Woman, the first teacher - Jeanne Martin Cissé
Jeanne Martin Cissé (Republic of Guinea). Ambassador to the United Nations and first Vice-President of the National Assembly of Guinea. Former teacher and headmistress. Secretary-General of the Pan-African Women’s Association from 1962 to 1973.
The education of young people in accordance with the ideals of peace and understanding between nations is an integral part of the process of fashioning the new man and is thus a decisive factor in social change. It falls to women to begin this task, for they are the first teachers of the young in the modern world, just as they always were in the past. Women represent more than half the world’s population and are thus an immense asset to mankind although it is not generally admitted that they are able to contribute to the achievement of a just world order.
The fact that the international community has proclaimed 1975 ‘International Women’s Year’ marks a new stage in the advancement of women. The role they can play as people enjoying full human rights is becoming firmly established, and this is paving the way to genuine equality between men and women, not only in law but in daily life, and to full participation by women in the work of development and the benefits it brings. International Women’s Year 1975 should, ipso facto, promote the complete integration of women in the economic, political, social and cultural life of their countries and encourage women to contribute to the effort to secure co-operation and friendly relations between peoples.
However far we look back into the past, we find that women have assumed very special responsibilities in the education of men and children. More than a century ago, Gogol perceived that ‘women can exercise a great influence, particularly today in our present social order or disorder when there are signs of a weakening sense of civic duty and a cooling of spiritual fervour, a kind of moral exhaustion which makes a reawakening necessary. To bring this reawakening about, the collaboration of women is essential’. A little later, Karl Marx wrote in a letter to Kugelmann that:
Generally speaking, in traditional societies, a child belongs to the community and his education is the work of the whole clan. As the pivot of the social cell constituted by the family, the woman was the driving force behind the child’s education. She was the custodian of the cultural heritage and had to guard the clan’s social values and inculcate them in the rising generation: respect for old people; the idea of collective property; the principle of the division of labour in the interests of the community, etc.
A retrospective analysis of the status of African women will enable us to appreciate the importance of their role as teachers both in the past and in the new society, and to understand the phenomenon of their integration now that they have stepped straight into the history of the modern world.
Traditionally, the African woman stayed at home. The strictness with which she was kept in seclusion varied from one country to another. In some societies, the woman had to see to the family’s subsistence crops in addition to performing the daily routine tasks. Since the prime objective of the family cell was to produce the children needed as workers, the woman’s essential function was to be a mother.
In such societies, education was normally an indirect, oral and pragmatic process. It was provided in the first place by the women. They had the heavy responsibility of kneading the ‘dough’ which would later be moulded by the community. In general, the characteristic feature of this education was the initiation system which served primarily to develop in boys a sense of honour and their duty to defend the country, while it cultivated their lofty feeling of superiority over girls, who were taught what was necessary to equip them to fulfil their functions as women in charge of family life.
Women were educated in this way for family life in order, first and foremost, to serve men to whom they owed complete obedience. They had to show submissiveness to their husbands, fathers and brothers, so that education was a form of alienation and a means of ensuring the subordination of woman to man. This education was given by the older women who decided that all the girls in the clan would be required, on reaching a certain age, to undergo a period of special training to harden them and teach them to bear the lot which was and had to be theirs. Such conditioning was intended to improve what were held to be the qualities of wife and mother in the African woman and, at the same time, to strengthen her inculcated feeling of inferiority, thus justifying the Maninka proverb which says that a woman’s devotion and unconditional submission to men will make her worthy of giving birth to a hero.
If we look more closely at the role of women, we find, in fact, that they are not content to raise children and run the home, but are serving their countries side by side with the men. For example, in the wars of liberation which certain peoples have waged or are still waging, the part played by women is undeniably impressive. The history of certain countries shows that if the women had not contributed their awareness of the problems, their courage, and their determination to achieve a life of dignity and independence, many peoples would still be dominated and exploited.
The struggle for national independence and sovereignty which has marked this second half of the twentieth century has received and is still receiving the active support of women. In some countries like the Republic of Guinea, women have known how to rouse, encourage and spur on their menfolk in their fight to regain human dignity. Through their audacity, bravery and lucidity, they have shown that they are fighters capable of galvanizing people into action and leading a revolution. Thus, in West Africa, the women have enabled the men to start, and carry through to a successful conclusion, strikes which have had a decisive impact on the future of the African continent. African history will always tell of the shining examples of heroines like Jamila Bouhired of Algeria, M’Balia Camara of Guinea and many others.
From our observation and experience of the modern world, we know that the higher the level of education and training attained by women, the more effective their fight against indignity and backwardness will prove to be. Another truth, which is frequently emphasized, is that to neglect the education of women is to handicap present and future generations. It is hard to see how there can be any social progress without women’s education for, whatever the stage of national development, women are always at the heart of that development. The best indicator of any society’s degree of development is the level of women’s education in that society.
