I’ve been in Egypt for 6 months working on a girls’ education project. Some things here are dramatically different for girls than they are in Sub-Saharan Africa where most of my experience working in girls’ education has been. But there are still cross-cutting themes the girls here face in their struggle to go to school, to leverage a better life for themselves and their families.
I recently visited a very remote village in the Qena governorate among the Hawara group. From what my translator told me they have a reputation as very resistant to change and fierce warriors in battle. I was allowed to visit with the mothers and out-of-school girls in the principal’s clan–unveiled and without a male family member to censor what I said and what I did when I was with them. As insignificant as this might seem to most of us–within their world this is no small thing and signals there are changes underway.
But I can see why the Hawara have a reputation–at least among the men–that change is their enemy. In my talks with them I can see the resistance in their eyes and their attitude signals how little they care for what I have to share about the benefits of educating their daughters. Indeed, they tell me they don’t care what I have to share about the progress that’s been made in other parts of the world—that it’s not relevant to their lives. And when I tell them the Koran encourages girls to be educated equally to boys they tell me they don’t care what the Koran says—their culture and their honor dictates their decision to keep their daughters at home.
And almost in an effort to balance out the men’s defiance is the weight of the women and girls’ submission. As I listen to the girls and women share their frustrations and struggles to get an education and to leverage even tiny changes in the way they live their daily lives their voices tug at my heart. And to hear them share stories about their daily lives locked behind the giant gates of their family enclave where only the men and boys from their family can see their faces I realize I am visiting a different world in a different century.
One girl in particular captures my attention. At 15 years old she is already engaged to be married. Her eyes flash as she shares her struggle to go to school and her ultimate goal to become a doctor. Her voice is fiery with passion, her spirit full of hope almost bordering on defiance. I watch her mother who is sitting beside me intently listening to her daughter speak. I can see the pride in her mother’s eyes. But is mingled with a touch of sadness that comes from a lifetime of disappointment and lost opportunity. I urge her mother–widowed with one small son and struggling to care for another teenage daughter suffering from a severe hearing loss–to find a way to help her daughter continue her studies to do something–anything to allow her to pursue her dream.
But culture and poverty are stern masters. Even I know that. These unrelenting task masters have already forced the mother to take her son out of school so he could work the fields and put food in their stomachs. And disability has damned her second daughter to a lifetime of illiteracy. But it is culture and the men’s fear of losing power and authority that has dashed her oldest daughter’s dreams to pursue an education that would take her out of her gated community and away from her village.
As our car makes the long trek back to the office I ponder just how long it will take for her daughter’s eyes to shine less brightly when she speaks of her future, how long it will be before her daughter’s dreams will die just as her died long before her daughter was born, how long it will be before her daughter holds her own little girl on her lap weaving dreams of a future that may never come.
I know that change comes slowly. I know that change is hard. And I know that change comes at a price. But I also know that the failure to embrace change is a cost that no village can afford. And so I hope that maybe tomorrow things will be different. Maybe my talks with the out-of-school girls at the next village will hold out hope. Maybe at the next village there will be a girl who will walk though the gates of her family’s clan to leave her village and become a doctor. Maybe tomorrow holds that hope. Insha’Allah.