Kathy Neal- Providing a way for Egypt's girls to fulfill their dreams
10 Oct, 2011
Kathy Neal is a partner with the law firm of EldridgeCooperSteichen&Leach PLLC of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a member of the board of directors of Springboard - Educating the Future. Through the generosity of Kathy, her husband Rob Johnston, and her children Abby and Neal, construction is under way of a new girl-friendly school at El Ghouroury in the Fayoum governorate.
Kathy recently received the Fern Holland Award, which was established in 2004 by the Women's Law Caucus of The University of Tulsa College of Law to honor Fern Holland, a graduate of the law school who was killed in Iraq while working on women's issues and development of Iraq's interim constitution.
We are publishing Kathy's comments to the Women's Law Caucus because she provided a thought-provoking discussion of the reasons for girl-friendly schools in Egypt. Click here for a printer-friendly version in Adobe Acrobat format.
I am humbled and awed to be selected as this year's recipient of the TU Women's Law Caucus Fern Holland Award. It is truly an honor and completely unexpected.
Thanks so much to the Women's Law Caucus, not only for the award, but for its enthusiasm and support of the Egyptian Girls' School Program - Jennifer White in particular.
My love affair with Egypt started as a young girl. I dreamed of being an archeologist, pith helmet on my head, pick and brush in hand, Pyramids in the background. While my dreams changed as I grew older, Egypt always fascinated me. When the opportunity came for my family to live in Egypt , the dream sprang to life again. I was crushed to learn that lawyers were not in huge demand on the archeological expeditions.
But Egypt was as vivid, chaotic, charming, and generous as I imagined. Every visitor I know to Egypt claims it is magical and overwhelming. I loved every minute of my time spent there. It changed my life and the lives of my family members.
My one real regret, however, was that I did not do more to help Egypt's poor. When I learned of the initiative of the Egyptian government to build schools in rural parts of Egypt for girls and the involvement of the oil and gas company, Apache Egypt, in that initiative, I wanted to help. I felt privileged to be asked to serve on the Board of Directors for Springboard - Educating the Future, Inc., a non-profit corporation organized to provide oversight, administrative and fund-raising support for the program, "One Room Schools for Egypt's Girls." Apache Egypt and Springboard have committed to the building of approximately 100 schools in Egypt for girls, ages 6 to 14.
While you honor the achievements of Fern Holland today and while you honor my involvement in the Egyptian girls school program, I want you to meet who I honor through my commitment to that program.
I'd like you to meet my daughter, Abby Johnston.
Abby Johnson will soon be 17 years old. She is junior in high school. She has had access to a high school education that includes advanced placement courses. When she graduates in a little over one year, she will have mastered Physics, Chemistry, Biology, a variety of math classes, including Calculus. She speaks Spanish conversationally and has studied French and Arabic. Abby drives her own car; she rides her own horse. Abby will attend a four-year university; she intends to pursue a career as a veterinarian. She knows no limitations; there are no cultural expectations for her. She is free to choose the destiny of her life without any substantial barriers.
It is truly a fortuitous circumstance of birth that Abby was not born in a village in rural Egypt. Think how different her life would be:
- Abby would not have a birth certificate. There would be no official record of her existence.
- Abby's family transport would be a donkey. There may be horses in her village but they work as hard as she does. The thought of driving a car or riding a horse for pleasure is completely alien to her.
The illiteracy rate for all Egyptian women is nearly 60 percent. It is substantially higher in rural Egypt. The odds are very high that Abby would not know how to read and write. If a government school was in the proximity of her village, it is likely that her father (not her mother) would have not allowed her to attend that school. Why not?
Her brother, Neal Johnston, would have been sent to that school. After all, the education will not be wasted on him; he's male.
Plus, according to statistics, Abby would have had three other brothers and sisters. She would have been instrumental in their care and instrumental in the subsistence farming of her family. She was needed at home - there was no time to send her to school.
Notice that I am speaking in the past tense. By age 17, Abby is not taking care of her brothers and sisters. She has been married for at least two years and has her own young children. She is married to a man that her father (not her mother) chose for her.
How can Abby ever dream of anything beyond her village? She can't.
Egyptian Abby Johnson can't dream because without an education she has no understanding of a world beyond her village. Without an education, she can't teach her sons about the world and tolerance for all people. Without an education, she can't teach her daughters that they can change their own destinies - that perhaps someday they might even become a veterinarian.
So my involvement in the Egyptian Girls' school program honors the millions of Egyptian Abby Johnstons.
The millions of bright, hopeful little girls who have no way to fulfill their dreams, who have no understanding of how far they might dream or who they might touch.
It honors the little Egyptian girl in her finest hand-me-down clothes, her hair carefully combed, her eyes shining, who told me in response to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up? I want to be a doctor."
It honors the Egyptian grandmother, proudly grasping the granddaughter who will attend one of the schools under construction, who kissed me three times in the traditional Egyptian fashion and said, "May Allah give you thousands of blessings. Thank you for the school. My granddaughter will be the first in our family to read and write."
It honors the generations of mothers and grandmothers who love their daughters every bit as much as we love ours -- who themselves would have loved to read and write.
I think Fern Holland would have approved.