Inside a soccer gym in Kabul City in Afghanistan, everyone can see the excitement of young players trying to kick the ball towards the goal. All players are female students from two high schools, and over the audience area are their cheering family members and friends. It is a sight to behold, considering that girls are banned from playing the sport elsewhere in the country.
The friendlies happen under Afghanistan’s first and only soccer program for girls. Keystone Academy student Abdul Basir Talayee launched it in the summer of 2018, during his vacation from his eleventh-grade studies. Though he faced fierce resistance from traditional families and issues in funding, Talayee made it happen and convinced 35 parents out of the 50 families that he had talked to.
Talayee (standing, far right) aims to expand his soccer program for girls from other schools in Kabul.
Talayee knows directly about unfair treatment towards Afghan women. He is the “favored” child in his family, while his three sisters have received less financial support and means to explore their capabilities. This is a common scenario in Afghanistan, where a lot of families face inequality and poverty due to the civil war.
“When I realized that, I tried to change the situation in my family,” he says. To overcome the lack of opportunities in his country, Talayee applied for scholarships abroad and got admitted to Keystone. While in Beijing, he continued supporting his three sisters by helping them study English and complete applications for schools in the US. All of them are now studying in the US.
“Girls should be able to pursue their dreams or goals,” Talayee says about his understanding of gender equality. To him, sport enables girls to cross boundaries and break a “wall of limitation” because of old-fashioned beliefs.
“If boys can go to school, girls should too. If boys can be athletes, girls should have that opportunity too. It is important that all members of society, regardless of their backgrounds and cultures, have the same amount of opportunities and rights to be able to contribute. Both, together, can make something good for the whole society.”
Talayee believes that sport helps girls to find their passions and break a "wall of limitation"
Seeking Attention? No, Sparking Conversations
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) says there has been some progress in the issue of gender equality worldwide, but not a single country can claim to have achieved it.
“Real change has been agonizingly slow for the majority of women and girls in the world. Multiple obstacles remain unchanged in law and in culture. Women and girls continue to be undervalued; they work more and earn less and have fewer choices, and experience multiple forms of violence at home and in public spaces.”
Keystone eleventh-grader Medaly Cardenas Retamozo has observed this in her home country of Peru, where the culture is still patriarchal. In rural regions, she says, girls cannot go to school simply because families believe education is unnecessary or a privilege. This results in a considerable disadvantage in the labor market and the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Many women also experience harassment based on their clothing.
Over in China, Grade 10 student Anne Zhang says she has experienced the issue of preference for boys in their traditional household. Zhang understands this thinking though she believes “it is not a good thing to happen,” especially in a modern society where “girls can do what boys can.”
Both students are members of Girls LEAD (Leadership Excellence Acceptance Diversity), a Keystone Activities Program (KAP) for students who support feminist ideas and activities that spark conversations on gender equality.
Girls LEAD members Medaly Retamozo (left, foreground) and Loubna Laribi (center), together with advisors CSD Director Angie Bergeson (right, foreground), Chemistry teacher Portia Mhlongo and English teacher Josie Cullinane-Jose (left-right, background)
In January 2019, the Girls LEAD group hosted the Beijing edition of Women’s March Global, an event organized by the organization of the same name. The march brings together people who fight for women’s and human rights worldwide.
“We in Girls LEAD support this activity. We think the problem of gender inequality is not solved yet, so we want to use our force to spread this cause to more people here in China,” Zhang says.
Besides the march, Girls LEAD has also done an annual “biased” bake sale where they sell cookies at a higher price for male students and staff. Group co-advisor and Chemistry teacher Portia Mhlongo says the activity aims to show boys the reality of unequal pay and discrimination against women.
Members of the Girls LEAD KAP prepare cookies that they will sell during their "Biased Bake Sale" event
The reception to that activity has been mixed, with the two girls saying they have heard harsh comments from some male students.
“There are boys who do not understand what girls are experiencing and this is one example of a misunderstanding. They don’t know the situation or the real reason, so they think what we are doing is not necessary. But what can be done is to encourage boys to ask questions so we can let them know what happens to girls,” Zhang says.
“Some of the boys think that we do movements like this to seek attention. In our presentations, some see us as people just talking on stage and not as people to whom they can relate. I think men feel left behind in these presentations because it is not about them. But we need to talk to them. What I can do is to try to give examples so they can relate,” Retamozo adds.
An Iron House That Is Hard to Break
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8 is "I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights.” This year’s observance also marks the 25th year since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a resolution that promulgates the principles for gender equality. A number of events and high-level conferences will be held in the coming months to discuss the progress on the resolution. It includes the Generation Equality campaign that mobilizes people around the world “to drive actions that will create the gender-equal world we all deserve.”
UN Women says this year's International Women's Day celebration is the time to "take stock of progress and bridge the gaps that remain through bold, decisive actions."
