Women religious opened school doors to girl students


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July 22, 2013

One must stand in awe at the courageous witness of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot in the head by two Taliban men in October 2011 as she rode the bus home from school. Malala had the audacity to write a diary about her educational experiences and, more to the point, publish that diary on the BBC's Urdu network.

That was too much for the Taliban and, when her identity became known, they tried to make her an example for other girls who might rebel against their subservient position in society. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Kai Moon summed up her situation: "When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book."

When Malala – after numerous surgeries – celebrated her 16th birthday by speaking to the UN youth assembly July 12, her voice and her call for education for girls was stronger than ever. "The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them," she said. "They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them."

She also chastised the Taliban for their narrow religiosity. "They think God is a tiny conservative being who would send girls to hell just because of going to school."

While in the West, we take the education of girls for granted, her story is a stark reminder that education threatens ossified social structures. An educated woman is more difficult to control and more likely to challenge societal expectations.

However, if things are different in the Western world, it is not in spite of our religion, but because of it. No group of organizations has done more over the course of world history to bring about the education of girls than Catholic women's religious orders.

These religious congregations – many formed for the precise purpose of running schools for girls – have made the education of girls and women so accepted in the Western world that today we recoil in disgust against movements that deny women an equal right to education.

Now, as many of those congregations rapidly diminish in numbers, their contribution is often forgotten. So too is the resistance that they overcame. Communities of women who made vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and, because of that sacrificial commitment, transformed society are now sometimes seen as archaic.

However, the position of women in Western society would be much different if not for the work of these sisters. It was not so much formal declarations of rights – although these are important too – that gave women something approaching equality in the West. Rather, it was the unglamorous work of religious orders over the course of centuries that opened doors for women that previously had been nailed shut.