Politics & Policy

Transforming The Muslim World

One girl at a time.

Since September 11, many people have come to believe that increasing the role of women is the most-powerful antidote to terrorism and political extremism. The most-effective, least-controversial strategy to accomplish that is to educate girls. Under the circumstances, it is easy to understand why interest has greatly increased in educating girls in Muslim countries.

It is hard to know much about education from official statistics because they are so unreliable. Official data show “enrollment,” which shows how many girls sign up, but then many don’t show up or drop out, leaving less than half the number shown to be enrolled. Official statistics sometimes fail to reflect even a school’s existence. Two years ago the Pakistan army discovered 5,000 “ghost schools” — schools that existed on paper and were financed by the government, but didn’t exist. Measurements of quality are even more problematic.

Education for girls varies widely among Muslim countries. On one side is of course Afghanistan under the Taliban, which prohibited girls from attending school and prohibited women from teaching. The only schools for girls under the Taliban were illegal home schools and schools in the refugee camps in Pakistan. The new government has announced a strong commitment to get girls back into school, but delivering on the commitment will almost certainly be more difficult than either the government or the international donors think.

On the positive side, surprisingly, is Iran, which has maintained a strong commitment to universal primary education since the fall of the shah. There are today more girls than boys in college in Iran. The commitment to educate girls is a major force animating the country’s highly organized women’s political movement, which is the heart of the President Mohamed Khatami’s political base and the principal force for democratic reform in Iran.

Other Muslim countries with good records educating girls are the Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Indonesia), and Malawi, Oman, and Nepal have shown strong recent progress. Finally, one should also note significant progress in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bangladesh, and even Saudi Arabia — among others.

Two countries that continue to have serious problems are Pakistan — the gender gap between boys and girls substantially increased between 1985 and 1995 — and India, which although not a “Muslim country,” has more Muslims in it than Pakistan. Although girls’ education has been a priority in every five-year plan since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, fewer than 30 percent of adult women are literate there today. The Musharraf government showed its commitment to reform by choosing as his first federal education minister the headmistress of a girls’ school (Zobeida Jalal). Yet producing actual change will be a real challenge.

What is the greatest barrier to educating girls in Muslim countries? What is the solution? While most people working on the issue believe that religion and culture present the greatest barriers and that government is the solution, there are good reasons for believing the opposite: that government is the barrier and culture the solution. Let me explain.

Shift away for the moment from barriers and problems, and look instead at what is working. The highest girls’ attendance rates in countries like Pakistan and Egypt are found in independent schools featuring strong parental (local cultural) participation. Programs like the UNICEF girls’ community schools in Upper Egypt and the Ammal Project in Northwest Pakistan — two places where Muslim fundamentalists are very strong — nevertheless get 90-100 percent girls’ attendance rates in many schools, compared to government-school rates of perhaps 25 percent.

These and other experiences show that when parents achieve a sense of participation and ownership in making schools work — when village and school are connected — the schools work better, and the parents feel better about keeping girls in school. Government schools, on the other hand, run bureaucratically, are “alien” so attendance of girls (and even boys) falls. (Anthropology explains what is important to traditional peoples more than economics.)

Involvement also opens parents to new experiences, which then begin to transform their traditional culture. Thus, many fathers involved in the UNICEF girls’ community schools around Asyut — the “epicenter of Islamic terrorism” in Egypt — now encourage their daughters to go to college in Cairo.

The most-powerful strategy for increasing girls’ schooling in Muslim countries is to reform government schools through parental ownership. While this may seem an impossible dream, both India and Pakistan now publicly embrace strong parental participation as crucial to reform failed government schools. (Political debate on this issue is both more intelligent and more honest in those countries than in the U.S.)

A model for reform exists in the south of India, in the state of Karnataka. It is called MAYA. Founded at the end of the seventies, it has been promoting parental participation in government schools for a couple of years. In that short time it has achieved so much, and at so little cost, that it is hard to avoid dreaming that this approach may well change the culture of government education in India and other countries.

MAYA challenges and recruits parents and communities to take ownership of their schools. The program begins with parents gathering information about each school. A village meeting follows to review the state of the school and the parents’ role. It ends with an agreement under which the village appoints an action committee, and MAYA agrees to help it reform its school.

The program is changing the culture of government schools, encouraging cooperation between parents, teachers, and bureaucrats. Teacher absenteeism is a huge problem in Indian government schools, and the program has introduced real accountability (more than 30 teachers have been dismissed for not showing up — since being absent is not a right claimed by India’s powerful teachers’ unions.) MAYA is teaching the parents how to get things from the bureaucracy, which is responding for the first time. But the parents are also organizing to improve the schools on their own: improving and fixing buildings, getting kids in school who are not enrolled, making sure kids go to school.

MAYA is on a course to work with every government school (K-12) in eight districts in Karnataka (population: 47 million), including two predominantly Muslim districts. This totals nearly 20,000 schools serving between three and four million children, at a one-time cost of about 6 cents per child over three years. The most-extraordinary thing about this program, which is largely privatizing Indian government schools, is that it is provoking no opposition.

Larger impacts are also becoming apparent. Since women are playing a major role in the village action committees, the committees are becoming a significant instrument for empowerment of adult women.

The action committees also appear to be creating a new political constituency supporting primary education. Even at this early stage the bureaucracy and state government are starting to respond to this constituency. The government has even started passing laws formally conferring powers on the parents that they have taken informally. One of the biggest problems for education in many developing countries is that primary education has no organized political constituency supporting it compared to very well organized constituencies supporting higher education. A World Bank study, for example, estimated that if India stopped subsidizing its money-losing public enterprises, it could increase spending on primary schools about 50 percent. One of the most important effects of this program, therefore, may be to stop the wasting of money protecting a handful of jobs and increase the country’s underfunded primary education budgets.

Getting girls in school in Muslim countries depends on reforming government schools by encouraging parental participation. The MAYA experience shows that encouraging ordinary people to take responsibility for their schools — take ownership of them — is the most-powerful way to reform public schools and increase girls’ enrollments. MAYA also shows this can be done with the support of government bureaucrats and powerful teachers’ unions alike. Time will tell the role this might play as a special front in the war on terrorism.

A. Lawrence Chickering is founder and president of Educate Girls Globally (EGG) and author of the forthcoming The Feminine Century: How Educating Girls Will Change the World.


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