“He was strong but I was stronger.” Yasmin. Egypt.
“Now there is nothing in the world to stop me. Nothing in the world. Nothing in the universe.” Mariama. Sierra Leone.
“What if a girl’s life could be more?” Azmera. Ethiopia.
Williams Yeats said it best: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Education is a fire that awakens individuals and ignites curiosity; it is the fire that threatens to burn down the structures of oppression that keep people silent. When people are armed with curiosity and knowledge there is nothing that will stop them from demanding their rights in society. That is why the idea of educating girls, for many, is dangerous. Educated girls become women who fight against patriarchal norms and practices that exclude them from political, economic and social spheres. Education nurtures resistance, and resistance is feared. This is the premise of Girl Rising.
Girl Rising is a documentary directed by Richard Robbins that explores the lives of nine girls in the developing world who fight to be educated. The documentary attempts to give us a glimpse into the unique stories of the girls who face poverty, forced labor, child marriage and violence. We are taken from Asia to the Caribbean to the African continent. The stories of Yasmin from Egypt, Mariama from Sierra Leone and Azmera from Ethiopia reveal some of the young African voices that can be obscured by the media. How many times do we listen to children and youth, especially girls? This is an opportunity to see what courage looks like!
Yasmin is called the Defender. “As a young Egyptian she falls prey to a violent attack but, rather than become a victim, she becomes a superhero.” It is left up to the discretion of viewers to imagine the violence she might have suffered but in a post-Mubarak period we know it was likely sexual assault. Nevertheless, what is powerful about Yasmin is that she refuses to see herself as a victim; she has a voice and she speaks fearlessly. This strength shows the potential of Yasmin to overcome struggle but when the police officer asks if she goes to school the answer is no. The mother goes on to ask the officer what will happen to Yasmin if no one wants to marry her because she has been ruined? You cannot fault the mother’s sentiments because in many parts of the world marriage is the only economic security girls and woman can have. What makes the problem worse is the failure of the legal system to address sexual assault. So what happens to Yasmin? Despite filmmaker’s efforts to enroll Yasmin in literacy classes, her mother considered her engagement to be a more viable investment in her future. The current whereabouts of Yasmin and her family are unknown.
Mariama is the Catalyst. Mariama is from Sierra Leone and the first in her family to attend school. As a vibrant teenager she has her own radio show because she loves to solve problems. She compares herself to Issac Newton in his ability to resolve what others find impossible. Yet, Mariama’s future is threatened when others begin to gossip about her being a radio host. People say: what young person does this? Who would allow this behavior? Mariama’s uncle bans her from the radio show but Mariama does not back down. She goes to her female relative and asks her to speak to her uncle who persuades him to allow Mariama to continue her passion. Mariama’s passion is larger than radio. It was about reaching out to others and touching lives. Mariama touched the life of a caller who didn’t know what to do about the physical abuse she was experiencing. Mariama’s return to radio allows her to rise as a voice for young women in Sierra Leone. “Under the supervision of one of the country’s leading female journalists, she is co-authoring a report on gender equality in Sierra Leone that she plans to self-distribute to schools. Mariama is in her junior year of Secondary school, and on track for University.”
Azmera is the Courageous. At the age of 13 Azmera is told that she must marry forgoing an education. Much to the shock of others she not only says no but her older brother defends Azmera’s decision to seek an education instead of marriage. Azmera’s family accepts her decision and she is allowed to remain in school. Azmera knows the value of an education in life, and one day plans to become a community leader who works against child marriage. She expresses the desire to become a teacher “in order to educate girls like me.”
The stories of Yasmin, Mariama and Azmera are stirring; they make us endlessly root for them and the future of girls across the globe. Their stories make us realize the sacrifices that individuals are willing to make to be educated, and how an education can change lives. I would recommend watching Girl Rising, but many issues and questions arise.
There is no doubt that education is one of the great equalizers in the fight against poverty and patriarchy, but education alone is not enough. If there is no opportunity for women to assert their political and economic status outside of the private sphere then women will continue to be oppressed. Additionally, the documentary does not offer a glimpse into the intersections between access to education and class. Class influences attitudes and practices towards educating girls. Furthermore, the lack of education is an expression of the greater inequalities that are more difficult to eradicate. Think of it like this: you can educate a girl but what do you do with the patriarchal, racist, and violent norms, behaviors and institutions that silence and physically harm girls and women? What do we do with countries that are experiencing tumultuous transitions like Egypt? What do we expect of nations who lack the resources to build schools and educate their people? What about the lack of rights that children possess? Their invisibility in general makes it hard to listen to their educational needs. These are very difficult questions to consider but something else is missing from Girl Rising.
The other major issue is that the documentary makes it seem that education is only a “problem” in the developing world. As an education organizer in New York City, I can say this is false! The issues I have seen as an organizer range from families that have no history of formal education and/or low levels of education, poverty and violence that prevent children from succeeding in their schooling, and segregated, under-resourced schools. In fact, NYC is the most segregated school system in the U.S. As a result, the educational outcomes of our children can be as dismal as those of children in other countries. Yes, we should acknowledge that not all children will experience “extreme” situations as those presented in the film, but why reinforce the idea of the “other” or saving “others?” Why fetishize Africa or the rest of the globe? Why can’t we recognize that education is a global problem that impacts all of us? Why not make connections between the child in NYC and the one in Egypt or Ethiopia? To the struggles we all face?
There is not just a girl rising in the developing world. There is a girl rising here. There is a girl rising anywhere there is a call for education. Support the voices and courage of Yasmin, Mariama and Azmera by standing with them wherever you are!