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      Volume 11 |Issue 37| September 21, 2012 |


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"Even girls can do Math?"

Naila kabeer

In his account of daily life in Faridpur at the start of the 20th century, the British District Officer J.C. Jack observed that while many young boys were attending school, girls stayed at home, helping their mothers with household chores. He concluded that 'the village school is not for them and it will be long before they are allowed into its precincts'.

His remarks could have easily been made of the story of Jaheda Khanum, the mother of my friend Shireen Huq. She grew up in a small village in Brahmanbaria in the 1920s when girls were not allowed into the premises of their village school. Jaheda's own mother had not been allowed to go to school but she yearned to give her daughters the chance that had been denied to her. So she dressed Jaheda as a boy and sent her off to class. Mother and daughter kept up this pretence as long as they could but soon Jaheda had to drop out of school and finish her studies in private. Years later, married with four children, Jaheda went back to university to study Bengali literature. She became a poet and dedicated one of her books to her mother who had resorted to such ingenious means to evade society's strictures. At the age of 79, Jaheda began to learn Sanskrit and two years later she translated Kalidas's Meghdud into Bengali. Months before she died in 2008, Jaheda was honoured by the Government of West Bengal for her achievements.

Over the last decade or two, parents have increasingly recognised the value of education for both girls and boys and there is no longer the same need to resort to deception to get girls into school. But other challenges remain. Many more girls drop out of school than boys and fewer girls than boys make it to university. Once at university, other stereotypes come into play. The vast majority of girls opt for the humanities and social sciences. Very few go into the natural sciences or mathematics, 'the queen of all sciences'. This means that those girls who will join the workforce – and many more are doing so now - will find themselves competing for a restricted number of female-dominated occupations. Boys, on the other hand, are not only more evenly distributed among various disciplines, but many more are to be found in the natural sciences. Their choice of occupations is accordingly much larger.

Winners of the AF Mujibur Rahman Foundation Gold Medal for Mathematics, Dhaka University 2012.

Why don't more girls do maths? There are a number of hurdles in our way. One is the belief that our brains are configured differently than those of men and that the ability to think abstractly and formally in the way that maths is missing from female genes. Another obstacle is the assumption that most girls, destined to become housewives, not rocket scientists, do not need maths in the kind of life choices they are likely to make. These messages, communicated to our youth from a very early age, act as a self-fulfilling prophesy. Both girls and boys end up believing that the female brain can neither handle maths nor make use of it and so there is no point in encouraging girls to study it.

I have personal experience of these hurdles. I was good at maths in my all-girls school, but in the last two years of my schooling, the subject was dropped from the curriculum. When I went to an all-girls college to do my Intermediate, maths was not even on the syllabus! It was assumed that our highest aspiration was to marry a civil servant or a diplomat and we would not need much mathematics for that.

I opted to study economics at the London School of Economics and was confronted with a discipline that was attempting to transform itself from a social science into a branch of the natural sciences (to its detriment, I would add). I took a basic course in maths and began to teach myself statistics. One of the most memorable comments on my efforts came from a cousin who was visiting my father's house, who asked with lofty amusement, 'So, are you telling me, even girls can do maths?'. This comment has passed into family history and continues to generate amusement. I myself dig it up every now again to remind people how girls' efforts are casually dismissed.

The issue of mathematics resurfaced in my life in a fresh form when my uncle, Rezaur Rahman, set up the AF Mujibur Rahman Foundation in 1985 to support a wide range of charitable activities but with a special emphasis on the promotion of mathematics. AF Mujibur Rahman was my maternal grandfather who died before I was born but I grew up hearing many stories about him. As the eldest child, my mother remembered him best. She spoke of a liberal and generous-minded man, who made no distinction between his sons and daughters, believing that each should be encouraged to develop and pursue his or her talents. In a country long characterised by a preference for sons, that belief alone made him a remarkable man.

It was in memory of this gifted and generous man that my uncle set up the Foundation. It is currently financing the construction of a new building for the Mathematics department in Dhaka University and plans to do the same for a number of other universities. It also awards gold medals for those who come first in Mathematics in the universities of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi.

