Empowering Arab Women Through Literacy
Imagine walking down the same block every day for years — past cafes, markets and mosques. You see billboards. You see store awnings. You see road signs.
And you have no idea what they say.
In Jordan, Umm Ahmad had walked along the same streets every day for 30 years. When the photographer Laura Boushnak met her in a literacy class organized by a nongovernmental organization, Ms. Ahmad told her that as she learned to read and write, her daily routine took on new meaning.
Ms. Boushnak was seeking ideas for a project on the position of Arab women when she read a report suggesting that one of the reasons Arab countries are not developing as they should be is that women aren’t involved in the process. One of the obstacles, she said, was the lack of education.
“Without education, this region is going nowhere,” Ms. Boushnak said.
Her encounter with Ms. Ahmad became part of “I Read I Write,” a broad, continuing project about education and women in the Arab world, which Ms. Boushnak is chronicling on her blog. She began her research by focusing on illiteracy, but soon realized that she needed to broaden her topic to cover as many Arab countries as possible. In Jordan, despite high rates of school attendance in the lower grades, many girls drop out in their early teens. She has also visited Yemen, where she followed women who were the first in their families to get an education; Tunisia, where she photographed politically active university students; and Kuwait, where she explored educational reform.
But she started in Egypt, where nearly half of the female population is illiterate. “You can’t imagine how much their ability to start to read and write changed their life completely,” said Ms. Boushnak, who photographed literacy classes there. The classes, which are free for students and take place over nine months, focus on reading and writing, but also social skills.
“They are really working hard to have women know their rights,” Ms. Boushnak said.
Hoping to involve her subjects, she asked all of the women why they wanted to learn to read and write. They wrote their answers, often in grammatically incorrect Arabic, on their own images (Slide 7).
Their aspirations were not lofty; they simply wanted to be able to get around. Still, she said, they were honored to take part when she asked them to show her what they had learned. “They feel proud of what they have achieved,” she said.
Umm el-Saad, who was pregnant when they first met, smiled when Ms. Boushnak ask
The British Museum acquired her Egypt photos last year, and she has shows coming up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and in Hungary. She wants the work to be shown in galleries throughout the region — “to be a source of inspiration to other women,” she said — and she plans to add to the project, perhaps visiting Morocco and other countries.
Ms. Boushnak, who is based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is a member of the Rawiya collective, was born and raised in Kuwait. She attended public school there until Palestinians were no longer allowed to enroll in the public education system, and then switched to an diverse Arabic-language private school run by Catholic nuns.
Did she like studying as a child?
“No!” she said, laughing. “I hated school.”
Years later, she was curious to find out more about the country’s education system, having read that Kuwait was the top reformist country in the Arab world. She visited three schools — one of which is private and focused on educational reform — and noticed changes to the teaching methods even between her two visits in 2010 and 2011.
But across the board — in Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and even Kuwait — Ms. Boushnak said that teaching methods were still didactic. “The teacher is the source of information and authority and the student receives the information,” she said, noting that the issue was not confined to the Middle East.
Tunisia, where the position of women is much better than in most of the Arab world, is one of the more positive stories in the series. There, Ms. Boushnak said, she decided to focus on four secular, politically active university students.
“They’re the power of the country,” she said. “The young people are the source of change.” She asked them one question: What is the message you would send to your generation?
Ms. Boushnak spent three weeks in Tunis, following the women during their energetic daily lives. “They kind of gave me hope, you know?” she said.
By contrast, in Yemen — where only 27 percent of girls attend secondary school, according to a Unicef report — Ms. Boushnak decided to seek out women who were the first members of their families to go to college.
One of the woman she photographed, Fayza, was 8 years old when she married. A year later, she was divorced. At 14, her father made her marry another man; she became his third wife. They had three children, and by the time she was 18, she had divorced yet again.
Her sister persuaded her to return to school. She received a grant and began studying business last year.
“I tried to turn around the problem,” Ms. Boushnak said. “In Yemen, the problem of early marriage is evident there. So instead of saying, ‘This is what happens,’ I tried to say, ‘This is Fayza, who has such a harsh life, but she wants to change her life.’ ”
ed her how she liked the class. “She said, ‘Oh, my husband is threatening me to keep me at home,’ ” Ms. Boushnak recalled, “and I thought, ‘Oh, this must be one of those stories.’ ”
When Ms. Boushnak returned five months later, her subject, holding her new baby girl, giggled. As it turned out, the woman’s husband had realized that she had learned how to read his text messages.
Although “I Read I Write” is a story about problems — among them, cultural constraints and poverty — Ms. Boushnak didn’t want it to be solely negative. “I tried to focus on successful stories,” she said. “I tried to say, ‘When women are given the chance to be educated, this is what they’re capable of doing.’ ”