Shame, School and Our Girls

During my second year of teaching English to eighth graders in Boston, I found myself in a strange quandary. I was preparing for a meeting with the parents of one of my students; this was more to do with the student's progress and was required by the counselor. The student, a female of color who lived in low-income housing, was a newly-voracious reader and incredibly enthusiastic to talk about books and encourage her friends to read. I couldn't wait to tell her parents (whom I'd never met) about her progress.

"Don't tell her father about any of the books she is reading. Especially don't mention To Kill a Mockingbird. Try to change the subject if he asks," the weary counselor told me before the meeting. I froze, and asked why. She told me that her father, a devout Jehovah's Witness, had recently reappeared back on the scene, and had a history of vocally disapproving of most (all) books that his daughter read at school and for pleasure. This was the reason she had been slow to warm to reading in class, but with her father out of the picture for a while, she'd had a chance to really blossom. Now it was up to me to keep her secret, to allow her to read. It was strange to me to have to avoid telling her own father about how amazing his daughter was, but the school had already apparently made a tacit agreement within its walls to put its students' interests first.

The meeting went smoothly, but I never forgot it. I never forgot what it was like to lie to a parent so that his child could read. It was the beginning for me of understanding how hard it was for girls even in my own city to gain the education that was their right and that they deserved.

A few years later I moved to Tanzania to teach English in a small village near Iringa. One of my closest friends there, Maggie, was a Ugandan teacher who also had a small shop at the school with basic necessities. She was the teacher I'd always wanted to be: vivacious, knowledgeable, respected, indefatigable. We worked together grading essays while drinking Fantas from her shop, and she'd catch me up on the distinctions between different tribes. She told me about how Maasai girls (a very traditional tribe) were rare at the school and that they were usually years behind, education-wise, other students their age. She gave me a glimpse into the role of education in Tanzanian women and the power it could play. Maggie was a living example of this; her husband had found another woman and so they were divorcing, and they had two children. Maggie's job helped support her children; her sister lived with her to help. Teaching was one job that was accessible to most high school graduates; graduating high school, however, was a challenge in a country that required students pay fees (sometimes unaffordable) for school. It required a forward-thinking family to raise funds to pay for an education for daughters, who sometimes were seen as valuable when getting married and thus a way to obtain a bride price. Maggie was glad to see more female students over the years; she viewed that as progress for Tanzania. he meaning behind this was clear, too: what were the options for girls who couldn't afford high school?

It has long been known that many problems are solved when a population allows its women to be educated. The inverse is true, as well -- that many of our problems occur when we don't allow women to be educated. This is something that has taken the spotlight recently with the horrifying abduction of over 200 female students in Nigeria. In fact, there are two main ways societies use to hold women down: education and sexuality. The Boko Haran kidnapping of the Nigerian girls seems to employ both; they have stolen girls out of school (and in doing so, instill fear in parents throughout Nigeria of sending their daughters to school), and they are selling the women into marriage. There are fears of the women being raped; it gives me such a heavy heart. I hope these girls can be rescued, and I hope they can recover from such a tragedy. Human trafficking so often affects women, and this is a most brutal example.

Our own country has its own problems for women. We see women's reproductive rights challenged and taken away. We see school budgets slashed and low teacher pay and girls discouraged from pursuing STEM. We see no or little maternity leave; we see an increase in interventions in childbirth that leave women feeling powerless and our maternity health rate plummeting. We see an increasing rape culture and a double standard that shames women. Beyoncé, whose recent self-titled album was disparaged by many including Bill O'Reilly for its sexuality, is an example of how often minority women are the most victimized in this sense and how even successful women are not allowed to be in charge of their own sexual agency without (often white) men thinking they should comment and judge and try to change them. And still, still women are paid less than men for doing the same job! I fear often for my daughter, who is mixed race; I feel the responsibility to empower her in her education, her understanding of sexuality, to fight for her to have the same rights I've had. Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan recently gave an interview talking about her work promoting maternal and newborn health and rights. She discussed how we must allow contraceptive access and work to de-stigmatize abortion. Most pointedly, she said, "As a woman, if you do not control your body, you do not control your present and you do not control your future."

Investing in women is not a luxury; it is important for human rights, for progress, for a country's success. Extending women the dignity that is their human right should no longer be seen as something that can be cut off through budgets, sacrificed by radical conservatives, hijacked by terrorists. As Hillary Clinton once said, "What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish."

The myriad examples of the strength of women and their importance in communities are long documented. I got a glimpse of this when I moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and found out that my aunt had a friend, Dyan Larmey, living there. Over the years, Dyan has demonstrated to me grace under pressure, a loving heart and an adventurous spirit. She came to visit me in the hospital when I suddenly had to give birth to my daughter a few weeks early. She was a reminder, far from home, at the strength given in women's friendships, and how important it is we lift each other up. She shows this most through the program Karama, a non-profit in East Africa that builds economic independence in communities by empowering women. Karama Gifts uses local businesses and assists them in financing, designing and marketing their products. Karama, the Arabic word for dignity, is just one of many examples that shows how a commitment to educating and empowering women makes a big difference. Some of the women suffer from childbirth-related problems that are easily solved in the United States but not as easily reckoned with in East Africa. For example, many women who work with Karama suffer from fistula, a conditioned caused by childbirth that causes incontinence; it is common yet often undiagnosed in Tanzania. Some women, undiagnosed, are considered cursed and shamed; the surgery is expensive once diagnosed and Karama helps women work to afford the surgery. Other women who work as artisans are blind, deaf or otherwise disabled; there are few opportunities for disabled women in Tanzania and Karama presents the environment to become self-sustaining businesswomen. Living in East Africa helped instill a desire in me to always support women; it reminded me that we truly must help each other because none of us can do it alone. This desire to instill dignity reminds me of what Kofi Annan once said: "Whatever the very real benefits of investing in women, the most important fact remains- women themselves have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and fear."

I have certain hopes: that we will have more female politicians, like Hillary Clinton and Wendy Davis and Elizabeth Warren, who understand and promote women's issues. I hope that we won't be afraid of using the word feminism in a time when women's rights are under attack (by the way, if you enjoy wearing pants, driving, and voting as a woman, then you have benefited from feminism). I hope that education will be considered a right for all children but especially having women educated without fear for their lives. I hope that we can allow women to be in charge of their own bodies, including their sexuality, their access to contraceptives, and their family planning. I hope that women can receive equal pay, instead of even successful women (like the editor of the New York Times) being silenced if they seek equality. It is a testament to women that we live in a world where terrorists' biggest fear is a girl with a book. There is too much shame and anger directed towards women. As Maya Angelou once said, "Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but it has not solved one yet."