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Education of women and socio-economic development, by Geeta Gandhi Kingdon:
Commentary

by Erin Murphy Graham and Felicity Rawlings

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 8
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1998
"Education of women and socio-economic development"
Author: Geeta Gandhi Kingdon
Publisher: Bahá'í Studies Review Volume 7, 1997
Commentary by: Erin Murphy Graham and Felicity Rawlings


"Education of women and socio-economic development," by Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, is a welcome and valuable contribution to the emergent Bahá'í analysis of female education. Kingdon draws on her extensive research in the field to support her central thesis: that the promotion of female education should be a priority concern of governments and organisations worldwide. Following introductory remarks which draw attention to the prominence given to female education in the Bahá'í teachings, she sketches an overview of the appalling status of women in the developing world.(1) The discussion then shifts to the substantial social and economic gains that female education can yield. Citing important studies undertaken in developing countries, she highlights its profound implications for, inter alia,reduced fertility and mortality rates. The second section of her paper examines some of the obstacles which often mitigate against the advancement of women: a narrowly defined gender division of labour, which prescribes a domestic role for women, and fiscal incentives to parents of educating sons - the traditional source of social security in old age. What is needed, Kingdon rightly asserts, is public education about the benefits of female education, government subsidies for girls' schooling, and a more equitable treatment of women in the labour market to improve economic returns to female education. Furthermore, she underscores the importance of the content of education.

While this paper provides a useful overview of the literature on female education, it has a few omissions. The first section of this commentary will discuss the World Declaration on Education for All. The second section will comment and elaborate on Kingdon's reference to the content of education.

The World Declaration on Education for All

Unfortunately, Kingdon makes no reference to the World Declaration on Education for All. This landmark declaration was adopted at the World Conference on Education for All, which took place in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990. The conference, which was attended by representatives from 155 governments, 20 intergovernmental bodies, and 150 non-governmental organizations has been hailed by Angela Little as "probably...the most important international educational event held in recent decades."(2) The Declaration expresses a worldwide consensus on the importance of universal access to education and as such is an unequivocal endorsement of the cardinal Bahá'í principle of universal education, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá affirms is a "universal law."(3)

Article (3) 1 of the Declaration pertains specifically to female education:

The most urgent priority is to ensure access to, and improve the quality of, education for girls and women, and to remove every obstacle that hampers their active participation. All gender stereotyping in education should be eliminated.(4)

Since the adoption of the Declaration in 1990, governments around the world have responded by implementing a range of initiatives, with varying degrees of success.5) The mid-decade review of progress towards Education for All has reported an increase in female enrolment from 226 million in 1990 to approximately 254 million in 1995. Literacy rates among women have increased marginally from 69 per cent in 1990 to 71 per cent in 1995.(6) While these improvements are less than spectacular (the number of female out-of-school children is almost three times that of boys),(7) they render the 1990 literacy and enrolment figures cited by Kingdon in Table 1 (41) out of date. The 1990 figures were extracted from the Human Development Report 1995. It is regretted that Kingdon did not consult a more recent edition of the Report (or another source).

The content of education

On page 47, Kingdon raises a pertinent issue: "Access to education per se is not sufficient; the content of that education is also important, as emphasized in the Bahá'í Writings." She then asks the question, "Could recognition that content of education is fundamentally important be the next stage in the convergence of secular and Bahá'í thinking?" It is unfortunate that Kingdon did not include any references to a growing field of literature in international education that addresses this question. Nelly Stromquist argues that traditional attempts to increase female education have focused more on the material needs and contributions of women than on the ideological and sociological forces that operate against them.(8) While the increased educational attainment of women is a positive trend, the full benefits of this education will not be realised until the underlying social and cultural attitudes towards women change. In Latin America, Stromquist's region of specialisation, gender disparities in formal education are quite small, however the social, economic, and political status of women remains marginal relative to men. Clearly, gender equality requires more than equity in the "quantity" of schooling made available to women.

Many studies conclude that schools, through curriculum and teacher attitudes, only reinforce and perpetuate the gender ideologies that are at the core of existing gender inequality. For instance, Cecilia Lopez and Molly Pollack argue that many existing educational programmes serve to reinforce existing power structures and gender stereotypes rather than to challenge them.(9) Education alone will not eliminate the underlying gender ideologies and material inequalities between men and women.(10) Rather, female educational strategies need to take account of these concerns in their design and implementation.

