The horrific story of the 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped from their school dormitory by the Islamist group Boko Haram has understandably generated attention and outrage from around the world. In the US, first lady Michelle Obama took to the airwaves to give the weekly national presidential address and express her heartbreak at the kidnappings. As a mother of teenage girls, she expressed a special empathy with the trauma of the Nigerian schoolgirls’ parents: ‘In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters… We see their hopes, their dreams and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.’ Well-publicised statements from politicians have been backed by the global Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls and its accompanying celeb-led selfie protest of suitably distressed-looking people holding hand-written placards bearing the hashtag.
What’s been far less reported is the fact that in February this year Boko Haram, which in English roughly means ‘Western Education is Forbidden’, broke into another school and killed 59 boys. They reportedly sealed off exits from the school and then proceeded to open fire on the boys before eventually burning down the building. The #Don’tKillOurBoys tweets are far less numerous. There’s something about girls, and in particular the education of girls, that particularly arouses Western concern. This can be seen in the phenomenal global interest surrounding the schoolgirl and campaigner Malala Yousafzai, who was shot on her way to school in Pakistan. It’s an issue around which moral lines can be very clearly drawn. Michelle Obama expressed this well when she decried the kidnappings as an ‘unconscionable act’ of ‘grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls’.
Numerous Western-based charities have been set up specifically to build schools and promote the education of girls in countries throughout Africa and Asia. The Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) was established in 1993 and helps fund the education of girls in sub-Saharan Africa; in the same region, Plan UK provides money to keep girls in school and prevent forced marriages; Concern Worldwide and GlobalGiving fund schools for girls in Pakistan; and the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) has been working to help Afghan women and promote the education of girls since 1996. As someone who cares passionately about education, it may seem perverse for me to challenge the motives of these organisations. But important questions need to be asked about why they focus almost exclusively on the education of girls, rather than all children; and about what type of education they are promoting.
It seems that, for the most part, these charities care less about providing the money for girls to learn about literature, trigonometry or chemical formulae than they do about instigating social change. On its website, CAMFED lists the benefits to be reaped from sending girls to school, including: the reduction of family sizes; the prevention of the spread of AIDS; and tackling poverty. Other charities also suggest that educating girls leads to improved nutrition, better healthcare and more women entering the labour market and taking positions of leadership in society. This is not about educating girls in Malawi, Tanzania, Pakistan or Afghanistan for the sake of education; it’s education to bring about change in society. These are charities that exist to change the things that Western feminist campaigners don’t like about less developed, particularly Muslim, societies, such as arranged marriage, large families, or unequal distribution of resource and labour within the family unit. The assumption is these problems are caused by men and old-style masculinity and that educating girls will challenge male dominance and change society for the better.
It’s worth noting that feminist campaigners began shifting their attention away from education in the UK and on to the schooling of girls in parts of Africa and Asia at the very point that girls in Britain began academically out-performing boys at every level. Today, girls in the UK do better at school than boys, from Key Stage One (aged seven) through to most subjects at A-level. They even do better at university, with more girls getting 2.1 or first-class degrees than boys. Although, in some subjects, boys still get more of the very highest marks, this is a gap that is closing year on year. When concern is raised about the comparatively poor performance of boys, the standard feminist response is that disparities in educational attainment are only perceived to be a problem now that girls are on top, a hard-won accomplishment that balances out a long period of history when few saw boys performing better as in any way problematic.