21 June 2018
This week I have had the pleasure of attending the bi-ennial conference of global education. Women leaders across the world highlighting what they have been doing to inspire, motivate and encourage girls to lead fulfilling lives, empowering them through education. I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, the desire and the excitement to help girls succeed. How do I capture this energy in a blog?
The conference opened featuring a conversation with Azar Nafisi – an Iranian American writer who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi taught English literature at Tehran University, but struggled against the implementation of the revolution’s ideas and procedures. In 1995, in disagreement with faculty authorities, she quit teaching at the university, and instead invited seven of her female students to attend regular meetings at her house, every Thursday morning. They studied literary works -including some considered controversial in post-revolutionary Iranian society- such as Lolita and Madame Bovary. She also taught novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen, attempting to understand and interpret them from a modern Iranian perspective. If you have not read the book then I highly recommend it.
In the audience we felt privileged to be listening to her voice. She highlighted to all of us the importance of choice. No Government, no religion has the right to tell a woman how to worship, how to dress and if millions of girls refuse to comply then there is little a state can do. It is this collective strength that makes regimes nervous. She quoted James Baldwin in saying that “authors are here to disturb the peace” and because novels give characters voices that have to be listened to, it makes novels democratic, which is perhaps why they are often banned in repressed regimes.
She highlighted that victims in realising they have power when they use their voices can turn victimhood around. But having a voice does not give people the right not to listen. And it is therefore our role as educators to give pupils both voices but most importantly ears with which to listen.
We should be challenging students to question knowledge, not to be imprisoned by the knowledge of specialists, and give them the courage to speak out. These messages resonated over and over again at the conference. I have felt empowered, enlightened and proud to be part of a collective, a collective whose sole ambition is to ensure that the pupils we teach have a purpose. A collective who want our pupils to have principles and a collective who want our pupils to have the courage to live by these principles. The stories around the world are not dissimilar and it has been humbling to be part of an inspirational group sharing this narrative.
To capture it in one blog is a disservice – more will to follow!
Jo MacKenzie, Headmistress, Bedford Girls’ School