06/29/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2013

Raising Girls in the Middle East

Raising girls in the Middle East is not for the faint of heart. That was the consensus yesterday of three extraordinary women whose fearless commitment to empowering and educating girls in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen has inspired millions across the globe and brought them to speak at this year's Aspen Ideas Festival.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, Nadia Al-Sakkaf, and Farahnaz Ispahani are social innovators who, despite incredible risks, continue to work tirelessly to advance the proposition that education for girls matters and that neither bombs nor bullets will keep them from sending girls to school.

But the risks for girls who don't receive education are even higher -- without education girls in so many countries are sucked into an enduring cycle of poverty, forced marriage, violence, and are never given their rightful place in their respective societies.

On the other hand, the critical link between education and economic development, health, and social mobility is crystal clear. A woman who receives an education will bring in more money for her family and for her community, she will raise healthier children, and she will have far greater social mobility. Investing in girls delivers a proven return on investment.

While that link is painfully clear, there are plenty of challenges in Muslim majority countries that inhibit girls' education, cutting the economic potential for them, their families, their communities, and their countries.

I sat down with Shabana, Nadia, and Farahnaz to discuss these challenges and the opportunities that exist to overcome them. The big takeaways of our conversation were the following:

  1. Education needs to be approached from an inclusive perspective -- winning the support of the men in these girls' lives is critical. Whether they are fathers, brothers, or husbands, men can help stand up to social pressure, if it exists, against educating women. Shabana shared an incredible story of a girl whose father proudly defied the Taliban, ready to sacrifice his life, in order to send his daughter back to school in Kabul.
  1. The legal framework guaranteeing education for girls is indispensible. From the perspective of a Pakistani parliamentarian, Farahnaz spoke passionately about the importance of building the legal framework for universal access to education. Hard-fought gains are far more secure when the law is on their side.
  1. Content matters. Access to education is invaluable, but it is the content of that education that will determine whether it creates strong and knowledgeable women. As Editor-in-Chief of the Yemen Times, Nadia knows the value of producing honest content. She also underscored the challenge facing Yemen in reforming curriculum to foster creativity and encourage even-handed thinking on political, religious, and cultural issues facing Yemen and the Arab world.
  1. Culture is not a monolith. It's a common refrain that the 'culture' in Muslim-majority countries is hostile to educating young girls. That's an analytical crutch that encourages unproductive thinking. In reality, the barriers are far more complicated than 'culture.' History, family, socio-economic status, access, parental education, and misconceptions all play a role in determining whether a girl will receive an education.

While studying these issues and speaking to these visionary young women, I couldn't help but reflect on the prescient Arab Human Development Report, published in 2002 by UNDP. It listed the barriers to development in the Arab world as stemming principally from three deficits: freedom, empowerment of women, and knowledge.

These deficits are the underpinnings for the transformational change that we are seeing across the region. And, the historical disempowerment of women in the Middle East positions them to play an even more important role as change agents and stakeholders in their respective societies. Education is a fundamental part of women's empowerment -- without it, women will not be stakeholders in their respective societies.

Shabana, Nadia, and Farahnaz embody the effort to drive development through women's empowerment and education. They are the change agents. Their voices are being heard, they are reclaiming their place, and they will not retreat. As brave as they are, however, they can't do it alone, so let's help to share their big Idea.