For some reason, Americans can’t believe Egyptian women are as well-educated as Egyptian men. In this quintessential Middle Eastern country, women attend primary and secondary schools at the same rate as men, and outscore them on international tests of math and science.
And if things in oppressive Egypt go as they have in almost every other Middle Eastern country, Egyptian universities will soon be considering whether they need to institute affirmative action for men. But the idea of a well-educated Middle Eastern woman simply does not jive with the American image of the socially backward Middle East.
Indeed, in every other part of life in Egypt, women are treated as inferiors. They are kept out of the job market, are not represented by the government and have trouble getting their cases heard in the judicial system. They are forced to dress extremely conservatively and their behavior, in and outside of the home, is heavily restricted. They are also subjected to institutionalized violence: In Egypt, 97 percent of all women have undergone genital mutilation, and honor killings still occur in rural areas.
Yet these same women now have access to the most fundamental force for combating injustice. The role of education in changing the course of lives, villages and entire countries has been captured skillfully and dramatically in the book “Half the Sky” by Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. The book documents stories of a simple secondary education, leading one impoverished girl after another to success.
Kristof and Wudunn talk about young women who build a school in her hometown, run for senate, open a hospital and start a successful corporation. Economists have captured the idea less glamorously in papers demonstrating the essential quality of schooling in the modern economy, where education is the single most important factor for growth.
Because they are so well educated, the oppression of women — half of the potential workforce — has never appeared so glaringly counterproductive. The coming-of-age generation in the Middle East today knows this well. They would much rather focus on creating jobs, reducing inequality and eliminating corruption than spend time squabbling over whether the person they love should be treated as their equal. Yet this story seems rarely told. Why else would people be so shocked when I tell them a girl born today in Cairo is more likely to attend college than a boy?
For one, we have a tendency to oversimplify. It is rare that I cite Ron Paul as the person with the most nuanced view on stage, but to hear him combat his fellow Republican candidates over invading Iran gives me faith in mankind. When Paul speaks of the Iranian people, he talks about their rights, as if those rights were exactly equal to the rights of Americans. He also talks of respecting Iranians as he would respect his own neighbors. Why shouldn’t Iran be allowed to pursue a nuclear program? After all, we have our own.
Somehow we forget the powerful role education has had in our own country. It was education that led to women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights Act, the rise of the middle class, as well as the spectacular wealth and prosperity we enjoy today. Americans are shocked to learn that Egyptian women are as well educated as the men because they can’t understand how such a strong marker for equality can exist in a society so well known for its inequality. Maybe some of us just aren’t as smart as we thought.