In her first Middle East tour, Michelle Obama visited Qatar to call for a breakthrough in girls’ education in the region. The First Lady attended the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) to advocate for a new conversation about women’s and girls’ rights that would allow them equal access to education.
Obama met Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Qatar’s former first lady, and spoke to education leaders, analysts and experts of the Middle Eastern educational community. In her speech, Michelle Obama urged them to consider how cultural beliefs in the Eastern world might sabotage girls’ education. In an essay Michelle Obama wrote and that was published in The Atlantic before her trip to Qatar, she said:
“I’ll be urging countries around the world to both make new investments in girls’ education and challenge laws and practices that silence, demean, and brutalize women — from female genital mutilation and cutting, to forced child marriage, to laws that allow marital rape and disadvantage women in the workplace.”
The First Lady shared her own experiences of gender discrimination when she was a young girl. Obama explained that despite having her own ideas, people were only interested in what her brother had to say. She told the audience of more than 2,000 people that she was even discouraged from applying to prestigious universities. Today, Obama holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law school degree from Harvard.
“Imagine being told, at the age of 12 or 13, “That’s it, you’re done with school. You’ve gotten all the education you’re ever going to get,” she said.
The First Lady emphasized in her speech that there should be a stop to ‘outdated laws and traditions’ that prevent millions of girls from accessing or completing their education. In mentioning a 2014 kidnapping incident in which high school girls were abducted, the First Lady emphasized how some girls risk their lives for their education. Ms. Obama also commented on how gender bias puts a stop to girls’ education:
“But when they hit adolescence and they start to develop into women and are suddenly subject to all of their society’s biases around gender, that is precisely when they start to fall behind in their education.”
Apart from raising funds for bringing more girls into schools, the catalyst for gender equality in education is a change of cultural beliefs on gender roles, Ms. Obama said. She directly pointed to laws and cultural traditions as the main culprit behind gender discrimination. She said that parents need to understand that higher education as opposed to early marriage or forced labor is more beneficial to a girl’s future, according to USA Today.
Talk-show host Conan O’Brien traveled along with the First Lady to entertain U.S. troops at an air base in Doha, Business Insider reports.
As the Washington Post notes, delegates and officials at the WISE conference welcomed Obama’s message and echoed her views on giving girls equal access to education.