Girls & Education: Feminist Dreams and So Many Questions

The assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai brought a lot of press to an issue that I’ve been tracking for the last year and a half: international aid for girls’ education (i.e. Amanpour: The Malalas You’ll Never Meet). In my study of girlhood and nationalism, I am especially interested in the contemporary issue of universal education and they way this very important cause connects with transnational feminist issues and the construction of both childhood and femininity.

As I continue my work, I will share more specific posts, but I wanted to take some time to organize thoughts, resources, and ideas connecting international aid efforts to the transnational concerns tied to girls’ education. I just want to make it clear up front: I think that universal education is critically important. To quote Hillary Clinton, “I believe that the rights of girls and women is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” (And girls aren’t the only ones being deprived of education.) My questions, however, center upon the way the girl child is used in international rhetoric and the vexed history of imperialism, patriarchy, and racism that outreach efforts refuse to engage with, while using the innocence of girls in inconsistent ways.

For example, the Girl Effect PSA below

I think the ad really beautifully discusses how the future of one child can have a ripple effect through generations in a way that treats girls as individuals while still treating them as part of a group of 50 million. The ad also nicely puts the impetus on health care and education as a place for economic growth and women’s equality. The ad however, also couches the girl as “a situation” and presents the worst possible outcomes–child marriage, prostitution, AIDS–as the future for the (faceless) girl. In this way, there is a failure to connect the need for education to a more nuanced idea of quality of life. Instead it’s education or HIV. Further, the ad glosses over other real problems. The line between childhood/adulthood is culturally determined, which the ad ignores totally, assuming that for the audience that line lies at 18, not 12.  Further, the girl might be safe at school, yes, but that doesn’t mean that she won’t also face patriarchal systems in her home or community, workplace inequality, or other sexist or racist structures that could keep her from using this education to her potential. The situation clearly leans on the girl as a figure of a better future and does so in a way that denies her an individuality while also ignoring the complexities of the issue in a hyperbolic way.

Similar tactics are used by Care International, Because I am a Girl, and 10 x 10. I am most interested in the UN’s Girl Up Initiative , which uses American high school girls as fundraisers to support girls’ education, health care, and safe spaces in Africa. The program claims, “Girl Up believes that American girls are a part of the solution. We know that girls give, girls talk and girls get involved. This generation of girls cares about global issues and is concerned about the challenges facing other girls around the world.” Yet, the initiative has questionable ties with really commercial partners and heavily relies on a rhetoric of sisterhood that erases the differences between American girls’ lives and the lives of the girls they’re helping–the very differences that should be motive for the American girls to help out. I’m a little bit obsessed with this particular campaign and the complicated messages it uses. Great work, but I wish the materials were smarter, more critical, and put more trust in girls’ intelligence.

Thinking about all this at once makes my head spin. So, here are the questions I am starting with:

  1.  When we couch the education of girls in such strict economic terms, there is a clear move to demonstrate how universal education is not just a touchy-feely humanitarian project, but also a project that can have real, concrete, lasting benefits for communities in need. I think that’s great. But in doing so, is the girl also being commodified, just in a different way? Education has economic benefits, usually paired with things like expanding horizons, a stronger sense of self-worth, and ideas about agency and power. These are the issues that Malala speaks about so beautifully. Can we discuss the economic realities while not losing sight of the other purposes of education?
  2. In the effort to connect girls in more prosperous nations to the fight for girls’ education elsewhere, there is a huge opportunity for their education and I feel that this opportunity is being missed due to a failure to engage in serious feminist discourses. The rhetoric that “She’s a girl; she’s just like me” is clearly easier for a teenager to digest than more complicated ideas about subjectivity, privilege, power, and transnational feminism, but by failing to have the tough conversations about what it means that girls in some nations are educated, often at higher rates than their male peers, while girls in the developing world are pulled from school and possibly married as children, aren’t we failing to educate the more privileged girls in some ways? Can we have these serious conversations that dig into the ways that girlhood is not universal in lived experience? Might that enrich the argument for universal education as well as actually empower the girls in the “first world” to think more critically about their power?  Could we connect with the Girls 20 Summit on this issue?
  3. Is the argument for universal education weakened in some part by its connection to education systems, largely in the west, that are in some ways still racist, sexist, and classist? How are our assumptions about the superiority of our culture and our educational practices implicated in the rhetoric of these programs (American exceptionalism?)?
  4. Is it possible to make an argument for the end of child marriage (again, I am against this) and the education of girls (yes, please) that leans so fundamentally on the assumption that girlhood universally is/should be a time of innocence when this construct is not the lived experience of so many girls? In this way is the push for girls’ education undermined by a faulty construct? Or, instead, is this the “first world” trying to re-write what it means to be a girl in the “third world”? (This, I think more than anything, is troubling me. It is hard for me to process independently of all my research on Victorian, American and British girlhood, as the ideal of an innocent girl is a very white, middle-class, often restrictive trope.)
  5. How badly do I want to live in a world in which every child is educated and taught to think for his or herself? (There isn’t a word for how much I want that.)

These are the questions I am setting out to study. More to come.

4 thoughts on “Girls & Education: Feminist Dreams and So Many Questions

  1. Pingback: Term Papers! Swiper No Swiping | Ph.D.s and Pigtails

  2. Pingback: Response to Bright Young Things Backlash | Ph.D.s and Pigtails

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