Ninth-grader Kevin Chai is hopeful that a gender-equal world will be achieved, though he still feels it will take a long time to materialize. Chai says men and women in his immediate environment seem to be happy, but the situation is different on Chinese social media. He has seen efforts from many organizations and the media to realize gender equality, but believes the effects of centuries-old bias against women are like “an iron house that is hard to break.”
“In addition, there are harsh criteria for defining ‘qualified’ women. Although the concept of ‘male outside, female inside’ is no longer the case nowadays, women are still under tremendous pressure. They must become ‘almighty women’ who have superb economic strength and be all-around mothers who can do childrearing and act as spiritual teachers and tutors. They also need to remain beautiful. Meanwhile, the universal definition of men's success is simply making money. Isn't this an injustice? It’s really difficult for my female friends.”
This is why for Chinese teacher Judy Jiang, the topic of equal rights is worth exploring as it impacts everyone, whether it is about their personal lives, career, education, marriage, or civil actions. For Theory of Knowledge teacher Christine Shi, achieving equality is important as everyone faces a form of discrimination.
“But it is the minority, and not the gender, who is discriminated against. But at the basic level, this issue is a kind of empathy training. Only if I can imagine the suffering of the person on the other side may I feel the original intention of gender equality. If you can't tolerate everything you face in that position, why ask others to bear it silently? In this situation, the Golden Rule applies: ‘Don’t do anything to others what you don’t want others to do unto you.’”
Jiang also believes the lesson about gender equality should begin at home and young age.
“Parents and teachers should understand that the process of cognitive development of children happens alongside the process of gender consciousness, so our response should be natural. Beyond that, our important role is to cultivate children's respect for others and their preferences and choices. This is the direction that we should take to guide them, rather than always-tangled "boy" and "girl" labels,” Jiang adds.
In the Song family, the concept of gender equality is taught from childhood. Mrs. Song says their family tries not to emphasize the gender-specific division of labor or characteristics.
“Our family is more concerned about our children's passions, their responsibility in society, and the manifestation of their self-worth. We pay more attention to the value that we should reflect in society and not gender,” the mother says.
Education Empowers Everyone
On a wall in Portia Mhlongo’s chemistry laboratory is a poster of Nobel laureates in the field of sciences throughout the years. Her class has noticed that “white Western men who dominate” the image. Still, Mhlongo wants her students to see another side message to it: that there are scientists like Tu Youyou, Jane Goodall, and Katherine Johnson who have paved the way for young girls to pursue careers in STEM.
Aside from this subtle reference to gender equality, Mhlongo also uses her classroom as a platform to spark conversations about the pressing global issues. She herself got an opportunity to join the Climate Reality Project in 2014, which has galvanized her into teaching students about clean chemistry and climate change education.
“When you start to work like that, your radar starts opening and you begin to see your purpose. What I want for students is for them to realize and own global issues and say, ‘What is my role and how can I help people to do something?’”
For Basir Talayee, his hobby has become his way to open opportunities for others. Since the launch of the soccer program in 2018, the number of female Afghan players in the team has doubled to almost 70. He has also reached out to soccer instructors in Kabul, many of whom have agreed to coach the girls’ team. Talayee plans to expand the program to cover more high schools in the capital city, to the point that girls playing soccer will become normal.
Just like Talayee, many members of the Keystone community have taken part in actions that promote gender equality. In October 2019, for example, student leaders organized the school’s second Global Issues Network (GIN) Conference that highlighted the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of quality education (SDG 4), gender equality (5), and climate action (13).
Several Keystone teachers have volunteered to teach English to and hold a series of training for a group of young female scholars from the Educating Girls of Rural China (EGRC). Keystone has also welcomed the EGRC scholars to use the school’s learning spaces. English teacher Jaime Weiler co-organized the visit of the EGRC girls at Keystone in October 2019. She said in a prior interview that she feels blessed to be able to share the school’s resources with the young girls.
“[We hope that] the lessons we can provide and the additional cultural experiences that we offer will help provide the girls with a broader understanding of the world. As the program evolves, I hope that we will be able to involve more students into our program,” Weiler adds.
At the moment, the events planned by Girls LEAD for International Women’s Day are canceled because of the outbreak situation, but it does not mean their actions are also put on hold. The group members are regularly communicating on their Microsoft Teams social channel and share stories about people who act on gender inequality issues worldwide.
Keystone staff, students, and members of the Girls LEAD KAP celebrate Global Women's March in 2017.
“We will not do justice as teachers if we don’t discuss issues like this,” Mhlongo says. “It is a global goal to achieve equality in 2030. We need to level the playing field in the things we want and do. Providing opportunities for students to engage with the gender inequality issues and their impacts is the first step to achieving this goal. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is a powerful tool to change the world.’”
“When girls get an education, everything will be different,” Talayee says. “Women who get opportunities to work outside invest in the education of their children and provide them learning opportunities and make sure they learn the right skills. It makes a huge difference in the children and the family. We need to get past the culture of the previous generation. If we change our traditional way of thinking, our actions will change.”
Photos: courtesy of Basir Talayee, Anne Zhang; IWD 2020 poster from UN Women