Panel Discusses Girls’ Education in the Middle East

Scholars and students gathered to discuss the problems associated with women’s education and economic involvement in the Middle East at a panel discussion last night, noting that female education rates in Iraq are the lowest they have been in a decade.

While macro-economic stability and food security have improved in Iraq during recent years, civil unrest is high, according to panelist Shoubo R. Jalal, who is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

“We are talking about a country in conflict, she said. “We still have violence, political instability, and mass demonstrations,” Jalal said.

Tensions have proven to be devastating for the state of women’s education. Between 1990 and 2002, there was a radical decline in the number of women enrolled in Iraqi schools, according to Jalal. At the same time, increasing costs and a lower value of education severely handicapped efforts to expand female education, she said.

While rising tuition costs have made it more difficult for all children to have access to education, families tend to prioritize the education of males over females, leading to a large gender gap in enrollment. In 2006, roughly 800,000 children were not attending primary school—and 74 percent of them were girls, according to Jalal.

In Afghanistan a country plagued by the world’s second highest maternal mortality rate and where over half of all young women are married by the age of 18, “education is the key to [female] empowerment,” said panelist Catherine A. Rielly. Rielly is president of Rubia, Inc., an organization dedicated to empowering women in Afghanistan by allowing them the opportunity to embroider clothing and trade their goods to the West for profit.

“Especially as they get older, there is a great social stigma for girls attending school due to the importance of early marriage,” Rielly said. Furthermore, women’s confinement to the domestic sphere can make attending school and finishing required housework altogether impossible, she added.

Rielly noted that women are not only excluded from education, but also often isolated from the nation’s economy.

But Rielly said that organizations like her own, which supports cottage industry, can help women become more economically independent.

“The activities are based at home and they are not required to change their lifestyles,” Rielly explained.

“Their husbands don’t feel threatened,” she added.

By allowing men to play an active role in the production and distribution of the embroidery, Rubia is gradually making the economic inclusion of Afghani women more readily accepted within these predominately patriarchal communities, Rielly said.

“We’ve helped them have access to markets in the West for the first time,” she said. “Many women have money in their pocket and are respected by their communities.”