ARE ARAB WOMEN THE KEY TO MODERNIZING ISLAM ?
The Chicago Tribune today has a provocative story on a program that uses education as a tool to break the cycle of child-marriage, female ignorance and backward village obscurantism
that plagues the rural parts of the Muslim world.
"School suddenly crystallized, in their words, as salvation. "No one ever explained reproduction before," said Nora Abdullah, now 18. "Women are just expected to have babies. . . . Then they have all these children and they have to marry them off to get rid of the burden."I would've been married without this class," she said, in Arabic. "We all would have. . . . There are still parents who want to get us married."
Child marriage exists almost everywhere in the world, but slums and rural areas of developing countries produce some of the most luckless young brides. Daquf's girls were part of a fresh and holistic approach to changing possibilities and expectations of adolescent girls and their families in rural Egypt.The web of programs launched in 2001--based in literacy, sports, life skills education and family seminars--is being examined as a possible model for the rest of Egypt and other troubled spots to ensure that childhood doesn't end in forced marriage.
In many countries, social workers have combated child marriage through education programs. India, for instance, has focused on keeping girls in school with the idea that a one- or two-year delay in marriage has a positive effect on their health.
Still, even with a broad government effort, girls often do not find support within their families to remain in school. Unless families and communities are pulled in to help preserve a girl's childhood, there are powerful religious, cultural and economic forces that can overwhelm any girl.
"We're talking about married girls, not married women," said Judith Bruce, a program director at the Population Council, an international policy research group. "When you consider the health consequences and the human cost, this is probably the largest human-rights abuse you could name."
Girls wed as young as 7 have little say in when or whom they marry. Deemed women once they are made wives, the girls no longer, if they ever did, attend school. They rarely have access to contraception. More to the point, they usually have no inkling of why they might want contraceptives anyway. A good wife should give birth in the first year of marriage, and, often married to older men, the girls must succumb to all sexual demands."
The story reminded me like nothing so much as the recollections of former American slaves in Reconstruction America who explained the vistas that opened to them by learning to read. With a fair portion of half of their total population kept ignorant and devalued - far beyond anything required even under the Sharia's regulations - the Arab world cannot but help suffer an enormous economic drag.
Furthermore, in such oppressive circumstances, where often even men cannot speak completely freely without anxiety of government or religious vigilantee persecution, politics will tend to be dominated by the angrier and most aggressive voices. Islamist voices.
The Arab world could use a conservative dose of liberal thought - schooling for both sexes, microloan programs for village-level, female-owned businesses, progress toward universal literacy - given the demographic tilt toward youth in many Arab states the results from relatively modest but consistent efforts could be an explosive leap toward modernity within a generation.