May 9, 2010

Educating the Women of Persia – by Dr. Genevieve L Coy, Director of Girls Tarbiat School in Tihran, 1926

"A teacher is like unto a gardener. Just as a gardener sows the seeds and watches over their sprouting, looks after their growth and development, so also a teacher must watch over the education of the children and inculcate in their young lives the highest ideals of truth and justice." -‘Abdu'l-Baha.

Twenty years ago [as of 1926] there were no schools for girls in Tihran. Daughters of affluent parents were occasionally taught by tutors, but as a rule a woman was supposed to have no acquaintance with the learning that came from books. With the slow development of progressive ideas this situation has been markedly changed, and Tihran now contains both public and private schools for girls.

The Girls' Tarbiyat School, sponsored and financed by the Baha'is of Tihran, was the second school for girls opened in the city. During the nine years of Miss Lillian Kappes' work as director, the school came successfully through many difficulties, and is now one of the largest and best of the girls' schools. Three years ago a reactionary Minister of Education said to the principal of another school: "The Tarbiyat School is the best school for girls in Tihran. Alas that they are Baha'is!”

In spite of the handicap of a limited curriculum, the importance of the Tarbiyat School in the lives of her pupils can scarcely be overestimated. We will consider first some of the direct contributions made by the subjects in the course of study.

The main work of the primary grades in Persia, as in America, is to teach the pupils to read the native tongue. Persian script seems very strange and difficult to one who has read only English characters, but it is perhaps as easy for a Persian girl to learn to read it as for an American child to master English reading. In Persian there are practically no silent letters, and each letter has only one sound. It is true that each letter has three forms, but there is a considerable similarity among them, and the children seem to have no serious difficulty in learning them.

As soon as the mechanics of reading have been acquired the child has the whole field of Persia's great literature at her command. Beginning readers are overweighted with very moral stories about extremely good and dreadfully bad little boys, no readers yet having been published for the use of girls. They also contain such philosophical discourses as that which explains how we know that God exists. But the later books contain many fables, stories and poems from Persian literature. The school girls will read and memorize many extracts from Firdusi's Shah Nameh, the Book of the Kings, which has been called the greatest of all Eastern national epics. She will study selections from the didactic poems of Sa'di, such as the Gulistan, the Garden of Roses. She will become thoroughly acquainted with many another poet -- Nizami, and Jelal-ud-din R'umi, and others. She will learn some of the beautiful lyrics of the poet of Hafiz. For no Persian girl may consider herself educated unless she can quote many, many pages of poetry.

Not only does learning to read permit the girl to become familiar with classical literature, but she is also able to read current newspapers and magazines. Persian newspapers are small, poorly illustrated and highly censored, but they do give some detailed news of Persian happenings, with occasional items about foreign events.

There are now one or more magazines for women printed in Persian, and the articles in them are such as to widen the girls' horizon. She learns about the activities of women in countries where they have made more progress than in Persia. She reads accounts of places and people whose differing customs arouse her interest and curiosity. In the Tarbiyat School these magazines are used as reading material in the upper classes. Thus the girl's outlook gradually broadens beyond the limits of her own home and garden to at last include a glimpse of Europe and America.

In her sixth year of school the Persian girl begins the study of Arabic, and if she continues till she graduates from the secondary school she studies this language for five years. This contributes to her knowledge of Persian, since so large a percentage of Persian words are of Arabic origin. It also helps her to some comprehension of the Qur'an, which she has already been compelled to learn by rote, in true parrot fashion, during her third, fourth and fifth school years. The orthodox Muhammadan girl knows it as a most important religious duty to be able to quote the prophetic suras. The Baha'i girl desires to understand the Qur'an because she realizes how useful it will later be to her in presenting Baha'i principles to her Muhammadan friends.

French is taught two days a week during the three years of the secondary course because it is required by the government curriculum. There is a marked emphasis on grammar, and the pupils do not acquire a practical proficiency in either reading or speaking. Most of the Baha'i girls have little real incentive to master French, and all the school attempts to do in this subject is to make it possible for the pupils to pass the government examination at the end of the secondary school. From the standpoint of use in life outside of the school, the time spent on French seems almost wasted.

Whenever there is any one in the school who is capable of teaching it, English lessons are given four days a week from the fifth year on through the seventh, the last year of the elementary school. In the upper school the time has to be cut down to two days because of the introduction of French. The Baha'i girls are eager to learn English because they wish to correspond with American and English Baha'is, and to read such magazines as the Star of the West. When they can study systematically for three years they gain a fair speaking knowledge of the language. Baha'i parents wish their children to become proficient in English, and it is most unfortunate that, according to my last news from Tihran, no classes in English are now being given. The teachers in the school regret this, but none of them feels that she knows the language well enough to teach it. Since there are very few good Persian text books for the studies of the secondary school, it is very desirable that the pupils learn English well enough to be able to use books in that language. English is not in the state course of study, and therefore must be put in at times saved from other subjects.

