The contrast could not have been starker. On one day in August two glossy magazines showed up in my mailbox. One, the Barnard Magazine, showed three beautiful young women, elegantly dressed and beaming, holding champagne glasses and enjoying the festivities around their fifth reunion. The other, TIME, depicted a once equally beautiful woman, looking out from her head shawl and into the camera, revealing nothing. Her nose had been cut clean off—punishment by the Taliban, the article explained, for having fled her abusive in-laws. The woman, Aisha, was 18.
Today, at the turn of the twenty-first century, American women enjoy levels of access and equality that would have stunned their grandmothers. Roughly 54 percent of American women are formally employed, including those at the highest tiers of their profession: three justices of the Supreme Court; 92 members of Congress; 10 Nobel Prize winners in medicine; four presidents of Ivy League universities. Women currently account for 47 percent of the nation’s law school students and 28 percent of its doctors. Recently, women passed men even in PhD programs, where they now account for 52 percent of all students. Admittedly, women still lag behind men in crucial areas of American life. Women still earn, on average, only 78 cents for each dollar that a man makes and are woefully underrepresented at the highest levels of political power and on the boards of major corporations and institutions. Across the socioeconomic spectrum, women perform a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities and bear the brunt of domestic abuse.
In other parts of the globe, however, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, the fate of women remains far more treacherous. Young women like Aisha are treated essentially like chattel, sold into marriage and robbed virtually at birth of any rights or opportunities they might otherwise have. Recently, a 12-year-old Pakistani girl was killed by her domestic employer. A 13-year-old Somali girl was stoned to death for adultery after she reported being raped by three men. As our friend and colleague Jane Dammen McAuliffe, president of Bryn Mawr, recently wrote: “[I]n
the twenty-first century, women continue to suffer from systemic oppression and brutalization across the globe. Female fetuses are aborted simply for being female. Little girls are dying from lack of nutrition and medical care simply for being female. Adolescent girls and young women are forced into sexual slavery, subjected to genital mutilation, and murdered to save the family ‘honor.’ In some countries, women die in childbirth at rates that rival those in the Middle Ages.”
She is right, and it’s no coincidence, therefore, that Bryn Mawr and Barnard have both recently expanded their efforts to educate women, not only at home, but around the world as well. Bryn Mawr recently hosted a conference to explore the role of women’s colleges in improving the lives of women worldwide. At Barnard, we have grown our Visiting International Student Program (VISP) initiative to bring young women (from China, Korea, Europe, and this year, Australia, South Africa, and Ghana) to campus for a full semester, allowing them to receive the kind of liberal arts education that is either nonexistent or prohibitively expensive in their home countries. We are meeting with delegations of educators from China, Iraq, Malaysia, and Russia, sharing our faculty’s wisdom about building curricula that will inspire young minds. And we have launched an ambitious series of global symposia, which will continue this March in Johannesburg, focusing on the powerful voices of Africa’s women and including for the first time a dedicated session for local high school girls.
Since her story appeared on the cover of TIME, Aisha has left Afghanistan to undergo reconstructive surgery in the United States. Her plight has attracted sympathy from women—and men—around the world, and her future, ironically perhaps, has grown brighter. But she leaves thousands of sisters behind her, invisible women, powerless women, whose faces and fates will never grace the cover of a magazine, and whose lives will be constrained and condemned by the sheer fact of having been born female.
In the long run—and not discounting the vagaries of war and religion and geopolitical shifts—the only real hope for these women is education; education that will teach them to read and to write; to believe in their abilities and to seize their dreams. At Barnard, as at Bryn Mawr and our other sister schools, we know this to be true. Educate women and you shape society. Educate women and you change the world.