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Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow

Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow
Education and Islam in Mandate Palestine

The first study to examine the education of Muslim girls in Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century.

January 2010
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293 pages | 6 x 9 | 11 b&w illus., 2 tables |

From the late nineteenth century onward, men and women throughout the Middle East discussed, debated, and negotiated the roles of young girls and women in producing modern nations. In Palestine, girls' education was pivotal to discussions about motherhood. Their education was seen as having the potential to transform the family so that it could meet both modern and nationalist expectations.

Ela Greenberg offers the first study to examine the education of Muslim girls in Palestine from the end of the Ottoman administration through the British colonial rule. Relying upon extensive archival sources, official reports, the Palestinian Arabic press, and interviews, she describes the changes that took place in girls' education during this time. Greenberg describes how local Muslims, often portrayed as indifferent to girls' education, actually responded to the inadequacies of existing government education by sending their daughters to missionary schools despite religious tensions, or by creating their own private nationalist institutions.

Greenberg shows that members of all socioeconomic classes understood the triad of girls' education, modernity, and the nationalist struggle, as educated girls would become the "mothers of tomorrow" who would raise nationalist and modern children. While this was the aim of the various schools in Palestine, not all educated Muslim girls followed this path, as some used their education, even if it was elementary at best, to become teachers, nurses, and activists in women's organizations.

  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Note on Transliteration
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Educating Girls in Late Ottoman Palestine
  • Chapter 2. Removing "the Long-standing Prejudice against Girls' Education"
  • Chapter 3. Reading the Bible and Wearing the Veil
  • Chapter 4. "The Love of the Nation Is from Faith"
  • Chapter 5. Learning to Be "the Mothers of Tomorrow"
  • Chapter 6. The Mothers of Tomorrow in the Public Sphere
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Ela Greenberg is Research Fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


In 1930, on the pages of Filastin, a daily Arabic newspaper issued in Jaffa, a lawyer by the name of Najib al-Hakim penned the following: "We won't achieve independence and we won't awaken unless the woman is given a nationalist education," noting that, "Of course, girls are the mothers of tomorrow. They are the other half of men. Indeed, they are the pillar of nationalist life, lest we not say, they are the total pillar." Yet according to this author, the foreign schools in Palestine sought to thwart the nationalist education of young girls by replacing "our inherited Eastern morals and customs with western customs and morals. We forget the past. These schools make us forget our language, even in our homes." The implication was that young girls educated in these schools would not be able to raise their children properly: "Child experts say the home is the first school and the mother is the teacher. The baby is the plant which the mother nurses with honorable water when she is honorable. How can she nurse the baby with honorable water when she is ignorant of the meaning of honor? How is this possible when she is prepared for this principle but she is unable to learn this in the colonialist schools?"


This vision of girls' education as contributing to the next generation of nationalists was particular neither to time nor to place. From the late nineteenth century onward, men and women throughout the Middle East discussed, debated, and negotiated the roles of young girls and women in producing modern nations. Lisa Pollard has argued that Europeans in Egypt were among the first to link this notion of nation to the home and family, as they produced travelogues and other writings full of negative images of debauchery, perversion, and female denigration within Egyptian homes, giving impulse to the British occupation of 1882. Creating a modern Egypt through reform of the home and family, particularly by eradicating polygamy and the seclusion of women, both prominent among the upper ruling class, thus became central to British policies in Egypt, and echoed throughout writings by missionaries in the region as well. Muslim reformers and later Arab nationalists also debated the reform of the home and the family, at its crux the question of borrowing from Europe, and the degree to which the East should adopt and adapt the culture of the West. Early twentieth century Arab nationalists also appropriated a variety of metaphors of the "modern family" to combat the negative image created and promulgated by the West, with the image of the modern family used for mobilizing the public in pursuit of nationalist goals, as Beth Baron has shown in her important work. Similarly, Afsaneh Najmabadi has elucidated how in late nineteenth century Qajar Iran, modernists reconfigured the role of a woman from being a woman of the household, that is, one of several wives or concubines within a multi-generational harim, to being upheld as wife, as her husband's companion, as household manager, and as nurturer and educator of the next generation of male citizens.


