When I was asked to speak here today, I couldn’t believe it.
On paper, I’m not someone you would expect to be standing here in front of you all –in front of all these successful, intelligent and powerful people – to share my opinion on the power of education. My story begins in Tottenham – the daughter of two immigrants who had moved, like many, to the UK with the hope to make a better life for themselves and their children. Growing up, I saw my parents struggle to adapt to a new environment and to make ends meet – but for me, the biggest gift my parents ever gave me was to teach me the value of education. They gave me a voice and showed me it mattered. And I guess it is as a consequence of their values, that I have the privilege of standing here today.
I joined the teaching profession immediately after leaving University, following in the footsteps of both my brother and my sister, and returned to that same Tottenham where I had grown up, with the dream of teaching students with similar upbringings to my own. My interest in education was not purely academic – the meaning of giving these children an education was a lot broader than making them learn about Pythagoras’ theorem or Shakespeare. I wanted to teach these young people about the importance of evaluating life, analysing people, reflecting on experiences. I wanted to give them the skills to be able to question what they saw around them, formulate their own opinions and shape their own identity.
Education is the catalyst for change in society, and when I speak these words, I speak from three different voices:
First, I speak from the voice of a woman: in the current climate and with the inauguration of a brand new president of America, this voice is perhaps more important now than ever. As I stand here before you today, some people will have assumptions of my ability – because I’m a woman. They will think that a man will be able to do a job better than me – simply because of my gender. They will even pay a man more than they pay me. In fact, the Office for National Statistics figures show that the gender pay gap for workers in the UK currently stands at 18.1%. Hence the undeniable truth is that as women, we are immediately at a disadvantage. So how can we change this? How can we shatter these perceptions so when our daughters grow up, they are truly given equal opportunities and are treated with the equal respect and dignity that they deserve? Well, the more educated you are, the more keys you hold to open the doors of opportunity that would otherwise remain locked or closed. We have to work extra hard to take those higher positions, and our education needs to create such a solid foundation for us that no one can ever tell us we are reaching too high. I see so many young girls today turning away from education because they’re brought up in an era where a woman’s sexual self is often seen as her only form of power. Young women are becoming increasingly glamorised in the media, and young girls feel they have to make a choice between what kind of girl they want to be – the Malala or the Kylie Jenner. This ideology of women being either pretty or intelligent is not anything new – we read books in our childhood like ‘Matilda’, in which we were taught that women can “either choose looks, or choose books”. It is crucial that we do not discourage our girls from being able to love and embrace their femininity and also be feminists. The two are not mutually exclusive – it does not have to be a choice. Getting an education will empower these girls to disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them. I myself have had to prove myself time and time again to people who have tried to reduce me to nothing but blonde hair and high heels – and my saviour has been my education. No lashes, no lipstick and no louboutins will ever give you the power and respect that an education can. When I stand in a room with men I can stand tall – even if I am only 5 ft 2 – because I have confidence in my capabilities and a self believe in who I am and what I have to offer which cannot be diminished by the ignorance of others. As a woman, being educated means that my voice becomes amplified a little bit stronger. We will undoubtedly meet people in our lives who will say we can’t and will say we shouldn’t. They are wrong. Where would we have been if we didn’t have Rosa Parks, Mary Wallstuncraft, these inspirational women who fought prejudice to pursue their passions? By getting a good education, we can control our own destiny, as an education takes us out of the traditional bracket of being a mother, wife and caregiver, and opens up a world of possibilities that wasn’t there before.
Secondly, I also speak from the voice of an Asian woman: Being of Pakistani heritage, I know there are many social and cultural expectations that we face as Asian women that discourage us from becoming too educated or too independent. In many households, we are brought up knowing that our ultimate goal in life is to get married, and these ideologies put less importance on the education of our women. I know that a lot of people told my mum to put me on the shelf at 18, on ebay by 21… and now I’m past my expiry date at 27. So many girls, despite being bright, talented and full of potential, grow up searching for a rich, successful husband who can support and provide for them. But why don’t we teach our girls how to look after themselves? What happens if they don’t find that husband, if that husband leaves or if that husband needs support? A lack of education – and therefore financial independence – is a prime reason why so many Asian women are forced to stay in abusive marriages – because they have no way out, no way to support themselves. With education comes freedom and liberation – it is one less way that you can be controlled. There is nothing wrong with choosing to be a housewife, but that’s exactly what it should be – a choice. An education gives you that choice. Contrary to popular Asian belief, marrying a successful man does not make you successful. Success is not sexually transmitted. You need to get your own. And you need to work twice as hard for it. Being a woman of colour means it’s a double battle to prove yourself more than another, but an education ensures that you break down the wall and create a more even society, where we consider people not from a racial perspective but the perspective of what they have to offer. Our qualifications can speak against any prejudice and dispel any myths associated with our race – and they speak louder than we ever could. Your education represents you and says you’re hard working, you’re intelligent, you’re ambitious. Your education drowns out that voice of ignorance and silences all the critics who said it wasn’t possible.
Lastly, I speak from the voice of a Muslim woman – and I refuse to stifle this voice despite the growing hostilities we face. It is unfortunate that we are living in a world where Muslim women are under more scrutiny than ever before. Our own ex-Prime Minister once claimed that Muslim women are “traditionally submissive” – whatever that means. We have become stigmatised as women who are not permitted to have opinions or a voice. But where did this even come from? In the early days of Islam, the prophet’s wife, Hazrat Khadija, was his social superior – she was his boss. A wealthy tradeswoman, the richest woman in Mecca at the time, she employed several males to manage her large business, including her husband. She was the perfect example of what Muslim women were encouraged to be – educated, hugely successful and highly independent. Hazrat Aisha – the youngest wife of the prophet – was a scholar who exerted influence over men and women and provided them with inspiration and leadership. She can be seen as the hallmark of female education in Islam. Surely, as Muslim women, we should strive to continue this legacy and rewrite the narrative that is currently being written for us. Our religion does not encourage us to be weak and passive, but instead urges us to be knowledgeable and powerful. Without an education, we will not be able to challenge and defend ourselves against the stereotypes and pitfalls that we encounter on a daily basis.
Education is the greatest form of modern day alchemy, transforming the lives of ordinary women from all walks of life into something quite extraordinary. Education simultaneously improves the quality of life both of individuals and the wider society. A liberal education… frees people from the prison of their class, race, time, place, background, family, and even their nation. In turn, a lack of education leads to ignorance, divisive views and lack of social cohesion. It leads to racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice.
A lot of these problems and issues can be solved, not by picking up guns, but simply by picking up a book.
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