When, in 1869, Emily Davies founded the College for Women at Hitchin, later Girton College, Cambridge, her avowed aim was equality of educational opportunity for women. It was not until 1947, however, that Cambridge women were admitted to degrees. Until then their degrees were merely titular, even though women had shown remarkable ability. In 1890 Philippa Fawcett of Newnham was ranked ‘above the Senior Wrangler’, with a score 13% higher than the next closest, but she was not allowed the traditional title. That was reserved to men only. Nowadays we smile over such follies. Although inequalities and prejudices remain, in the west the right of women to education is taken for granted — even if it has taken a long time to achieve.
Compare and contrast the situation in the Swat Valley. Yesterday we learned that Malala Yousafzai was shot for daring to go to school. She is just 14. Some will remember the diary she produced for the BBC in 2009, which gave a glimpse of what it was like to live in Taliban-dominated society. I have commented before on young Afghan girls having acid flung in their face because they want an eduction. This is not a ‘women’s issue’ or a ‘cultural matter’, somehow secondary to the political process. It is a human rights issue, fundamental to the political process because it has to do with both justice and the rule of law. While we pray for Malala’s recovery, I can’t help recalling that her name means, literally, ‘Grief Stricken’. I think we too should be grief stricken that in 2012 there are still areas of the world where women and girls are not thought worthy of education and those that do dare to go to school risk paying the price with their blood.