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Educating Girls: Personalizing the History of Women's Rights

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On my drive to work this morning, I heard a radio story that took my mind totally off the road. NPR reporter Quil Lawrence related that when the new Iraqi parliament convenes soon, 25 percent of its members will be women. A new Iraqi law mandates it. So in some districts where a man got the most votes, a woman will instead take the seat.

Some Iraqis are, well... not terribly thrilled about this. One female MP-to-be, Afaf Abdel-Razzak, would only talk to the reporter by phone. She has gone into hiding since the election, fearing she'll be targeted by Al Qaeda. She's a teacher, by the way -- and plans to promote education and women's rights while in office.

Waves of awe and admiration washed through me as I drove along. And I thought: What an important story for girls, right here in America, to hear. For the past few decades, we have grown up taking the benefits of our mothers' and grandmothers' fight for equality for granted. We need to hear about the fierce struggles still going on, and sense the courage of pioneers like Afaf Abdel-Razzak. We need to feel in our bones that justice is far from a given.

I considered the difference between my mom's life experience and mine. Although she was smart -- set her high school's record on the SAT and went to Radcliffe College at Harvard -- she never envisioned herself having a career. Her mother, also quite sharp, hadn't had one. It just wasn't done much in those days.

In her mid-20s, in the early 1970s, she saw how the world was changing and decided she needed a fallback plan. She went to law school. And except for two maternity leaves, she's been working ever since.

As a kid, it never even crossed my mind that I wouldn't have a career. I saw my mom go to work each day, grow in her profession, and advance. She did this even as a single mom, while buying the groceries, cooking dinner, and spending lots of time with my little brother and me. If she was stressed, she rarely showed it. Plus, she enjoyed her work in public-service law -- it demanded intellectual rigor, and it made the world a better place.

To my eye, this was just a normal woman's life. So I figured mine would be the same (minus the single-mom part, I hoped). At various points in my childhood, I wanted to be a novelist, a psychologist, and a cross-country mover.

The details of my aspirations changed, obviously. But what has never once wavered, not for a second, is my belief from day one that I could achieve what I wanted, and that I ought to be treated with respect wherever I go. And, blessedly, I have been.

Unlike my mom and her women friends, I never had to fight for that reality. I took it for granted. For girls growing up in America today, I would guess it's the same.

So, let's talk with them about people like Afaf Abdel-Razzak. Critical discussions about gender equality are important for boys, too. They have an essential role to play, and their understanding matters just as much.

We can ask: What about the men these Iraqi women politicians will be displacing? These guys won fair and square -- sort of. The long legacy of sexism probably skews the meaning of "fair." Should these men feel robbed? At least one of them, interviewed for the radio story, isn't angry about it. "I am a supporter for women in Iraq," he says.

We still have work to do for women's equality here in America (any Budweiser commercial will show you that). And, I would argue, we have a duty to support women -- and men -- pushing for equal rights in places where they have much further to go. All of that starts with taking a moment to stop, look around, and appreciate our freedom.

What do you think: should we do more to make this history real and present for our students? What are girls' and boys' expectations of their equality today? What suggestions do you have for colleagues for starting a discussion like this? Any other inspiring stories to share?

-- Grace Rubenstein, is a senior producer. To read more of Grace's work, click here.

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Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Grace,
What a terrific and timely post.
Sakena Yacoobi is an Afghan educator whose courage knows no bounds. During the time of the Taliban, she risked her life to operate underground schools in Afghanistan so that girls' education would not be interrupted. Today, she reaches some 350,000 girls and women (and also men and boys) annually through the Afghan Institute of Learning.
This comprehensive program includes basic literacy, health education, and accelerated learning for older girls who missed out on schooling during big chunks of their childhood. AIL also provides teacher training and classroom materials that emphasize critical thinking and student-centered learning.
I had the privilege of interviewing Sakena earlier this year, and can't find words to express my respect for the hard work she does. (There's a link to the story in Stanford Social Innovation Review here:
Thanks for bringing much-deserved attention to these gutsy women.

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Suzie, thanks for that great story! The need for this courageous work does indeed go on. If folks are interested in reaching out to women's organizations in the region, here's another one I know of: Women for Afghan Women (


Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

A friend of mine just pointed out this column that appeared in the Washington Post this year -- a strongly-worded call for why we need to fight for equality here at home, not only abroad.

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