One of the most important contributions the school makes to the lives of the girls has to do with physical activity and health. Lessons in hygiene are on the programs of all elementary grades; and while, from an American point of view, the books leave much to be desired, the information they give is far beyond that possessed by the average Persian woman. Lessons in formal gymnastics are often given in the lower grades, and the children enjoy them as few American pupils would. The custom of giving the commands in English has grown up in the school, and this serves as a practical and simple introduction to the later study of that language.

The playground games also add much to the girls' lives. When Miss Kappes first entered the school, the girls spent their recess periods in sitting quietly in the garden. Now they play tag, bounce balls, jump rope, etc. The teachers used to be a bit disturbed for fear the children would play too hard, and occasionally a mother would send a complaining message that when her daughter was at home "she wanted to jump rope all the time!" In spite of such rare objections, the present healthy activity of the girls is a great improvement over conventional sedentary habits.

Lessons in arithmetic and in Persian bookkeeping have as much or as little value outside of school as most of our own arithmetic teaching. Text books in history are very unsatisfactory. They tend to emphasis on rote memory, and the views of early Persian history they present are based on legend rather than on modern scientific knowledge. The world history given in the secondary school is very valuable in helping the girls to realize something of the great movements of history.

A fair percentage of the time of the school days is given to science. In the elementary school this includes hygiene, general science and geography. The course in general science is moderately good; it consists in the main of simple facts about plants and animals. The geography is very formal, with undue emphasis on maps and place location. However, like world history, it does help free the girls from mental provincialism. The school has been trying to collect from American sources good pictures to help make real the life of the countries studied in geography. In the secondary course there are classes in chemistry, physics, botany and zoology. The textbooks are poor and it is possible to give very little laboratory work. Thanks to a gift of money from an American Baha'i, it was possible to buy some simple apparatus for experiments in physics, and a small store of chemicals. We were also able to purchase a few large charts for use in classes in zoology and botany. It was hoped that this material would help to make the higher courses in science of more value.

Sewing is taught two hours a week to girls in the three upper classes. They are eager to learn about such things as color combinations and American fashions. The teachers in the school usually dress with sense and good taste, and thus give the pupils good examples to follow in their sewing.

The subjects in the course of study are thus seen to vary greatly in the amount they may contribute to the girls' lives after they leave school, but it is obvious that the total gain is great to women whose interests would otherwise be bounded by the immediately personal needs of food, clothing, and the care of children.

Another important contribution of the school has already been suggested, namely, general sociability and friendliness with other girls and women. A Persian woman may not go to plays and moving pictures. There is seldom a lecture for her to attend. If she visits the mosque or goes shopping in the bazaar she must be heavily veiled. Her only social occasions are teas, weddings and funerals. The social life of a Persian girl who does not attend school is necessarily limited to the time when she accompanies her mother on rare outings. But at school the girl has many playmates. At recess and noon there is much talk with her friends, as well as jolly games. She has pleasant chats with her neighbors as she walks to and from school with them. In the class room she finds a friendly young teacher and hears many interesting things discussed. It thus happens that most girls who have begun to go to school would much dislike to have to stop attending.

When the bell for opening school rings in the morning the girls gather by classes in the garden or in the great hall of the school building. Before they go to their rooms a prayer is chanted and announcements are made. This brief morning assembly is probably valuable in giving each pupil some sense of her part in the big group that forms the Tarbiyat School.

The school also serves Persian women in the ideals and habits of conduct which it tries to inculcate. All the teachers are Baha'is in the fullest sense of the word. Constantly and quietly they emphasize right standards of conduct. They try to train their pupils into habits of truthfulness, honesty, kindness and tolerance.

The Tarbiyat School serves not only its pupils, but also its teachers. To become a teacher in the school means that a girl gains a strong impulse to continue her own education and progress. In order to get new ideas to present to her children she does extra reading and studying. Some of the teachers take private lessons in English in order to be able to use English books. They confer with one another, and thus add to their knowledge by active exchange of ideas and experiences. Most of the teachers are members of the Young Women's Society for Progress, and there they continue some of their studies. One of the programs that especially interested that group was a study of the life of Columbus and the discovery of America. Twenty years ago no one would have dreamed of a Persian girl spending hours in writing a paper on such a subject. The teachers must also be examples of excellent Baha'i conduct, and the realization of this is undoubtedly a stimulus to spiritual growth. In all Persia there is probably no other group of young women more intelligent and progressive than the fifteen or twenty teachers of the Girls' Tarbiyat School.