The question of girls' education became central to this discourse. Lebanese educator and early nationalist Butrus al-Bustani (1819-1883) believed that women should be educated so that they could run their households, and care for their children, echoing ideas put forth by the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Some thirty years later, in 1872-1873, the influential Egyptian thinker, writer, translator, and educator Rifa`a Rafi` al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) published a textbook called al-Murshid al-amin lil-banat wa-l-banin (Guiding truths for girls and boys). In his al-Murshid, al-Tahtawi departed from al-Bustani's vision of womanhood by linking girls' education with the stability of the nation. Female education would cement the bonds of marriage and the family, seen as the building blocks of the nation and markers of stability. Education would also provide women with proper leisure activities and training for appropriate work. Al-Tahtawi's ideal of education was similar to, if not influenced by, that of European philosophers such as the German Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), who urged his countrymen to use education in order to build a strong state and create a patriotic generation of men and women in the wake of ongoing military struggles between Prussia and France.


The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the next was marked by an ever-growing debate over women's roles. As Beth Baron has shown, the women's press in Egypt that flourished from the 1890s onward, primarily focused on the middle class domestic ideal of conjugal marriage, with the mothers raising their children and running their own households. At the center of this emerging ideal was support for girls' education. While the women's press was influential among female readers inside and outside Egypt, and gave rise to similar publications in Beirut and Damascus, the writings of Qasim Amin (1865-1908) transformed the debate into a far more vocal one. A French-educated, upper class lawyer and judge in the British administration in Egypt, Amin presented ideas in his Tahrir al-mar'a (The emancipation of woman, 1899) and al-Mar'a al-jadida (The new woman, 1900) that were felt for decades to come. Inspired by Europe, as was characteristic of the Ottoman Egyptian elite to which he belonged, Amin believed that the West held the key to progress and advancement. Like the women's press, he supported girls' education in order to uplift and reform the family and the nation, while he called for an end to women's seclusion and to their wearing of the face veil, claiming that both undermined and at times prevented girls' education.


In both the women's press and the works by Amin, women's roles as mothers were paramount. The caring mother as educator gained significance in advancing notions of modernity and nationalism. As Baron writes, "Maternal imagery proved particularly prevalent in nationalist literatures across the world," with Egyptian women identifying themselves and being identified by others as "the mothers of the nation." Baron points out that "those who emphasized the role of women as 'Mothers of the Nation' argued that the nation would only advance with girls' education and women's progress. Only educated mothers would imbue their sons with love for the nation." Thus the education of girls as future mothers was essential to the progress of the nation and to its depiction and acceptance as being a "modern" nation. Although this notion traversed administrative boundaries throughout the Middle East, particularly thanks to the Arabic press, the discourse appears to have varied somewhat according to the context. While the rhetoric of the "mothers of the nation" recognized the pioneering role that elite, educated Egyptian women had in constructing both the family and the nation within Egypt, at the same time, it reflected their influence and position in leading the Arab nations. In contrast, the phrase "mothers of tomorrow" (ummahat al-ghad) was commonly used within the Arabic press in Palestine. It referred to the anticipated role that young, educated women in Palestine would have not only in creating new, modern families but also in determining their country's future.


The standard histories of Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian society until 1948 paid little attention to women and gender until the publication of Ellen Fleischmann's work on the contribution of Palestinian women to their nationalist struggle before 1948. Researching and writing in the wake of the first Intifada (1988-1993), in which Palestinian women were visible participants, Fleischmann showed that primarily elite Palestinian women during the British mandate also were mobilized to work on behalf of the nationalist struggle. She stresses the significance of their education, which provided them with the skills needed to create a movement of women, and which influenced them to enter the male-dominated public sphere. Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow builds upon Fleischmann's work, by exploring the development of girls' education as integral to the nationalist and modernist narratives in Palestine from the late Ottoman period through the end of the British mandate. It examines how girls' education in government, missionary, and private local schools sought to transform Muslim girls into the "mothers of tomorrow," meeting both modernist and nationalist expectations of gender. Class and religion were equally significant to both educational provision and quality of education.


