‘If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl you educate a nation.’ (Dr James Emmanuel Kwegyir-Aggrey (1875–1927), Ghanaian scholar)

On 10 October 2012 a Taliban assassin climbed into a school bus waiting to take children home and shot 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in the head and neck. Malala's ‘crime’ was that she had championed the cause of girls' education since 2009, when the Taliban and the Pakistan army clashed in the Swat Valley. Malala had received Pakistan's first National Peace Award from the Prime Minister. The Taliban called Malala's work ‘an obscenity’. Mercifully, Malala survived and has courageously vowed to continue her advocacy of education for girls.

Female education is associated worldwide with reductions in infant and childhood deaths.[1] A study of maternal education in 175 countries over 40 years found that child mortality fell by about 10% for every extra year a young woman spends in education.[1] Even a few months of primary school can make a difference. The authors estimated that 4.2 of the 8.2 million fewer deaths in children <5 years old from 1970 to 2009 could be attributed to increased female education. Educated women have smaller families, use antenatal care more and have improved knowledge about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, childhood nutrition, immunisation and hygiene. There is no doubt that educating girls and women benefits societies by improving infant and child health and survival.

Why do the Taliban view female education as such a threat that they are prepared to murder children to silence their advocacy? It is sometimes argued that educating girls is a waste of resources because most women leave the workforce temporarily or permanently to bear and raise children. However, the benefits of female education in developing countries exceed greatly the value of women in the workforce,[1] and the experience in Western countries is that women can bear children, raise them with or without male partners and still make major academic and professional contributions. Do men fear that an educated woman is more likely to stand up to them and subvert their position of authority in the home and in society? Are males scared of the alpha female?

The Taliban are not typical of Muslim attitudes. Furthermore, European society has no reason to be condescending about Muslim attitudes to female education. Education of girls and women in Europe was largely confined to nuns and children of the wealthy until less than 150 years ago. In the early 19th century in the UK, the feminist teacher and school owner Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first people to propose universal education of girls.[2] Tragically, Mary Wollstonecraft died in agony from puerperal sepsis giving birth to Mary Shelley. In 1816, at the age of 17, Mary Shelley wrote her famous melodrama Frankenstein, but she was educated at home by her father and women were not admitted to universities. Queen Victoria described education for women as another example of the ‘mad, wicked folly of women's rights’. In the 1860s, Emily Davies campaigned for higher education for women and in 1869 founded Girton College, the first women's college at Cambridge University. Simultaneously, her friend Elizabeth Garrett Anderson campaigned for women to be allowed to study medicine.[3]

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Literate young woman, Pompeii, first century (from

In contrast, there were opportunities for women to study in the Islamic world at least as early as the 12th century, although female education was not universal and was confined mainly to the children of learned, scholarly parents. The number of female scholars increased throughout the Middle Ages. Today, girls are less likely to receive primary, secondary and tertiary education and less likely to be literate than boys in many developing countries, but this is true in poor countries worldwide, not just Islamic countries.[4] While only 40% of Pakistani women are literate compared with 70% of men, in Bolivia the figures are 70% for women and 95% for men.[4] Presumably, when education is a scarce resource, it is felt in many poor countries that males are more likely to benefit. While the evidence shows such thinking is inherently faulty, the data suggest the gender inequality in education in some Muslim countries equates to poverty as much as gender discrimination. Only Muslim extremists like the Taliban oppose female education with such vehemence and violence.

Countries that educate girls and in which women are able to achieve political power are less likely to fight civil and international wars.[5] This may explain extremist opposition to female education. Extremists foment conflict. Female education promotes peace. Let us replace the taming of the shrew with the shaming of the few. The benefits of female education for infant and child health and for world peace emphasise the need for us all to advocate for primary, secondary and tertiary female education in our own countries and throughout the world.


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