Half the World — one woman’s story

This is part two of a two-part post.  If you are reading this without first having read “Half the World — setting the scene,” please read that posting first to set the scene.

Now that we know where Meerwala is located in Pakistan, we can zoom in a bit.  On this scale, it’s about half a mile from one end of the map to the other.  Meerwala is not a large village.

These next paragraphs are from pages 70-71 of Half the Sky.  The chapter is titled “Mukhtar’s School” and I highly recommend the entire book.


The book goes on to describe how Mukhtar, her voice muffled by her scarf, started talking about how the best way to overcome the attitudes that led to her rape was to spread education.

The rest of her story is fascinating and inspiring (go get the book — it’s in the Durham Public Library), and includes Mukhtar taking a trip to the United States to publicize issues of women’s rights, including education.  The Pakistani government did not want his country to be known for barbaric rapes, so it did whatever it could to silence Mukhtar.  For example, in 2005, to put pressure on Mukhtar, the local Pakistani courts released five of the six men convicted of the rape, and commuted the sentence of the sixth from death to life in prison.

The pressure turned Mukhtar into a celebrity, and that explains how she became Glamour’s “Woman of the Year” in 2005.

Here’s one more excerpt from Half the Sky (top of page 74):

So again, getting into the head of an average sixth grader reading about this story, most students won’t know where those big cities are in Pakistan — Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore.  But it’s easy enough to use Google Earth to find those cities, label them (in pink so they stand out), and add more context to our view of Pakistan, a country with a population of about 170 million people.

Nick Kristof wrote several columns about Mukhtar for the New York Times, and those columns, according to the book, resulted in $430,000 in contributions.

Here’s one sampling of a follow-up column from Nick Kristof’s blog.

Now, to get more context, I just ran this search:

And I learned that although the news in 2002 was that the rapists would get the death penalty, those rapists appealed their sentence, and five of them were released in 2005 (as noted above, this release was in part to put pressure on Mukhtar Mai).

If we click on the top result from the search above, we learn that in April of 2011, the Supreme Court of Pakistan looked at the case, and it concluded that the men had to be released.

Now it may be that there was not sufficient evidence to convict the men of the rape (though I tend to trust Nick Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s reporting more than I trust the Pakistani justice system), and I’m confused about how the men were released in 2005 and then apparently held again somehow so that they could be released again this April by the Supreme Court — but the point is that this is a complex story and we can’t talk about it with middle school students for 15-20 minutes and think that we’ve “covered” current events, so now we can get back to the regularly scripted curriculum.

The world should be the curriculum.  And we’ve used our time well by starting to engage with Mukhtar Mai’s story in a serious and thoughtful way that raises all sorts of issues.

To further complicate the story, here’s a picture of Mukhtar Mai from that same article — she’s pictured on the right, along with her new husband and his first wife (Mukhtar chose to be his second wife).

As Half the Sky notes, Muhktar’s marriage to a policeman in 2009 who already had a wife made her “an odd emblem of women’s rights.”  However, the book also notes that “the marriage proceeded only after the first wife convinced Mukhtar that this was what she genuinely wanted.  It was another unusual chapter in an unusual life.”

The book concludes this chapter by noting that “This uneducated woman from a tiny village has stood up to her country’s president and army chief, and after years of enduring unremitting threats and harassment, she had outlasted him.  She had taken a sordid tale of victimization and — through her extraordinary courage and vision — became an inspiration to us all.”

So this is a rich and compelling story, and we’ve made it come to life a bit more using Google Earth and internet research.

From a sixth grade perspective, what skills have we just worked on?  Well, we read a powerful selection from a book.  We did some additional online research.  We expanded our geographic literacy, finding out more about Pakistan.  We worked on math, trying to wrap our minds around the idea that three billion people — more than 40% of the world — live in relative poverty (less than $2.50 per day) and can be abused by powerful people in ways similar to how Mukhtar Mai was abused in Pakistan.

We presumably would have had a discussion about this reading and the research we did, so that would have been practice with both listening and public speaking.  And then each student would blog about what he or she found most compelling about this exercise, so that there’s also practice writing.

We would have learned new vocabulary words, such as “commute” (did you wonder why that word was in purple?)  And we would have engaged with the world and worked on our skills as empathetic readers.  Not bad for one morning’s work 🙂

This is the sort of multi-disciplinary learning that can happen when students are given the time to explore an issue in depth.  It would take a good two hours in the morning to unpack this story and begin to get some context.  In most schools, finding two hours to discuss a current event would be unthinkable.

At the school I plan to open in 2013, most mornings will be spent thoughtfully discussing some event in the world.

Some students would choose to leave the story here, having learned the basics of Mukhtar Mai’s story.  But some students, I hope, would be hooked, and would want to learn more about the conditions of women around the world.  Those students could choose to learn more, and the idea at my school is that homework is flexible and individually tailored for each student.  In fact, before a student leaves at the end of each day, he or she would both reflect on his/her learning for the day and would also propose his or her own HW for the evening.  Every night’s HW would include some reading and some math (because who among us can’t learn more about those topics), but there’s enough flexibility for a student to write that “I was fascinated by the reading today from Half the Sky and I plan to take the book out of the library this weekend and read it by the end of next week.”

That’s the sort of active engagement with the world we want to see from our young people.  The world is an exciting and fascinating place.  Students need space to learn about it on their own terms, but without sacrificing rigor.

Reading a sophisticated book such as Half the Sky is exactly what middle school students should be doing.  They may need help with some sections of the book, because it’s intended for an older audience, but why not put the most compelling and well-written resources in front of our students and let them engage with topics they are passionate about?

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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