I attended this year's award ceremony and was inspired by the struggles that these students overcame before they could afford to attend university, let alone to excel in their subject. One of the prize recipients turned to his proud mother who was in the audience and said that he planned to award his gold medal to her in recognition of the sacrifices she made to get him into university, selling off their cattle and her precious brass utensils.

Given the additional hurdles that girls, particularly those from less affluent families, face in getting to university coupled with the prejudices they encounter once they arrive, it is not surprising that they have always been underrepresented among the award winners. This year the story was different: four out of the five gold medals went to girls. I was curious to learn more about these girls so during a brief visit to Dhaka I met two of the prize winners: Doli Rani Pal, who got a 1st Class First in B.Sc. Honours in Mathematics, and Mithali Shifat Perveen, who got a 1st Class First in M.Sc. Pure Mathematics (thesis).

Doli is a bright and engaging 24 - year - old, who grew up in a small town in Jhenidah district. Her father was involved in business and her mother was a housewife. Doli is the first female member of her family to have reached university. She was encouraged to study maths by her teacher who also instilled in her the belief that if she tried hard enough, she could do anything. Why maths? According to Doli, 'there is a special joy, a different kind of satisfaction, that comes with problem-solving in maths that you don't get from any other subject'. Doli's father was busy with his business so it was her mother who provided a constant source of encouragement and was one reason why she decided to go on to university. Doli spoke of the difficulties she faced as a young woman raised in a mofussil, trying to make her way in Dhaka on her own – with no close family to support her. Her achievement is all the more remarkable for that.

Born and educated in Dhaka, Mithali is an intelligent and capable 26 - year - old. Her father too was in business and her mother was a housewife. Like Doli, Mithali was fortunate to have a very good teacher who was committed to the subject and imparted in her the beauty of maths. She was drawn to maths because 'it was the root of everything– physics, engineering, everything'. Mithali's father was, in her words a 'liberal and open-hearted man' and her 'best friend', who encouraged her to follow her passion but it was her mother who made sure she did her coursework, accompanied her to the exam hall and provided her words of encouragement.

There are millions of young girls and women like Doli and Mithail in this country who have the qualities it takes to be good at maths but do not receive sufficient encouragement or are actively discouraged. As the two young women told me, even when families accept their daughters' choice to go into the sciences, the gender divide remains: girls do medicine, boys do engineering. This was an issue that Doli faced from her wider family network. But gender stereotypes cut both ways and she spoke of the hurdles facing her younger brother who wanted to specialise in the arts: boys don't do arts!

It is no coincidence that both of the young women had tutors who inspired them and parents who supported their decision to specialise in mathematics. It was the supportive environment, coupled with hardwork, that allowed Doli and Mithali to succeed. These are the young women most likely to make it over the various hurdles that society puts in their way. Interestingly, it was in university where, for the first time the two girls were studying alongside male students, that they encountered the greatest resistance to their desire to do maths. They were subjected to a barrage of teasing and mockery from their male classmates. Much of it could be dismissed as 'harmless' but in fact it was a further reinforcement of the message that they had heard all their lives: 'girls can't do maths'. Their gold medals were proof that the gender stereotype is false and earned them praise (and astonishment) from their male classmates.

Both Doli and Mithali emphasized the importance of having women lecturers in the department who served as role models and were able empathise with the problems female students face in overwhelmingly male-dominated departments. There were only five female teachers out of a staff of around 30. One senior professor was singled out for special praise. She was never late for a lecture, she always handed in their marked assignments on time and she ensured that female students had additional encouragement to equalise the playing field. Even though only two students signed up for a group theory option course that she taught, the professor decided not to cancel it because Mithali was the first girl who had ever opted to take the course.

People are drawn to maths for a variety of reasons – for its intrinsic beauty and elegance or as a gateway to other disciplines. If girls are to be able to pursue their dreams to excel in maths to the same extent as boys, if their abilities and talent are to be recognised and realised, they will have to overcome the many hurdles placed in their way by their families, teachers and society at large. They need encouragement, support, and inspiration. The four young women who won gold medals this year are an inspiration in a field where female role models are still extremely scarce.


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