Watch Girl Rising Sunday, June 16th at 9 pm ET on CNN! Plus, host a CNN house party to put Girl Rising on the map.
As I continue to study the work done to create equal access to education for girls internationally and the work done to fight gender inequality and sexism here too, I am often reminded of how lucky I am, not only to have the privilege of getting an advanced education, but also to have a family that has always supported and encouraged me to value my education.
I come from a family of teachers, so there was never a shortage of people around me who valued education. As I was growing up, however, I was particularly supported in my reading by my father and in my writing by my grandfather. My dad often read books with me well beyond my grade level. I’m still a little upset about reading Animal Farm when I was eight years old, long before I knew what a Bolshevik was. When I learned Russian history in high school, I felt a little tricked. I also have a vivid memory of Dad letting me pick any book I wanted from the bookstore. When I returned with a book of “feminist poetry for girls,” he bought it for me without comment. Both my father and my grandfather supported me in my writing in different ways. Papa still asks me about my writing whenever I talk to him. I wasn’t athletic as a kid and didn’t do much competitively, so it was easy to feel invisible when I compared myself to others. Being given the opportunity to talk about my work meant a lot. At one point I kept a blog on which I wrote a poem every day for nearly two years. Often, Papa would talk with me about my poetry. Dad, on the other hand, can be pushy and his pushiness often worked to my advantage. It resulted in my ability to “just pick up the phone!” to get interviews for the high school paper and at the radio station where I worked for a bit. It resulted in the newspaper movie review column I still write a decade after he told me “the worst they can say is no.” Dad’s pushiness about my writing is why am not scared to send stuff out.
Given my lived experiences, it seemed brilliant to me that the television premier of Girl Rising should take place on Father’s Day. Many of the girls’ stories hinge on the support of fathers or father figures who recognize the equality or the potential in them. For example, Ruksana’s father works hard and can barely support his family, who live on the sidewalk in a busy city in India. Still, even though they are homeless, he and his wife prioritize putting their girls through school. Azmera of Ethiopia escapes from an early marriage because her brother, the man of the house, pledges to sell everything he owns if it means she can stay home and in school. Senna from Peru is encouraged to write poetry by her father, who also insists that she continue her education, even though sending her to work instead could help ease her family’s poverty. On the other hand, for some girls, fathers’ decisions are what keep them from getting an education. Amina was sold into marriage at age 11 by her father. She says: “My body is a resource which can be spent for men’s pleasure or profit.” Her father used the $5,000 he got for her to buy her brother a car. In Nepal, Suma’s parents sold her into bonded labor because they could not afford to keep her at home. In the girls’ stories, it becomes clear how important the support of parents, especially fathers, can be in cultures where girls and women are not inherently valued equally. (For more on Girl Rising, check out my longer analysis of the film.)
The same narrative plays out in larger discourses about girls’ education. For example, Malala Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddin, has been lauded for supporting his daughter and fighting for other girls’ rights and access to education. Embeded below is a TED talk by Shabana Basij-Rasikh, an ambassador for 10×10, about her father and grandfather’s dedication in sending her to school, thwarting Taliban rule in Afghanistan. She says, “I was very lucky to grow up in a family where education was prized and daughters were treasured” and tells the stories of two generations of men who valued their daughters’ education enough to thwart cultural pressures that keep many girls out of school. Of her father she says, “to him there was greater risk in not educating his children.” Further, she shares the stories of other fathers and daughters too, attributing the success and rising rate of female education to the support of fathers, citing the necessity for their involvement in such a strictly patriarchal culture: “Behind most of us who succeed is a father who recognizes the value in his daughter and who sees that her success is his success. It’s not to say that our mothers aren’t key in our success…but in the context of a society like in Afghanistan, we must have the support of men.”
Meanwhile child marriage is on the rise. While factors such as poverty, political instability, and various types of gendered and racial oppressions clearly play an enormous role in the decisions parents make for their daughters, a clear trend emerging from the narratives of girls who have succeeded in overcoming these obstacles is that paternal support goes a long way. Still, in many situations it takes courage and forward thinking for fathers to invest in their daughters as they would in sons. As Girl Rising and the current stats on girls’ education show, not all girls have fathers who will stand up for them. Systemic change is essential for empowering girls and when the system is inherently patriarchal strong fathers can help creating tipping points.
I want to close with a poem by Senna (pictured above), provided by World Poetry Day and 10×10:
You, father, who know my sadness,
my pain, you who understand what it is
to decay in a lifeless body, you
who gave me a blazing ray of light,
a hope, a dream…
you, father, who light this path of
my pain, take this meager longing
for your affection and make it into
the full realization of your love.
I love you, you know that I’ve said it
a thousand times, but only with poor verses
such as these can I love you now.
No, I will never forget.
– (La Rinconada, June, 2012)
translated by Marie Arana