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Western Views on Education and the Devaluing of Immigrant Women

by Sabrin

The following was contributed by our Guest Blogger Juan Portillo.

Devaluing women promotes violence”.  That is the title of a blog post I came across recently, one which left me thinking about the numerous ways in which society devalues women.  While that particular articled talked about prostitution, the idea that society can judge what makes a woman valuable or not can be applied to many aspects of a woman’s life, and unfortunately pave the way to abuse.

One aspect that keeps recurring in the Western world is the idea of “education”, and that Western education is the “real deal”.  For International Women’s Day 2010, Nicholas Kristof (from the New York Times) suggested that a girl’s education isthe single most cost-effective kind of aid work”, capable of opening minds, and give girls “new career opportunities and ways to generate cash”.  He also said it “leads them to have fewer children and invest more in those children, and it tends to bring women from the shadows into the formal economy and society.”

While I agree that education is an important component in advancing anyone’s rights, I have a problem with the idea that a girl’s education is the absolute key or end-all for women’s issues.  Moreover, it’s not just any education that Western countries (like the USA) value.  It’s just one type of education: the one that has been historically constructed for upper-middle class, Western men.  This education, people argue, makes you have fewer children, makes you “productive”, and ultimately makes you complacent. 

By engaging in language like this, it is easy to start making “uneducated” women seem like a problem, when in fact their situation is a symptom of a larger crisis.  Moreover, saying that lack of education is the source of women’s woes completely takes away responsibility from everyone who oppresses or abuses women.  It’s also easy to excuse abuse on “uneducated” women simply because they are devalued.  They would not be seen as valuable as “educated” women.

Immigrant women (and women of color in general) face the risk of being labeled as “uneducated” and therefore less valuable.  Many may not have a high school or college degree from an American or European institution, yet they may be successful business owners, successful mothers, productive members of their communities, etc.  However, it’s harder for Western society to see them as valuable people, putting them at risk of internalizing these ideas and increasing the risk of them becoming victims of abuse.

We should never forget how important the pedagogy of the home is for immigrant women, including South Asian women. In fact, women who have not gone through the standard of education Kristof talks about have very valuable knowledge that can be used to navigate and counter oppressive forces.  Our mothers and grandmothers are survivors and they are fighters, and we must all make sure to remind them of this to ensure that they are the first to know that they are valuable people.  We must then make sure that we also see their value, and help society see the value in them so that it is less likely that they become victims of abuse.

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