My Mother and My Heroes Were Muslim Women Who Supported Education for Girls

Nigerian women living in Kenya demonstrate to press for the release of Nigerian school girls kidnapped in nothern Nigeria by
Nigerian women living in Kenya demonstrate to press for the release of Nigerian school girls kidnapped in nothern Nigeria by members of the Boko Haram, on May 16, 2014 in Nairobi. The '#bringbackourgirls' slogan has become a huge global phenomenon following the abductions, albeit controversial, as world and opinion leaders get involved under its banner on social media to aggitate for the release of the girl-students by the islamist militants who continued their rampage by razing two schools in Bauchi state, northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram gunmen previously attacked a girls' school. AFP PHOTO/Tony KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Every morning of my childhood, as the sun flirted with the horizon, my mother, Amine Demir, rose to milk our goat and collect eggs from our hens.

She fed us yogurt, cheese, butter and buttermilk from that goat, but every other day she took whatever the goat and hens produced to sell at market to pay school fees for me, my two sisters and my three brothers.

She was illiterate, but full of wisdom. She knew that the only way to give us a brighter future was to educate all of her children, boys and girls.

Thanks to my mother's hard work, I have been able to gain advanced degrees and now run an international charity that reaches out to poor families much like the one I grew up in. Thanks to my mother's example my four daughters are all in school or serving their communities as educated professionals.

My daughters have so much to offer as professionals, as community members, and someday as mothers, that the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls more than three weeks ago by the militant group Boko Haram fills my heart with a mix of dread and rage.

I am encouraged that the U.S. has deployed a team to help recover the girls, but as days pass, I know they are living through hell. They are away from home, held captive and suffering through the assaults and indignities we politely call sexual slavery.

This criminal act, along with similar crimes that have gone on for years -- the trafficking of girls, burning down girls' schools, terrorizing families into keeping their daughters home -- is truly an abomination.

When I think about how hard my mother worked to send me and my siblings to school, I know that these girls' mothers are working just as hard. I know it! Whether they have been to school or not, mothers know how essential education is for their daughters.

These Nigerian mothers and fathers who are missing their daughters so keenly right now are following in the tradition of the great Nana Asma'u, a poet, scholar and teacher who was a princess of the Sokoto Caliphate, which makes up part of modern-day Nigeria.

An advocate for universal education, Nana Asma'u was fluent in four languages, the author of scores of books and organizer of a sisterhood of female teachers who taught girls and women in their homes.

Nana Asma'u has been a role model for me since I entered adulthood and pursued my education, and remained a sort of guiding star as I started a family and entered humanitarian work. She understood what the development world has found to be true: educating girls is an investment with fantastic returns for individuals, communities and countries. UNESCO has shown that children born to literate mothers are 50 percent more likely to survive to age five. Girls who stay in school marry later and have smaller families, according to the U.N., which calls girls' education a "lifeline to development."

UNICEF even offers a hint as to why militants might want to steal and enslave these girls before they can realize their full potential: "Offering girls basic education is one sure way of giving them much greater power -- of enabling them to make genuine choices over the kinds of lives they wish to lead."

These girls deserve to have power over their own lives.

Instead, Boko Haram wants to control them, and it claims that the religion of Islam supports this agenda. But in reality the relationship between women and education was forged even before Nana Asma'u's brilliance illuminated what is now Nigeria. In Islam's earliest days, Aisha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, became one of the central scholars and teachers of Islam after his death and educated numerous men and women, many of whom traveled long distances to learn from her.

Like Aisha and Nana Asma'u these girls deserve the chance to learn, prosper and share their gifts with the world. These schoolgirls who have been stolen and subjected to horrible atrocities are our little sisters. They are tomorrow's leaders, tomorrow's teachers, tomorrow's doctors and yes, they are tomorrow's mothers.

And so we must defend their right to learn, grow and flourish in safety. To comfort their mothers and defend our global tomorrow, girls must be allowed to go to school.

Khalil Demir is the executive director of the Zakat Foundation of America