bad in its restrictions on women. It's all a matter of control.)

      P.S. I like how you said "... before they're old enough to be cared for by others" instead of by you or your wife together :p Just an observation.

    2. In relation to your last point: well yes, that's because both my wife and I will have careers and unfortunately we're not made of money and we'd like to send them to college someday.

      Yes you're right men suffer too, I think it's a foolish exercise to try to compare the two and say which is worse, it's like some competition for who can be the bigger victim, it's not a competition anybody should want to win. If you're an advocate for women being bigger victims, that's great but it isn't something I respect, nor does it really solve any problems, it just shifts the blame onto men (when I assure you women are to blame just as much). When the British ruled over India, they were to blame for colonising the Indians yes, but the Indians themselves were to blame for letting themselves be colonised and playing along with the whole game until Ghandi knocked some sense into them. In fact the colonisers never changed it was the Indians who then realised their own strength and liberated themselves, they realised that the fault was not with their oppressors but largely in their own weak acquiescing selves .

      Let me recount to you some of the ways in which men are discriminated against.

      I was recently searching for a place to rent online, 75% of adverts are "female only" because many people don't feel comfortable living with men or they think men are more likely to trash the property or that men are somehow more threatening than women. As a result searching for a place to live was much more difficult for me (and more expensive - supply vs demand).

      Up until a couple of years ago in Europe women paid considerably less than men for car insurance because women are perceived to be safer drivers. Again men pay more simply because they're men.

      Men "can't" make it as primary school teachers in Britain because it's a sphere dominated by women, and again people feel women are better with children etc.

      You have it all wrong if you think women are the only victims here. Perhaps you should acquaint yourself with a book "the myth of male power" which deals with my side of the argument.

      It's always a pleasure speaking to you as well Qrratu!

    3. No, I don't think it's a competition, and I don't think women (or I) want to win it at all. "Who's oppressed more?" But you were implying (and still are) that men "suffer, too" as if the suffering is so equal that we can all say, "Let's all be happy now." That's not the point, and that's not what we should be saying. Telling us that "men suffer, too" actually helps no one and changes the focus from the bigger problem. I also refuse to believe that someone would deny that women's oppression and discrimination against women is unreal ...

      I don't, however, believe that women are the only victims here. Men are *sometimes* the victims as well; people's skin color, sexual orientation, religion, sect, "disabilities," and race are other common factors of every-day racism and bigotry.

      Women don't look for male roommates generally because, let's face it: women know too well that virtually every man walking down the street is likely to rape, harass, or molest us. They might not end up doing so, but that fear is there. (I recently saw this sign that a man was holding for the "I need feminism" project that read: "I need feminism because I'm tired of every woman thinking that I'm a potential rapist." Or something like this that was said much better. And it's true. We really never know who's NOT going to do it.) Men don't feel it, it looks like, and my advice to you would be to please, please just listen to women when they talk instead of cutting them off by saying things like "but we suffer, too."

      That men can't be primary school teachers because the field is dominated by women is a huge problem. (It's also with nursing in the U.S., and I'm sure elsewhere.) Since the premise is rooted in misogyny and a complete lack of understanding of gender roles and science, we need to stand against it and enforce the message that men and women can be whoever the heck they want to be - teachers, nurses, doctors, businesspersons, whatever else they'd like.

      The point about drivers is also rooted in a false understanding of women. I'm glad that policy is no longer active in Europe, but the fact that it was is pretty sad.

      But in terms of jobs/careers and gender: Most fields today that are considered "neutral" are dominated by men. Only "feminine" jobs (i.e., that require working for others, taking care of others, serving others) are dominated by women. Jobs that improve a person's social standing in society are dominated by men (e.g., medicine). The dominant opinion so far is that it's because women are not intelligent enough, which we know is silly and untrue, but if you think about it, only jobs dominated by men are considered intellectual. In our every-day conversations, too, think about it: What's the opposite of intellect/reason? Emotion. Which is associated with which gender? And then which one is never taken seriously? Even if it were true that women are more emotional than men, why is that something bad? The fact is that anything that women do or is associated with women and femininity is deemed bad. It's no wonder why so many women hate being considered emotional and try hard not to be. They get no respect! Femininity is not respected at all. Never mind that femininity and masculinity are purely social constructs and never absolute.

      P.S. What you're referring to is called reverse sexism. And there's no such thing. Google it - many have explained far better than I can why reverse sexism doesn't exist. I'd give you a few links but I currently can't so if you want any recommendations, hold on a bit until I can access some websites.

  4. Isn't it terrible, though, the shit men go through because of gender norms? What if they could choose which roles suited them personally? Fortunately, we all have that choice, regardless of what seems "natural" to us culturally, which is why, when I give birth to my first child, I will work and my husband will stay home and nurture our child quite capably. I have a few friends who have also chosen this path, and inshallah time will tell whether we revolted against the natural order of things to the detriment of our children. But I also hope to set an example for my child, that it's not about "men's roles" and "women's roles." These are social constructions that we can change if we choose. I hope with all my heart that my choices and my friends' choices will enable our children to choose freely among the various roles offered to them.

    PS "Mother tongues" are not a thing. Kids can be bilingual and even tri-lingual from infancy. Ask a linguist. It just depends on who is speaking to them.

    1. Right on about the mother's tongue thing. There's actually no such thing, and keen observations around us will prove the statement wrong. I gave an example above of interfaith marriage (e.g., Traditional Islam not allowing women to marry non-Muslim men when allowing men to do the same), and the reason that scholars continue to give us is: "Because children take on the identity/culture/path of the father." So much for the whole mother tongue business then. Which is it, right? Or the expectation of women/mothers to take care of their kids. If they're the ones the kids are supposed to be raised by, then why can't they marry whoever the heck they want since the kids will taken on their beliefs, practices, language, identity anyway?

      Agreed - I've lots of great female and male friends who have mutually agreed with their spouses that the father and mother will take equal care of their children, even if it means the father staying home more often than the mother. And surprise surprise - the kids are actually turning out quite alright! In fact, better. Less bigoted than most people I know who think it's wrong or stupid or ridiculous or biologically inappropriate for a man to stay home with the kids. (POA, if you're reading this, I'm not suggesting you're bigoted. I'm not talking about you or any specific person. I'm talking about the dominant mentality around us.)

      InshaAllah, when I have my children, I expect that Hubby Jaan will be as emotionally and physically invested in them as I will be, and if it's otherwise, we might have problems. Coincidentally, I went to take my niece to a Pakistani family's house today to get their son to play with my niece. And there were a couple of other girls there. The woman started talking about how it's great that we girls are doing whatever the heck we want right now because, she knows, marriage will restrict us, almost guaranteed. Then we started talking about how controlling the men of culture (and other cultures) are. And at one point, when I said, "Yeah, maybe they'd stop controlling us if we stood up more strongly to them and made it known that we will not be stepped on." She laughed and said, "Oh, you say that now but wait till you have kids - when they cry at night, your husband will forget all about this equality business and force you to take care of them and shut them up." I was like, "? Then you let him know if that's what he's going to do, he's gonna have to exit the door because a child is never a mother's alone."

      She said, "You girls consider yourselves lucky to be in America. Because that would not be possible in Pakistan."

      This is the message we girls get sent ... "You say that now, but when you get a child, your husband won't help. Be prepared." Why're you preparing me for that? Why aren't you teaching me how to stand up to someone who will take advantage of me like that? Why won't you teach your son to make sure NOT to do that?


Dare to opine :)

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