The worldwide Bahá'í community has a critical role to play in the "convergence of secular and Bahá'í thinking." From a Bahá'í perspective, the incorporation of gender equality into the curriculum and structure of education is a compulsory element of the spiritual component of education. Bahá'ís view education as a means to eliminate the underlying ideologies that marginalise women and other disadvantaged groups throughout the world. In sum, Bahá'í education shares important features with the type that Stromquist calls for; it is education that "improves the condition of women in and through education."(11)

Furthermore, the Bahá'í community offers a unique perspective in its advocacy of male participation in the promotion of gender equality.(12) Kingdon hints at this when she describes educating "people about the equity and efficiency benefits of female education" (48). In other words, both men and women must recognise the importance of female education. Hoda Mahmoudi argues that men have an even greater responsibility to promote gender equality than women, "by replacing ideals of dominance and aggression with attitudes of equality and cooperation."(13) 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in a talk delivered in Paris, declared that "When men own the equality of women, there will be no need for them [women] to struggle for their rights."(14) That is to say, when men begin to enjoy the benefits of a more gender-balanced world, their hostility towards the advancement of women will diminish. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, by making female equality a male as well as a female issue, shifts the burden of responsibility to a more balanced position. Men must do more than acquiesce to gender equality, rather they must actively promote it. If gender inequality is largely a product of male attitudes, then the transition to a more equitable world is also largely about male attitudes and participation.

In addition to emphasising male participation in promoting gender equality, the Bahá'í writings stress the need to feminise society. Moojan Momen argues that the Bahá'í goal of achieving the equality of men and women cannot be attained solely by the advancement in the status of women.(15) Instead, he advocates an intense and radical change to produce a more "feminine" society; a society described by 'Abdu'l-Bahá as "...an age in which the masculine and feminine elements in civilisation will be more evenly balanced."(16) The need to feminise society has also been recognised in women's studies literature. Elise Boulding argues that feminine values are essential if humanity is to survive.(17) Hence, a reorganisation and reformation of values in society is imperative.

The emphasis on partnership and harmony in the Bahá'í teachings suggests a new approach to gender related development issues throughout the world. Raising the status of women demands more than simply providing greater public provision and access. A fundamental transformation in the ideological forces under which gender relations currently operate is necessary to ensure greater socio-economic development and, ultimately, the establishment of world peace. "When all mankind shall receive the same opportunity of education and the equality of men and women will be realized, the foundations of war will be utterly destroyed."(18) These matters aside, Kingdon has produced a persuasive and eloquently argued paper which is sure to generate further constructive dialogue.

End Notes

  1. See page 40. It is regretted that Kingdon used an outdated reference as evidence. A secondary source dated 1991 was cited. The primary source, however, is from 1980: Report of the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women, Copenhagen, 1980, A/CONF.94/35.
  2. Angela Little, "The Jomtien Conference and the implementation of primary education projects," in A. Little, W. Hoppers and R. Gardner (eds.), Beyond Jomtien: Implementing Education for All (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994) 2.
  3. The exact quotation is "Universal education is a universal law" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982] 293).
  4. World Conference on Education for All, World Declaration on Education for All: our Framework for Action to Meet Basic Learning Needs, Jomtien, Thailand, 5-9 March 1990.
  5. Six successful initiatives are discussed in Little et al (see footnote 2).
  6. UNESCO, Education for All Overview article no. 24, 1996 p. 3 cited at UNESCO website: .
  7. Ibid.
  8. Nelly P. Stromquist, "Romancing the State: Gender and Power in Education," Comparative Education Review 39.4 (1995): 422-454.
  9. Cecilia Lopez and Molly Pollack, "The Incorporation of Women in Development Policies," CEPAL Review 39 (1989): 37-46.
  10. Stromquist, Romancing.
  11. Ibid., 440.
  12. For an engaging and comprehensive survey of the secondary Bahá'í literature on perspectives on women, see Trevor Finch, "Unclipping the Wings," The Bahá'í Studies Review 4.1 (1994): 9-26.
  13. Hoda Mahmoudi, "Shifting the Balance: The Responsibility of Men in Establishing the Equality of Women," in Toward the Most Great Justice: Elements of Justice in the New World Order. Ed. C. Lerche (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1996) 122.
  14. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1979) 163.
  15. Moojan Momen, "In all the Ways that Matter, Women Don't Count," The Bahá'í Studies Review 4.1 (1994): 37-46.
  16. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in J. Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 4th ed., 1970) 149.
  17. Elise Boulding, "Women's Movements and Social Transformations in the Twentieth Century," in Yoshikazu Sakamoto (ed.), The Changing Structure of World Politics (Boulder: Westview, 1988).
  18. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982) 175.
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