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Chapter Six Contested Terrains of Female Education in Rural Muslim Pakistan Ayesha Khurshid Girl Rising (Robbins 2013), a documentary film about girls’ education in developing nations, is a narrative of empowerment through education that inspires resistance to oppressive patriarchal traditions. The film, narrated by Hollywood celebrities, focuses on the changing fates of nine girls from diverse countries and captures how these girls are overcoming poverty, bonded labor, sexual abuse, early marriage, and patriarchal customs through education. Particularly moving is the story of Amina, a child bride from Afghanistan, who persisted in her determination to attend school despite early marriage, childbearing, and cultural restrictions on women’s movements and opportunities for education. In the final segment, she is shown leading a group of young girls to school in the rural countryside of Afghanistan. They shed their burqas (garments that fully cover women, including face and hands) to reveal their smiling faces as Amina declares, “Look into my eyes. Do you see it now? I am change.” There are no men or boys in sight as more and more girls appear on the dirt roads and hills of Amina’s village. Amina’s determination is depicted as a wind of change that reaches every woman, inspiring them all to follow her lead. Girl Rising presents education as the way to empower women against traditions that have oppressed them and as a means of challenging the patriarchal institutions of family, community, and local culture. Girl Rising’s strong imagery of women’s education as an empowering tool that unites women in their struggles against patriarchal norms echoes mainstream discourse on women’s education, especially for Muslim countries (Gee 2014; Monkman 2011; Stromquist and Fischman 2009). In this discourse, empowerment is assumed to result when women distance themselves from their families, communities, and Islam, the patriarchal institutions seen to confine and restrict 111 their access to new roles and opportunities (Abu-Lughod 2009; Kandiyoti 2005; Mahmood 2005; Najmabadi 1998; Scott 2007). This education-as-empowerment narrative operates on two central assumptions: first, it presents women’s education as a universally empowering tool and process (Herz and Sperling 2004; Schultz 2002; Tembon and Fort 2008); and second, it hypothesizes a sisterhood among all women who share the experience of being oppressed, especially in Muslim societies (Abu-Lughod 2009; Mahmood 2005). In this view, educated Muslim women are to become agents of change who will work to empower all women by challenging patriarchal norms. This individualistic and marketoriented approach to women’s education and gender empowerment undergirds the programming of many international agencies and has been incorporated into state educational policies. In this chapter, I show that these assumptions about women’s empowerment are never adopted wholesale; rather, they are remade and adapted to local cultural contexts and the complexity of women’s lived experiences (Khurshid 2015; Merry 2006; Subrahmanian 2005; Unterhalter 2007). I draw on ethnographic data collected with thirty-two women teachers working at four girls’ schools in the suburbs of Islamabad, Pakistan. The majority of these teachers were the first girls in their low-income and rural communities to attend high school and college and to hold jobs outside the home. My ethnographic analysis reveals that the participants view themselves as confident and empowered women who are capable of taking on new roles and responsibilities without disrupting the core values of their families and communities. The participants view their ability to negotiate new roles while maintaining the harmony in their families and communities as a trait of parhi likhi, an Urdu term for educated women. The women teachers employ the term parhi likhi not merely to refer to their educational qualifications. Instead, this self-description indicates the acquisition of a set of manners and behaviors associated with educated women, a professional or middle-class status, and a distinction from uneducated women (unparh). In rural and low-income contexts with low literacy rates, being a parhi likhi woman thus includes the ability not only to take on new roles but also to align these roles with preexisting gender norms. I explain this interplay between new and traditional roles first through showing how new educational opportunities for these parhi likhi women have led them to challenge certain patriarchal practices that limited their mobility and access to employment. My ethnographic analysis reveals that the participants do so by creatively combining the newer language of rights and choices with 112Khurshid local conceptions of family honor and gendered domestic roles. In addition, I explore the reasons that...


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