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Women’s Education: Moving from Utility to Intellectual Freedom

Sola Mahfouz

Sola Mahfouz, Global Fellow, challenges the dominant educational framework that sees women’s education as key to national economic development and social progress. Instead, she advocates for education as a pathway to individual and, eventually, societal change.

But having moved from Afghanistan to America, I've observed that women's empowerment is often framed in material and external terms.

“The great thing is for life to be seen through a prism," she said. "In other words, life must be divided in our consciousness into its simplest elements, as if into the seven primary colors, and each element must be studied separately," Betrothed, Anton Chekhov.  

This notion of empowerment—of dissecting life to understand its core—has always represented the pinnacle of intellectual achievement for me. To dissect each strand of existence, much like light refracted through a prism into a spectrum, is to truly comprehend the world. But having moved from Afghanistan to America, I've observed that women's empowerment is often framed in material and external terms.  

Challenging education paradigms  

Women's empowerment is a familiar rallying cry, often underscored by the saying, “Educate a woman, educate a generation.” However, this perspective subtly upholds traditional, patriarchal values by viewing women's empowerment through the lens of societal benefits only, such as how it will educate the next generation or its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Indeed, a study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025. 

In Afghanistan, where my education was abruptly halted at the age of eleven, the conventional paths of learning were closed to me. But necessity, as it often does, fostered a different kind of resolve. My pursuit of knowledge became a solitary endeavor, driven not by societal expectations or economic ambitions but by a deeper, more urgent inquiry into the nature of existence itself. I turned to the ancient philosophers, to Plato and his peers, who grappled with life's profound questions. This journey of the mind also led me to the rich complexities of human dynamics through Russian literature and the abstract beauty of theoretical physics. 

In this self-guided learning, within the walls of my mind, I found the space to question the prevailing narratives of empowerment that too often view women’s progress through a utilitarian lens. This perspective measures advancement by how it serves others, overlooking the intrinsic value of the pursuit itself.  

Beyond utilitarian empowerment 

This oversight, I have come to realize, might explain why fields that thrive on passion and introspection, such as philosophy and theoretical physics, see fewer women. These disciplines demand devotion to ideas for their own sake, not for the tangible rewards they may bring. 

Women remain underrepresented in philosophy and physics. For example, women earned only about 20% of PhDs in physics and under 35% of those in philosophy in the United States in recent years. 

I propose a new vision of empowerment that emphasizes self-realization and personal fulfillment above external utility. It’s time to shift the dialogue from what women can do for the world to how they can thrive within it on their own terms. 

If we are to realize a more just and equitable society, we must recognize women not only as workers and entrepreneurs but as intellectual leaders, who can reshape the foundational structures of our social, political, and economic orders.  

In intellectual spheres, historically, women have been sidelined and relegated to positions that limit their visibility and influence in shaping philosophical and political discourses. This marginalization is not reflective of their capabilities but is a result of systemic barriers that restrict their access and opportunities in these fields. Having studied the world deeply, I can already see how much the structure of the world is not right. It lacks the female perspective and intellectual input.  

Transforming the discourse 

This approach finds voice in the works of profound thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir, whose seminal book, The Second Sex, challenged conventional wisdom. Elucidating how ostensibly neutral structures have historically marginalized women, she laid a foundational stone for the feminist movements. Beauvoir didn’t just participate in the already existent feminist discourse; she turned it on its head. 

In Free: Coming of Age at the End of History Lea Ypi, intricately weaving her lived experiences of the post-communist transition with philosophical insights, compels us to reconsider the essence of freedom, both collectively and individually, urging a profound reevaluation of its meaning in our modern democracies.  

Similarly, Hannah Arendt’s exploration of the 'banality of evil' and other works offers indispensable lessons on the nature of power and moral responsibility. Her philosophical inquiries into the ordinary origins of extraordinary wrongs challenge us to maintain ethical vigilance and critical thought as pillars of democratic societies.  

As demonstrated through these incredible female thinkers, true empowerment transcends utilitarian measures; it begins with foundational elements. It must advocate for intellectual freedom, encouraging the development of independent thought and self-determination. 

In this quest, our efforts should be directed not only toward integrating women into the existing educational and intellectual frameworks but also toward questioning and reimagining these frameworks altogether. It is not sufficient to add women to the predominant discourse; we must transform the discourse itself. This approach not only advances gender equality but also enriches our collective intellectual and moral life, steering us toward a more thoughtful and equitable world. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center.  

About the Author

Sola Mahfouz

Sola Mahfouz

Global Fellow;
Co-Author, Defiant Dreams
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