One of the greatest services of this school to Persian women is the monthly conferences for women which it gives during all but the two or three coldest months of winter. Miss Kappes had hopes of founding such a series of meetings, but this desire had not come to fruition at the time of her death. The plan was finally undertaken through the efforts of Miss Ghodsia Ashraf and the teachers in the school. When I reached Persia in the fall of 1922 the conferences were an established part of the school program, and during that year they were attended by audiences of three and four hundred women.

The program of each conference was planned by the teachers. They selected some central idea they wished to present to the women, and then planned songs, speeches and dialogues that would express this idea in an interesting as well as an instructive manner. Each teacher was expected to appear on the program at some time during the year. Groups of the pupils participated in each conference, and an especial attempt was made to give the girls in the upper school an opportunity to present talks or dialogues.

The school was fortunate in the possession of a great hall two stories high, in the center of the building. This room, with the balconies overlooking it, would seat several hundred women. At one side wide double doors opened onto the garden, and the speakers' raised platform was placed in this doorway. Thus our small stage was provided with a beautiful background of pool and trees and flowers.

On special occasions, such as the conference at the Persian New Year, the hall was lavishly decorated by teachers and pupils. Each doorway was hung with Persian flags, and pictures and maps were draped with yards of beautiful vines. The balcony railings were wound with arbor vitae, and the crossed flags of Persia and America were fixed in its center. One day Vafaieh Khanum, who is now serving so efficiently as director of the school, looked at the American flag and said: "See what love the Americans have for Persia! Miss Kappes worked for us for so many years. And see all these things Americans have sent for the school flags, pictures and books. That is the way for two countries to become friends!”

One of the most interesting programs I heard given at a school conference centered about the idea of a universal auxiliary language. One of the older girls presented a well organized paper explaining why such a language would be useful. A group of girls gave in dramatic form the story of the four men who desired to buy grapes, but could not succeed in doing so because each spoke a different language; in this version, it was French, English, Turkish and Persian. In order further to show how diversity of language interferes with comprehension, a French class sang a song in French, and another group gave "My country, 'tis of thee" in English. The program concluded with songs in Arabic and Persian.

Another valuable conference presented to the mothers a series of talks about the studies of the secondary course, explaining the values to be obtained from each subject. A third program discussed woman's life in the home: how she may wisely administer her household, how she may dress attractively without extravagance, etc. On this day three girls gave an amusing dialogue, representing three types of women: one who had no interests except in new dresses and tea parties, a second who had no interest in the lighter things of life, and a third who tried to live at the "golden mean."

The smaller children often added to the program by dramatizing a fable or story that illustrated some phase of the topic for the day. One of the most attractive endings to a program was a gymnastic exhibit by children of the first grade. They were all dressed in white dresses which had been made by their teacher and some of the older girls. With much enthusiasm they followed their teacher's commands for the exercises. When the exhibit closed with a march about the garden in which each girl carried a Persian flag, the applause was prolonged until the wee ones, radiantly happy, had to do it all over again.

The women who attend these conferences must be heavily veiled when they go through the streets. But in the sunlight of the school hall their chuddars fall back, showing their friendly, interested faces, as well as their "best dresses" of silk or velvet, donned for such an important occasion. Many of the women can not read or write. Others have been pupils in the school, and now come to hear their own children take part in songs and recitations. Sometimes a principal of another school comes to see what Tarbiyat School conferences are like. One very welcome guest was the charming and intelligent girl who was our favorite among the government school inspectors. After the conclusion of the program, the audience usually broke up into small groups, and the ladies lingered in the garden to talk for an hour or more. It is perhaps little wonder that during the winter months, when the assembly hall can not be heated, the teachers are besieged with the question, "When are you going to have another conference? It is so long since we have had one!"

The work of the teachers of the Girls' Tarbiyat School is little known outside of Tihran. There are possibly many Baha'is in that city even who have little idea of the work these young women are doing. But in the future, when a history of modern education in Persia is written, there will need to be golden pages of appreciation for the unselfish and intelligent service of the teachers of the Tarbiyat School, who now in these pioneering days serve the women of Persia.

"How wonderful it will be when the teachers are faithful, attracted and assured, educated and refined Baha'is, well grounded in the science of pedagogy and familiar with child psychology; thus they may train the children with the fragrances of God. In the scheme of human life the teacher and his system of teaching plays the most important role, carrying with it the heaviest responsibilities and most subtle influence." - 'Abdu'l-Baha.
(Star of the West, vol. XVII, 1926, pp. 50-55)