Women have been kept in a state of ignorance for many years because of mistaken ideas about their intellectual capacities. The history of African countries has nevertheless shown that, although the women have been down-trodden owing to illiteracy and the absolute power of husbands frequently jealous of male prerogatives, they have managed, in the face of all the vicissitudes of their condition, to provide the education necessary to raise a generation of fighters, the architects of national independence.
Boundless prospects are opening up before the women of this new Africa whose development will henceforth prove irresistible.
It is coming to be even more widely recognized that the contribution of women is essential to social progress, and that if this contribution were missing, no true solutions could be found to world problems of crucial importance. For their contributions to be effective, however, women must be trained and educated in such a way that they can play a really full and active role.
In his book La Condition Humaine de la Femme, President Ahmed Sékou Touré stresses the importance for a nation of the status of its women. He says that:
Women in Africa are no longer the isolated and neglected creatures they used to be. They are represented in the social order by powerful, united organizations. In the economic, social and cultural spheres, they play a part in decision-making bodies, which would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
Although African women do not yet enjoy strict equality in all fields, they now communicate and confer with men, which was certainly not the case in the traditional society where the women had to keep quiet when it came to making decisions. The youngest women, those born in the 1950s and later, are continually proving that the only difference between men and women is genital and resolves itself finally in a complementary relationship.
From this complementary relationship and from this unity, there are emerging human beings who, whether they be girls or boys, may display the character or characteristics of the mother or those of the father when they become parents, regardless of their procreative roles.
If we were to think in terms of the segregation of men and women, we should expect to find a paralleled process of human development with the man educating his son and the mother educating her daughter. But this is not the case, since the woman has always had to do most of the training There is plenty of evidence to prove that women educate men. As education is the main factor in the development of society, the importance of the role played by woman as the first teacher cannot be too strongly emphasized.
In most of our developing countries, it is frequently the women who are to be seen, rain or shine, taking their children to school, or who intervene with a teacher for a child who has been expelled from school. We find quite often, too, that it is due to the direct or indirect action of women that governments are induced to undertake social programmes such as the creation of welfare centres for mothers and children, vocational training institutions for girls, etc. These simple examples illustrate women’s acute sense of responsibility and their awareness of the need for an effort to raise the status of women which will contribute to an improvement in the living conditions of the family unit and hence in the life of the whole of society. We also learn from these examples that, in spite of unjustly imposed restrictions, women can be the driving force behind the development of the new society provided that they exercise their full rights in all fields, whether social, economic or political.
We see, then, how the importance of education and training for women can be appreciated in terms of the changes we must expect to face in contemporary society. Although such changes clearly offer new opportunities to the women of today, they also present them with a new challenge and new difficulties. While it is true that a girl’s right to education is now recognized, certain social and economic factors still hinder the exercise of that right. Consequently, there are still many mothers who are doing agricultural or commercial jobs to earn the money to pay for their daughters’ education.
In the countries of Africa, the effective development of economic and social potentialities depends to a large extent on the role to be assigned to women, and this is true for several reasons. In the first place, many of our countries have very limited resources and essentially agricultural economies. More than 75 per cent of the population live in rural areas where the women are more numerous and more active. For this reason, all available forces must be harnessed to the task of developing as rapidly as possible. Secondly, several aspects of problems connected with the improvement of living conditions such as nutrition, hygiene and family health, fall almost exclusively into the province of women.
Finally, both by nature and by tradition, women are closer to children than men are, and it is the influence of the women which can foster or hinder the children’s growth and development.
Every child is born illiterate. How, then, can he be saved from ignorance if the woman who brings him into the world and who is responsible for training him and making him a useful member of society, has not herself conquered the evil which threatens him?
The illiteracy which is rife in most countries of the Third World is thus directly linked with the fact that the women who must play the leading role in its eradication are handicapped by the very low level, or complete lack, of their participation in education. Having become aware of this interdependence, most of our countries are seeking to arouse the mothers’ interest through education and to lay great stress on the decisive role which they can play in the fight against illiteracy.
The love of education and the realization of its importance come naturally to man in his earliest years. The mother, who is man’s first teacher, must nevertheless participate in her child’s development and she must be equipped to perform her educational function effectively. This is why, in our countries, it is vitally necessary not only to help women become better mothers and housewives but also, and above all, to provide abundant facilities for their education and instruction and to encourage their full participation in the life of the community. The imminence of great changes dictates this course, so true is it that, in many respects, the future of the Third World in particular depends directly on the efforts of women as teachers.
In these times of mutation, certain beliefs, ideas, and customs, as well as certain attitudes to women, must be re-evaluated and even reconsidered whenever they run counter to the emancipation and advancement of women.
There is nothing contradictory in demanding that a woman should assert her rights as a human being in the new society while asking her to continue to act as the guardian of the traditional values which it is her duty to inculcate in the rising generation.
Bearing this in mind, we must always remember that it is the woman’s responsibility, in the home and within the family, to achieve that synthesis of ancient and modern ways from which the new society can and must arise.
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