Today on Human Rights Day when Malala Yusafzai is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize it is important to remember that it wasn’t that long ago when in Europe and the US women were denied education.
In the introduction to his book Equality for Some: The Story of Girls’ Education, Barry Turner states: “The female intellect is a recent educational discovery. Traditionally Western civilization has distrusted and discouraged clever women, initially because they were regarded as a threat to the spiritual well-being of the community.”
Recently at a conference devoted to the influences of the Old Testament on Hebrew literature, a speaker discussed Lot’s wife (Genesis 19, 26) as a source of poetic inspiration. In Hebrew that dramatic story is summed up in 6 short words: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
I have been so used to these words that their actual meaning was almost lost. But rexamining the sentence I thought about the danger of curiosity and the high price of the desire to learn.
We learnt in school that Lot’s wife was punished because she disobeyed God. Yet, in Genesis 19, 17 God says to Lot: “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee.” There is nothing in the text about Lot’s responsibility to warn his family not to ldo so as well. Moreover, although God talks only to Lot, he is not held accountable for the actions of his wife, and she is the only one who is punished.
It is intriguing that the Bible states that the wife (who remains nameless) looks “behind him,” and not behind her. It seems that Lot is very much part of the action.
Curious, eager to learn, and independent: those have always been the qualities of women in pursuit of knowledge and education. They fought to advance themselves in their societies and strived to contribute to their communities. But those were also the exact reasons why Paternalistic societies have regarded education as dangerous.
Only now I suddenly recognize the source of and the justification for the zeal and conviction of those men who made sure that education would not be available to women. From the account of the Fall we understand that knowledge is synonymous with disobedience. But in the case of Adam and Eve they were both punished. I never before had traced the beginning of male oppression to the unjust act of God, who punished a woman for a non-sin, in Genesis 19.
It wasn’t thank to God of Genesis 19 that Western women won their battle for education, they did it all on their own.
But in other parts of the world, women and girls are not so fortunate, a good example is the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda. It tells the story of a bright girl who is determined to win money to buy a bicycle she’s forbidden to ride. She hopes to accomplish this feat by winning a Koran competition. Learning, she trusts, would bring about independence and freedom of mobility. But when she honestly and naively admits that she intends to do with the money, she doesn’t get the prize.
Riding a bicycle has been a feminist symbol of self reliance since Victorian time: at that time the safety bicycle became available for skirted women. While bicycle gave them physical independence, education had given them some measure of mental independence and self control.
Wadjda is not different from the hundreds of school girls who were kidnapped last April from the Girls Secondary School in Nigeria. In the name of God, His male executors on earth have taken upon themselves the mission to eradicate education from their country.
In the Biblical story Lot moved on leaving his wife behind, we could no longer afford to do so. Hopefully Malala’s Nobel Prize today means something more than a ceremonial act and will bring about real change.