I am proposing to research global women and girls’ education because I want to find out how valid and useful it is to characterize women and girls striving for education as “disempowered” and to what extent this characterization helps or hinders their progress. I want to help my reader understand empowerment as it is currently used in the context of female education and development and to examine who defines the term and for what purpose. My research interests lie within women and girls education because I believe that education systems are complex places of intersection where culture, gender, ideology, and development are contested and negotiated. Therefore, identifying and weighing these complexities is essential to developing an educational system that will truly benefit its users.
In academic development discourse, education and empowerment are interrelated concepts which help construct one another. Though the concept of empowerment is often ambiguous, it is generally associated with the economic or social betterment of a marginalized group – in this case women in developing countries. While empowerment is a constructed idea, most scholars recognize that it involves access to resources and the presence of personal autonomy, agency, and independence. Some scholars view education as the primary means through which empowerment is brought about. Others assert that education is just one of the many dimensions of empowerment that must be in place for true change. Other dimensions beyond educational (knowledge) empowerment include economic, political, and psychological empowerment. Taking yet another approach, development agencies focus on the economic empowerment of individuals through education programs as a means to utilize untapped economic resources. These conflicting views make up the debate regarding how the success/failure of education programs should be measured. If the goal is in fact “empowerment” how might we measure this in order to yield the “best” methods of empowerment? This question proves interesting to explore since empowerment can be defined on multiple dimensions.
Further, there is a paradoxical power debate within education which debases many claims in support of international education programs. If empowerment aims to bring about more cognitive awareness, so that marginalized individuals may recognize their place in society and give them the means to act in their own interests, then we must question the very systems that present these ideas. In other words, we should acknowledge that schooling creates power structures even while its attempts to change them. Empowerment through education, the argument goes, whether it be through local or international frameworks, only exists within the current patriarchal framework, and thus cannot create revolutionary change because it exists within that reality. These criticisms lead to further debate as to who should education be shaped by and for whom and who actually benefits from education programs.
Female education is an interesting concept to view through the debate about gender equality, since gender has often been ignored in the construction of political and economic power models. To better comprehend the concept of gender as a constructed reality we should investigate how development plays a part in both replicating and challenging the dominant patriarchal discourse. Examining women and girls’ education as an extension of the construction of gender in institutions might allow us to create more effective solutions to educational inequality.
I hope to examine these overlapping and conflicting views of educational development in terms of economic, social, and gender empowerment. Criticizing these dimensions will prompt consideration of how the developed West proposes or imposes educational structures on other cultures. These insights will help us to understand how we might develop and implement new and effective educational programs that consider complexities of culture.
Empowerment becomes even more problematic as a concept when we consider that women, despite their portrayal as victims, have been able to create emergent educational institutions of their own accord without the need for external aid. If women are truly a repressed group restricted by the patriarchy and economically focused educational systems, then why do instances exist in which women develop empowering systems of their own accord? Such successes call to the forefront the psychological aspect of empowerment. Psychological empowerment encompasses the degree to which women have internalized a sense of their own power or helplessness and how they work toward strategies for their own development. Given the daunting obstacles that women face, like violence, poverty, and corruption, we need to ask how it is possible that bottom-up approaches to empowerment ever succeed.For example, why have female Afghan refugees been able to create their own educational system in Iran without the help of funding from large organizations like the United Nations? In many respects this movement defies the predictive models created by institutions. It creates a new sense of what it means to be “empowered” (from within) and challenges the typical definitions cited above. One could argue that these women have greater access to resources and agency than they’re marginalized circumstances would predict. What should we as researchers make of this?
In the case of Iran, women have been able to organize, fund, and create a curriculum for Afghan refugee children using a “woman-friendly” interpretation of Islam. In other words they have been able to create a grassroots movement within the system which often oppresses them (Islamic government), suggesting that some form of power resideS within these women despite their “disempowered” status. Somehow, these women work within the patriarchy in order to critique their social circumstances and make effective, if not revolutionary, change.
Researches should care about this topic of investigation because examining the social realities replicated in and surrounding education systems makes us question how we see development and gender in international relations. Further, it makes us question the very systems that we participate in within our own cultural contexts. It leads us to ask: What other educational programs or development projects have or might emerge that do not follow the typical pattern of empowerment through outside aid?
- What explains the ability of female Afghan refugees in Iran to develop their own system of education and bring about female empowerment while surrounded systematic oppression?
- What explains the ability of women to emerge with self-empowering movements despite their existence within a patriarchal system whose very forms of “empowerment through education” might be perpetrated through systemic bias?
Baily, Supriya. “Identifying Structural Changes from Within: Emancipatory Narratives Exploring Community Constraints to Women’s Education and Empowerment in Rural India.” Diaspora, indigenous and minority education 9, no. 3 (01/2015): 175-188.
Fereidouni, Somayeh and Mehran. “Female Empowerment in Iran: The Voice of Iranian University Students.” Higher education quarterly 69, no. 4 (01/2015: 366.
Hoodfar, H. “Women, Religion and the ‘Afghan Education Movement’ in Iran.” Journal of Development Studies 43, no. 2 (2007): 265-93.
Omwami, Edith Mukudi. “Relative-Change Theory: Examining the Impact of Patriarchy, Paternalism, and Poverty on the Education of Women in Kenya.” Gender and education 23, no. 1 (01/2011):15-28.
Stromquist, N. P. “Women’s Empowerment and Education: Linking Knowledge to Transformative Action.” European Journal of Education 50, no. 3 (2015): 307-24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ejed.12137.
Tickner, J. Ann. “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminists and Ir Theorists.” International Studies Quarterly 41, no. 4 (1997): 611-32.
 Stromquist, N. P. “Women’s Empowerment and Education: Linking Knowledge to Transformative Action.” European Journal of Education 50, no. 3 (2015): 310.
 Fereidouni, Somayeh and Mehran. “Female Empowerment in Iran: The Voice of Iranian University Students.” Higher education quarterly 69, no. 4 (01/2015): 368, 378.
 Ibid., 369.
 Stromquist, 308.
 Omwami, Edith Mukudi. “Relative-Change Theory: Examining the Impact of Patriarchy, Paternalism, and Poverty on the Education of Women in Kenya.” Gender and education 23, no. 1 (01/2011): 16.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 18-19.
 Tickner, J. Ann. “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminists and Ir Theorists.” International Studies Quarterly 41, no. 4 (1997): 616.
 Stromquist, 314.
 Baily, Supriya. “Identifying Structural Changes from Within: Emancipatory Narratives Exploring Community Constraints to Women’s Education and Empowerment in Rural India.” Diaspora, indigenous and minority education 9, no. 3 (01/2015): 175.
 Hoodfar, H. “Women, Religion and the ‘Afghan Education Movement’ in Iran.” Journal of Development Studies 43, no. 2 (2007): 265.
 Ibid., 266.