How Ayesha Begum inspires me
42 years ago, Ayesha Begum* was surrounded by women who completed tertiary-level education and contributed to the society in numerous ways. Naturally, she was inspired to have a life like that. However, her road towards education was mired with difficulties. Firstly, she was forced by local customs and her family to study medicine, an academic discipline which she was not comfortable with. It reflected in her grades as she failed exams one after another. Events of failure gnawed away at her confidence. Eventually, she dropped out of high school.
The solution to this internal barrier is to allow a woman to discover her interests and capabilities so that she could pursue a field of study or a career of her own choice. It was (and is still, to some extent) customary to venerate the study of medicine, undermining all other career choices. World Pulse weekly reading states: “Social and cultural barriers still exist, steering women away from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.” While I agree women should not be discouraged from STEM fields based on societal imaginary limitations of a woman’s interest and capacity, I feel it is more appropriate to emphasize on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) rather than STEM. Lisa Phillips discusses the benefits of such an emphasis in her book “The Artistic Edge: 7 Skills Children Need to Succeed in an Increasingly Right Brain World.”
Literature on Political Science suggests: “Leaders must be ready to accept changes and adopt adjustments.” Therefore, a woman must be trained to accept failures and to continue despite setbacks. Self-development training on anger management, self-esteem, and the likes, which is usually delivered by informal or private institutions in Bangladesh, must be increasingly made part of national curriculum.
Secondly, Ayesha Begum was held back by her husband. After marriage, she decided to complete her high school graduation, studying the unconventional Arts and Commerce subjects that she enjoyed. However, she was met with incessant emotional manipulations by her husband who asked her, sometimes harshly, to concentrate solely on her husband, in-laws, and children as is the social norm to this day. Ironically, Ayesha’s husband was probably not aware of the fact that “The education of parents is linked to their children’s educational attainment, and the mother’s education is usually more influential than the father’s. An educated mother’s greater influence in household negotiations may allow her to secure more resources for her children.” (UNFPA)
The traditional definition of marriage is flawed. Marriage is propagated as the conclusion, rather than an evolving plot, of a woman’s story. After all, what is the value of education when she will not be permitted to translate the education into a career, into tangible results that society could marvel at? In many cultures, it is a hard-and-fast rule for a woman to ask permission from (not consult with) male family members while making many of the major decisions of her life, for example pertaining to marriage and education, that will shape her fate.
The solutions to such societal barriers is for women to defy the odds, challenge the traditional definitions of marriage, achieve their dreams, set examples for others, and engage people globally in a discussion about the benefits of education. An even bolder step would be for women to resort to legal means. The marriage contract, instead of having provisions for dowry, must specify clearly that the woman’s rights to education must be protected. Breach of contract must be a punishable offence by law. Law enforcement must be stringent.
While Ayesha succumbed to marital pressures, her daughter (i.e. myself) is determined to challenge some of the age-old traditions that plague our society. Since childhood, I have witnessed my mother being an object of ridicule, ironically even by her husband, due to her incomplete education. She finds it difficult to communicate and adapt to an ever-changing world. She is hardly aware of women’s rights and chooses not to participate in the women’s empowerment movement.
Here is where my role begins. I am studying and will continue to study what I want and as much as I want. While it remains a taboo for women to travel alone or study abroad, I have attended an UNFPA conference in Bali alone and plan to pursue higher education abroad on merit-based and financial need-based scholarships. As a journalist, I am committed to bringing social issues, especially gender-based violence epidemic, at the forefront of media discussions. My mother now knows how to operate a mobile phone and knows some of the women’s rights, such as the right to protest.
* Name has been changed to protect her privacy