Readers write: Gender equality in education is the smartest way to defeat extremism

Letters to the editor for the March 16, 2015 weekly magazine.

Courtesy of Alissa Everett
Sakena Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning to secretly teach girls. But later she found boys wanted to be educated too. 'Educated, wise women help their families financially and raise educated, wise children. Educated, wise men do not abuse women or children and recognize the worth and value of women and children,' she says.

Politics plays an important role in fanning the flames of extremism, but widespread poverty, high unemployment rates, and a lack of equal educational opportunities for girls are also important factors.

Many of the educational systems in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia follow a pattern of patriarchal and archaic educational systems that teach blind obedience to religion, hold tight to gender norms that devalue the role of women and minorities in society, and do not reflect social justice.

Educational systems need to ensure that all students – girls and boys – are learning “modern” skills that teach independent thinking, critical analysis, problem solving, rational behavior, questioning, discovery approaches, respect for minorities, and appreciation of social justice.

Young women and men who receive such education are transformed: They are more assertive, have more employment opportunities open to them, and thus play constructive roles in the social and economic decisions of their families and communities.

These freedoms are what extremists such as Boko Haram, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Islamic State seek to end. Empowered women who are independent and proactively engaged in bettering their lives and their families do not fit into the extremist agenda. Educated women are far less likely to accept subjugation and oppression or to blindly follow ruthless leaders.

Military action to defeat extremists is a short-term solution. The coalition of countries working to weaken and defeat Islamic State must pay attention to reforming the systems of education as a long-term solution to ensure that all students are equally exposed to principles of tolerance, gender equity, and basic human rights.

Girls and boys who are educated this way will then be able to transform new generations in every country into a constructive social power.

May Rihani is a former co-chair of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative and author of the autobiographical ‘Cultures Without Borders: From Beirut to Washington, D.C.

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