Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Blog Against Sexism Day

Blog Against Sexism Day

In honor of International Women's Day it's also Blog Against Sexism Day and I thought I'd add my voice to the mix.

My recent Barbie musings, my attempts to raise a strong daughter and fair-minded sons--this is how I've thought of my feminism in recent years. But the following factoid from got me thinking:

Of 876 MILLION illiterate adults in the developing world, two-thirds are women.

Since I started teaching English as a second language, the vast majority of my students have been male. But I do get female students, perhaps one or two for every ten males. Many of them do, indeed, have tremendous literacy challenges. Many of them work outside the home, most cook and keep house for their families, and still they find the time to come to school, to study, to dream of the stability and security they never knew in their countries of birth. They know that education is the key to these dreams and I try to instill in them that it is also the key to their independence and power.

I've seen many of these strong young women over the years, their eyes bright with the excitement of grasping a new idea, of beginning to communicate and express themselves in their new language. Yasmin from Somalia has been one of the most memorable of these students. I had her sister in my class before I met her. Her sister was brilliant, a very quick learner, outgoing, and full of self confidence. Yasmin came to my class a few months later, so different from her sister. She was quiet and struggled persistently with learning English. Nothing came easily to her and there were no other Somali students in the class to help her out. She worked so hard and it broke my heart when she failed the final exam in December. Nonetheless she generously offered to decorate my hands, not holding it against me in the least that she had to repeat. I really felt I'd failed her and spent a lot of time thinking about how I could make things work for her in the coming term.

It's like night and day now. There's another Somali girl in the class along with a young woman from Ethiopia. They speak different languages, but having this female African presence in the class has changed things. They're an outgoing bunch all draped in colorful veils. They lend each other support and it brings me such pleasure to see them tucked in at their table, front and center in my classroom. They're all doing well, but Yasmin has really taken off and it's clear that she's taking great pride in beginning to grasp her new language. I'd begun to have such high hopes for her future.

A couple of weeks ago she announced to me, beaming like the moon, that she's pregnant. Of course I tried to express happiness for her but I knew what this meant for her education. The odds of her continuing on in school are slim. The odds of her mastering English are similarly slim. All her hard work, all her progress may fall by the wayside as she tends to her new baby and those that will surely come after. Her husband will learn his way around in English and she will be dependent on him for information, for money, for everything. I know it's wrong to apply my American values to people with other beliefs but it does sadden me that she'll have no more independence here than she had in Somalia. There is safety and material comfort which must mean a great deal to her, but I imagine her life as a woman will not be significantly different than if she hadn't come to the United States and I can't help but feel that's a shame.

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