The scholar’s scroll: Education of girls and women in a Lebanese village
Dr. Nancy Jabbra, professor emerita of women’s studies, explains the improvements in women’s education in Lebanon taking ‘Ain al-Qasis as a case study.
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In this piece, based on longitudinal research, I wish to explain improvements in women’s education from the early 1970s to the present. As an anthropologist, I have spent many years studying a village called ‘Ain al-Qasis in the central Biqa’ Valley.
When I first went to the village, I found that very few women over the age of thirty-four had any education at all, and most were illiterate. Few men in that age group had much education, either, and many of them were also illiterate.
A couple of years ago I spoke with an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter. The mother had received no education, so she made sure that her daughters completed the brevet (all that was available locally); no matter what, she did not pull them out of school because she valued education so highly. The daughter added that so many of the other girls had left school to help at home that few of them can read or write today.
The reasons for the state of education in the 1970s were straightforward. Until the 1940s there was no school in the village, although the village priest instructed some of the boys in reading and writing. When the Lebanese government did open a school, at first only boys were allowed to study. However, during the 1940s, when the nuns took over the priest’s school they admitted girls right away.
Opportunity, then, was an important factor. So were attitudes toward education. Many people in the older generations thought that girls didn’t need any education because they would marry, keep house, and raise children. Boys needed a little, but not much, to work on the farm.
A third factor was financial. The private schools were expensive, and there were high costs associated even with the government schools. So poor families might not give their children much education because they couldn’t afford to, or they’d just educate one or two of the boys. What was significant at the time of my early fieldwork, though, was that education rates for girls and women were improving.
The picture in the village had changed significantly by the early twenty-first century. The illiterate women were for the most part elderly, and there were few of them. Indeed, they were outnumbered by women university graduates, and there were high numbers of women with secondary or complementary diplomas.
What had caused these changes? One was that attitudes had changed considerably. I surveyed villagers in 1995 and 2000, and found that women and men alike, old and young, uniformly supported education for women. One person said, “A woman who doesn’t have education is like a blind woman.” People added that educated women would be better wives and mothers, that they wouldn’t have to put up with bad husbands, and that they could support themselves and their families no matter what happened.
Attitudes changed for many reasons. One was increasing influence from relatives who had emigrated to Canada and the United States. Another was the mass media, first radio, then television. More recently, the Internet in so many ways has made its mark.
Opportunity is another important factor. Today there are good schools all over the area, and it is easy to get to them. Right in the village the nuns now offer schooling up to the “terminal” (the last year of secondary school). There are also branches of the Lebanese University and Université Saint-Joseph in Zahlé.
Finally, affluence has made it possible for parents to educate their children, including their girls, to higher levels. Indeed, there is a higher percentage of female university graduates in the village compared to male university graduates.
About half of Lebanese university students today are girls. Since the mid-1990s, female university graduates have constituted the majority of economically active women in the country. For women in the central Biqa’ Valley, however, the lack of suitable opportunities constitutes a significant barrier to employment.
Women’s education has some important implications. Highly educated women marry later, and have fewer children. They can contribute economically to the family; they can support themselves. And, because they are educated, they understand more about the world. In short, women’s education is important today not only for job-related reasons but because it widens the mind.
Dr. Nancy Jabbra is professor emerita of women’s studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California.