After a horrific and  massive assault on a university in Pakistan, some scholars responded with alarm that the Taliban seem to increasingly be targeting schools, with a dramatic spike in the number of attacks in recent years. 

Shenila Khoja-Moolji, a research fellow at Columbia University’s Teachers College and an education affiliate at the Harvard Divinity School, looks at the most recent news through a particular prism: She is an expert in gender and education with a focus on South Asia and immigrant diasporas. In this commentary, she writes about why girls’ education is such a lightning rod, both for those wanting to help and those wanting to destroy — and how a better understanding of the complexities there could further global education goals. 

By Shenila Khoja-Moolji

Why do groups as different as the Taliban, Boko Haram, the White House’s “Let Girls Learn” and the Nike Foundation’s “Girl Effect” converge on the issue of girls’ education? What makes girls’ education an ideal site of investment, advocacy — or attacks — for them?

Girls’ education has historically been a way in which populations have been marked as civilized/uncivilized and modern/backward. This has especially been the case in relation to Muslims.

For instance, British colonial officers often used the tropes of the ‘uneducated Muslim’ and ‘secluded Muslim woman’ to legitimize their authority and establish the superiority of their cultural values.

Local practices, such as the purdah (veiling) and early marriage were frequently highlighted to signal the degraded condition of Indian Muslims, evidence that worked well within missionary and rescue narratives.

Furthermore, historians of South Asia have argued that British women often employed the plight of Indian women to advance their own social positions in Britain and gain valuable work opportunities in India. All this had the effect of ‘othering’ the Indian Muslim woman – positioning her as silent, victimized, and in need of rescue.

This has continued to the present day, albeit in a different form. Consider how Malala Yousafzai, now a Nobel laureate, is typically seen in the West.

Malala is made to tell a particular story about people in the global South, generally, and Pakistan, specifically.

She is represented as the girl who defied the culture in Pakistan, and who now embodies a transnational, secular modernity exemplified by her emphasis on independence, choice, advocacy for freedom, and arguments for gender equality.

Instead of being a symbol of the courage of Muslims and Pakistanis to stand up against local forms of violence, Malala is presented as an exception.

This narrative of Malala sustains the façade of Islam as an oppressive religion and Muslims as embroiled in pre-modern sensibilities.

Transnational girls’ education campaigns, such as the Nike Foundation’s “Girl Effect” and the White House’s “Let Girls Learn,” similarly paint a picture of black and brown populations as pre-modern, and still not educating girls. They call on the feminist sensibilities of benevolent citizens to save their Muslim sisters.

Such formulations, however, not only re-articulate the binary of victim/heroine, but also abstract education from a complex web of issues such as state corruption, the hollowed-out welfare system, and lack of access to jobs, among others.

In the case of Pakistan, for instance, research shows that girls are in school; in fact, there are more girls in higher education than boys!

Girls’ education – or, lack thereof – thus, has become a way in which Western institutions have established their own superiority and, simultaneously, the inferiority of Islam and Muslims, deeming interventions necessary and even ethically imperative.

In the context of these deep and emotional attachments to girls and education, girls who advocate for education (like Malala) and the school infrastructure itself have become prominent targets for extremists as a means to express their anti-West, anti-United States and anti-Pakistan sentiments.

It enables them to strike at the heart of what liberal global North deems as its most prized project.

Importantly, the extremists represent their attacks as a continuation of their fight against what they perceive to be colonial and foreign influence – mass schooling in Pakistan being a legacy of the British colonizers who displaced local, indigenous traditions and systems of learning.

This is a serious critique that we must take into account if we hope to curb this war on education.

It is time, therefore, that we scrutinize the loud debate over girls’ education and dislodge the monopoly of Western perspective on it, thereby making it a less potent site for extremists.

A critical way in which we can further both these ends is by recognizing the long traditions of learning that are indigenous to Muslims and Pakistan, attending to the areas and systems of support identified by girls themselves, as well as supporting organizations such as the Aga Khan Development Network, which ground their efforts in their Muslim ethics and seek to improve the quality of life of populations in Pakistan (and beyond).

Doing so will not only allow us to further our efforts for global education, but make space for alternative traditions and recognize humanity’s many histories.