Education is a fundamental right which history has denied to many. Even in the present day, there are those denied education.
The struggle for gender equality in the realm of education has been long and it still has continues. That said there have been significant milestones earned through the bravery and commitment of remarkable women which have helped lead us to where we are today. In light of women’s month here are six stories in which women have challenged the status quo of not only the education systems that denied their potential as human beings but the societies that upheld these systems as well.
The Edinburgh Seven (1869)
In 1869 Sophia Jex-Blake applied to study medicine but was ultimately rejected by the university court refusing to make necessary arrangements for ‘just one woman’. Sophia responded by advertising in the Scotsman and other national newspapers inviting others to join her. Eventually a group of five gathered with two additional women joining them later on. The group wrote an entrance (matriculation) exam. Out of 152 candidates 4 women placed in the top 7.
Their time at the university was highly contested and even prompted the infamous ‘surgeons’ hall riot’ in which they were barred from entering an exam venue by a mob who pelted them with mud and rubbish as well as verbal abuse. The group soon won major support from people (including Charles Darwin) who were shocked by their treatment and by 1877 legislation was passed that allowed women to study at university.
Aletta Jacobs (1871)
Around the same time Aletta Jacobs became the first woman to complete a university course in the Netherlands, finishing her medical doctorate in 1879. Aletta grew increasingly aware of the inequality in society and dedicated her life to help create gender equality in the Netherlands. She is responsible for the formation of the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom.
Mamphela Ramphele (1996)
More than a century later in South Africa, previous apartheid struggle activist Mamphela Ramphele became the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town making her the first black woman in South Africa to hold such a position. Mamphela marked new milestones in the struggle for both gender- and race-based equality. To this day she has achieved multiple degrees including a Bachelor of Medicine and a PhD in Social Anthropology.
Mai Majed Al-Qurashi (2013)
In 2013 Mai Majed Al-Qurashi became the first woman in Saudi Arabia to be awarded a PhD. Mai Majed Al-Qurashi specialized in Biochemistry at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.
Malala Yousafzai (2014)
The youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, was recognised in 2014 for her human rights advocacy for education and for women in particular, in Pakistan. She was 17 at the time. The local Taliban, having at times banned girls from attending school, shot her for her stance.
Her advocacy has since grown into an international movement. The assassination attempt sparked a national and international outpouring of support for Yousafzai, which has since resulted in the launch of a UN petition in Yousafzai’s name, demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015; it helped lead to the ratification of Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill.
Dr Oghenetega Ighedo (2015)
Earlier this year Dr Oghenetega Ighedo became the first black woman to earn a PhD in pure mathematics at UNISA. Dr Ighedo believes that the lack of women in pure mathematic “is inextricably linked to societal practices and prejudices.”
“I encourage young women not to let adversity and challenges deter them. When I started my PhD I was already married, I had two children and was expecting my little bundle of joy, who arrived four months after I had started. In spite of being a mother and a wife, I was able to complete my PhD within three years. Before graduation, an article emanating from the thesis had already appeared in an accredited international journal, and two others had been accepted also in accredited international journals. So if I can do it, other women can do it also,” she advises.