Markers of nationalism and modernity had already begun to manifest themselves in various ways in Palestine by the end of the nineteenth century. The effects of the Ottoman Tanzimat or "reordering" reforms issued during the last half of the nineteenth century replaced traditional Ottoman government, religious, legal, educational, and social institutions with "modern," early-nationalist institutions by the turn of the century. Rashid Khalidi eloquently describes how following the Tanzimat, the traditional religious bureaucracy and education "ceased to confer prestige and status in society as it once had," being replaced by western methods of scholarship. Palestine's cities also were transformed during this time. The port cities of Jaffa and Haifa expanded as they accommodated foreign missionary and merchant communities, who were granted official privileges to reside throughout the Empire. New spacious neighborhoods developed outside the familiar city walls, serving the Arab elite and rising middle class families, as well as small foreign Christian communities. The grand, often ostentatious Arab homes became markers of modernity, representing the way Arab elite and middle class families wished to live, as well as how they wanted to be identified. In the years preceding World War I, electricity, phonographs, and even cars had become apparent in Palestine's urban centers.


The Arabic press in Palestine had a significant role in promoting a modern vision of a Palestinian nation. Although Arabic newspapers had been published elsewhere, in Palestine they appeared only after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which marked the restoration of the Ottoman constitution, the end of the sultan's autocratic rule, and the beginning of an era of pluralism and freedom of speech. During 1908, some fifteen newspapers appeared in Palestine, heralding the new era, while some thirty-four newspapers were in existence by World War I. Although individual newspapers were smaller and less developed than those emanating from the more cosmopolitan and larger cities of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and Alexandria, Ami Ayalon's meticulous study of the Arabic press shows that they circulated far beyond their place of production. Already before World War I, the newly founded Arabic press in Palestine expressed its indignation toward Zionism, settlements, and the idea of Palestine as a Jewish homeland. An even livelier press emerged following the war, in which opposition to Zionism remained a central theme, together with resentment toward the British mandate. The transition from weekly newspapers to daily ones following the crisis of 1929 gave the press an even more prominent and stronger voice in mobilizing the reading public in the nationalist struggle. At the same time, however, the two most important Palestinian newspapers, Filastin and al-Difa', both issued in Jaffa, promoted the idea that Palestine was "modern" and had a place in the modern world by running advertisements for "the most important accoutrements of modern life," including items of clothing, household furniture, electric goods, and automobiles. Although Mark LeVine claims that these advertisements were marketed to members of the elite bourgeois in Jaffa, the fact that these newspapers were distributed throughout Palestine meant that these notions of modernity extended far beyond the confines of the middle and upper classes in Jaffa. As Ayalon has argued, the Arabic press in Palestine was transmitted orally in public spaces, such as the local coffee shops, where illiterate members of the urban and rural population were exposed to nationalist and modernist ideals to which the underprivileged may have also aspired.


