By Laura Boushnak:
Fayza, from Yemen, got married at the age of eight and was forced to drop out of school. Despite her poverty, social status as a divorced woman in a conservative society, and the opposition of her parents to her going back to school, Fayza, who is now 26, managed to receive a grant from an NGO to fund for her business studies at the university.
My encounter with Fayza became part of “I Read I Write”, a broad, continuing project about the importance of literacy in improving Arab women’s lives, and the barriers these women face in gaining access to education. From illiterate Sanaa in Egypt, who decided to learn how to read and write because she would get lost using public transportation, to Tunisian university student Shams, who is politically active and a key player in mobilizing her fellow students.
What prompted me to launch this on-going project is the fact that Arab countries collectively have one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world. As an Arab woman myself, who was raised, educated and worked in several Arab countries, I often wondered how we could make a difference in the area, especially in light of the protests and demonstrations sweeping the region. How do we affect change when fifty percent of the region’s human potential is often neglected? I saw this project as a way to focus attention on the importance of literacy as a means to enrich women’s lives. I began my research back in 2008 by focusing on illiteracy in Egypt, where nearly half of the female population is illiterate, but soon realized that I needed to broaden my topic to cover as many places as possible in the region, keeping in mind the difference among Arab countries due to economical and social factors.
In Jordan, despite high rates of elementary school attendance, many girls drop out in their early teens. I also visited Yemen, where I followed women who were the first in their families to get higher education. In Tunisia, I photographed politically active university students, and in Kuwait, I explored educational reform.
My idea was for the women I photographed to become active participants in the final photograph. Their hand-written words, which complement the images they are portrayed in, are a tribute to their success. They wrote ostensibly about their achievements and dreams. But their words served a purpose of bringing attention to the major barriers which stood in their way, most notably poverty and cultural constraints where many still believe that women are destined for marriage in order to protect their chastity. And that their role is solely in the home.
The Arab states are going through tremendous change, and my project aims to show that education benefits not only women, but also the entire society.
I see Fayza, and many women I worked with, as models of hope to anybody struggling to improve and control their fate.
Five Yemeni students sit on one bench at an elementary school in Sanaa, December 2012. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says access to education is one of the biggest challenges facing children in Yemen today, especially girls. Nearly half of primary school age girls do not go to school.
A teacher helps a student to get the right answer at a class in Sanaa, Yemen. More women are now being trained as teachers, because many parents, especially deeply religious ones, will only allow their daughters to be taught by women.
Wejdan, from Yemen, hopes that one day she will become a teacher.
Two Yemeni women decorate their classroom with colourful dresses they sewed at a centre, which provides women with literacy classes in Sanaa, Yemen, in December 2012. The majority of women in Yemen are fully covered with black
Shams from Tunisia wrote on her image: I learn to teach. I learn to arm myself. To instigate change in people and things that have created boundaries of thought. I resist, and resistance is female. I revolt, and the revolution is female. I write and send my words out from place to place. I close my eyes and leave the barbed wire behind me, and dream that I meet you standing next to me, resisting.
RashaBadr el-Din, 20 – I wanted to become a butcher, because people would have respected me with such a profession. The word ignorant hurts a lot but education has helped me to improve my life and gain more confidence. Each girl should have the right to education and if it’s difficult to achieve she should fight for it.
Rouba Hisham from Jordan, 16, wrote on her image: I left school and stayed home for one year. I would like to specialize in the hotel sector, but my father won’t let me, so I will study to become beautician and open a salon with my sister.
Khouloud, an engineering student, shouts slogans during the weekly demonstration in front of the Ministry of Interior asking for progress in the investigation of the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid. Tunisian women have enjoyed better legal and political position compared to their female counterpart in the region. Many secular freedoms were instituted such as access to higher education, the right to file for divorce, polygamy abolishment and legalizing abortion. Today their concern is to retain their rights under the leadership of the newly-elected Islamist party Ennahda, and how to deal with the vast changes their country, where the ‘Arab Spring’ first emerged, is going through.
Asma, a biological engineering student in Tunis and activist, reads a book at her favourite spot in her bedroom which is full of street-style graffiti. It reads, ‘The people want the fall of the regime’. Asma believes that revolution starts only when one rebels against the corrupt educational systems, which kills intellect, body and soul
Fayza, 25, is a university student from Yemen. Married at the age of eight, she was forced to drop out of school. She divorced after one year. At 14, she became the third wife of a 60-year-old man. After bearing three children, she divorced again at the age of 18. Her older sister convinced her to finish her education knowing that this would be her only way to improve her life. Despite her poverty, social status as a divorced woman in a conservative society, and the opposition of her parents to go back to school, Fayza managed to receive a grant from YERO NGO and she’s in her first year of business at the university. Her dream is to get a decent job and have financial stability to give her children a better life.
Watch Laura Boushnak in her TED talk here: