21 August 2012

For the Protection of their Spirits

"You may kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women."

These words of the Persian poet Tahirih to her her would-be assasins, were uttered prior to her execution in 1852.  She was an eloquent and erudite scholar, equal to, if not surpassing, many of her contemporaries in debate and learning, and her father's only lament was that she had not been a man, so that she might publicly elevate the family name in Persian society.

Instead, she was a champion for women's rights, and the "trumpet blast" of the new Babi Faith, which, against the wishes of her husband and family, she eagerly espoused and disseminated among her fellow cloistered women, many of whom followed in her footsteps.  This brought her into the line of fire of the clerical government, which labeled as a "heretic."  She challenged the perceived norms of the day by attending a conference of notable Babis and appearing before those assembled without her veil - a scandalous action at the time - to announce that the old standards of the past were no longer salient, and that a new standard of human rights and capacity had been hoisted.  The uproar caused by such an action shook the faith of many of the attendees, and one man even slit his throat in his agonized response.  (At the same time in Seneca Falls, New York, women from the United States and Canada were gathering to author their Declaration of Sentiments, which included an article demanding women's right to vote.  It would be over sixty years before that goal was realized by the United States government.)  Indeed, it could be argued that even though Tahirih's sex prevented her from gaining notoriety in Persian politics, her legacy has endured even to this day due to it.

Interestingly, the government of that country which put Tahirih to death for her outspoken views on equality has taken a step backward this week by denying women's access to higher education.  This action, which follows the current Iranian regime's policy of exclusion and subversion, is simply the latest in a line of actions to disenfranchise its populace and gain a fearful stronghold over its people.

Education is, in the Baha'i teachings, a fundamental human right.  In fact, Baha'i law stipulates the importance of the education of girls, as they are the first teachers of the child, and, in the case when there are only enough resources to educate one child, preference should be given to the girl for this purpose.

These thoughts are all fresh in my mind as I look forward to a new school year.  We have decided to again homeschool our daughters, our eldest entering first grade this year, and not without some reservations from friends and family.  I have begun to plan our schedule for the fall semester, and am looking forward to plumbing the depths of Olivia's interests in dinosaurs and the universe, as well as learning some fundamentals of math and language.  When asked why we choose to homeschool, when there are certainly many resources available in the public school system in Bloomington, my simple answer is that I am not yet ready to send my eager and joyful daughter, who is still amazed by the beauty and intricacy of the world around her, into the crushing melee that is public school.

The answer was harder this year than the last - then, our decision to move was made well after many of the charter and alternative schools were full, and even the Montessori school, to which we would technically be considered transfer students, didn't have room.  The public school in our neighborhood gave me a creepy feeling, which I decided to ignore and try Olivia out first for half-day and then full-day Kindergarten.  When the child that came home had none of her usual spirit, I decided that I should follow my instincts and try homeschooling for a year.  For the skeptics, I could easily say "well, it's only Kindergarten," which would usually appease their criticism.  However, this year, even some of my past supporters offered some suggestions for change.  First grade, after all, is official school.

But I couldn't do it.  I know how my girls work, and I know that my gentle Olivia would bend herself to fit whatever mold she thought was most appealing to all.  I am not worried about the fundamentals - she is eager to read and write and calculate math problems - but what concerns me the most is her spirit, her identity, her awareness of self, and her recognition of her place in society.  I know that of course she will and must be tested, but I feel the need to better train her, for at least a few more months, to meet the challenges of society, which children at younger and younger ages are facing.  When the clothing of the day deems it appropriate for little girls to wear the same styles of clothes as teenagers, and when their choices are limited to pink and purple and sometimes light blue, when the first comment I hear out of strangers' mouths are "aren't you pretty?",  when the toys that are peddled to girls focus primarily on appearance rather than function, and when "looking beautiful" is more important than acting in beauty, there is a greater need than ever to protect the spirits of our girls.

Instead, I will arm my daughters with the truth: that they are noble creations of God, that they were created in perfection, and that it is their duty to find and cultivate their capacity to better serve the world of humanity.  That their purpose in life is greater than their individual desires, even though they must be guided by those innate impulses, and that their calling is to help to build an ever-advancing civilization.  That beauty and joy are present in all of creation, and that they don't need to look outside of themselves to find it.  I will not cater to the whims of a corrupt and materialistic society, which may be no better in its motives than a regime that denies higher education to women, if it continues to perpetuate worthless stereotypes that exploit the true nature of women to serve its own selfish purposes.  We are better than that, and I challenge us to prove our mettle - to rise above the dross of this world and create a more loving and just society.

Although Tahirih died 150 years ago, her legacy remains - and the emancipation of women will continue.