Women's roles and gender issues also were discussed on the pages of the Palestinian press, reflecting the women's awakening (al-nahda al-nisa'iyya), the flourishing discussion of women's roles that Baron brought to our attention in her work on the Egyptian women's press. The women's awakening articulated both progress of and possibility for women in both the national and domestic spheres, which took place throughout the region at the end of the nineteenth century, and continued through the twentieth century. Although existent issues of al-Nafa'is al-`asriyya, one of the first Palestinian periodicals to be published in 1908, discussed the women's awakening, it was only after the war and on the pages of the daily newspapers that a regular discourse about women in Palestine appeared. According to Fleischmann, the 1920s should be seen as the beginning of the "virtual outpouring of heated, contentious articles on gender issues." The Haifa-based al-Karmil and Jaffa's Filastin both published regular columns about women for its readers, as did the Haifa newspaper al-Nafir and the short-lived Jerusalem newspaper al-Hayat, which appeared only in 1931. In particular, these newspapers articulated the significance of girls' education both to being modern and to building the nation. The press followed and praised the accomplishments and achievements of educated women in both the West and the East, particularly those who challenged gender norms and entered previously all-male spheres and professions. For example, Filastin wrote that "the awakened woman in Egypt and Beirut has formed organizations and published newspapers and spoken in clubs and gatherings, all for advancing her cause, and the result of her awakening has been that public opinion in Egypt and Lebanon has begun to sympathize with her cause," while it added that "the Palestinian woman is almost ready to show her true colors." Palestinian women were praised for their scholastic abilities, in particular, with the press publishing the names of female graduates from specific schools each year, most likely penned by the schools themselves in order to advertise their achievements. From the end of 1929 onward, marked by an Arab women's congress in Jerusalem and the subsequent creation of the Arab Women's Association, which enabled women to engage in nationalist activities, the press began to run articles about women's "firsts," that is, records of the first-time accomplishments of individual Arab women inside and outside of Palestine. Fleischmann posits that these were attempts to construct a "positive, active image of the 'modern' (elite) Arab woman," with both journalists and women themselves "acutely aware of Western, negative portrayals of Arab women as backward and degraded." Yet, in parallel to the press's emphasis on the first-time accomplishments of individual women, the women's columns urged female readers to devote themselves to their husbands, children, and homes.


This discourse of domesticity manifested the triad of nationalism, modernity, and girls' education. This was illustrated well by the discussion of breast feeding in a number of newspapers published in Palestine. Mother's milk was described as the "best nourishment," and a "total natural meal," as well as being essential to the child's health. Al-Karmil asserted that mother's milk transferred the positive traits of the mother to the child, and helped to shape the child's character. One article associated nursing with the nation, stating that a mother "nurses her son with the milk of love for the nation," while another connected nursing with creating a stable family life, considered key to building the nation. Women were told to adhere to strict feeding schedules and to nurse their babies only according to specific times, which varied by author. Similarly, they were urged to begin weaning their infants anytime between five and nine months, much earlier than the two years prescribed in the Qur'an. The underlying message was that many Palestinian women did not breast-feed their children, but rather had begun to use animal milk as well as powdered formulas, such as Nestlé, a British infant formula advertised in the local Arabic newspapers.


Girls' education was pivotal to discussions about motherhood. Their education was seen as having the potential to transform the family so that it could meet both modern and nationalist expectations. As Pollard writes within the context of colonial Egypt, it was "in the classroom [that] the habits and customs of modernity were shaped, the sins of the domicile purged, and the mores of the new nation articulated." Schools would produce "reformed, educated, rational" mothers, who were constructed as essential to raising boys who would be able to run the affairs of the state along modern lines. According to Pollard, "women's education became a project not only of creating educated, literate women but of producing mothers who could lead the home and national family into a new era." Although these visions of girls' education were created by both elite, upper class men and women, they were not just restricted to them; the vision of teaching girls to be proper and nationalist mothers was extended to all social classes.


The opening of girls' schools in the late Ottoman period and through the British mandate did not develop in a vacuum; rather, it had its foundations in the indigenous form of schooling known as the kuttab (pl. katatib), which throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was condemned as being a pre-modern, antiquated institution. Originating in the early Islamic periods of the Umayyads and Abbasids, the katatib provided children with religious training, rudimentary knowledge, and religious socialization. Most katatib were composed of a single teacher, usually an elderly male religious scholar, who taught the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Pupils completed their studies as soon as they could recite the Qur'an from memory (hifz), a feat that was marked with a public ceremony of recognition. Often located near the local mosque, or in the home of the teacher, the katatib were supported financially by the awqaf, properties endowed for religious, educational, or charitable purposes for the benefit of the Muslim population, thus giving them a prominent position within Muslim communal life. Although the katatib provided generations with a basic education and knowledge of Islam, attempts to replace them with modern schools led to their neglect within the historiography of the region. Moreover, as Ami Ayalon has noted, many autobiographical accounts have depicted learning in the kuttab as a rather unpleasant experience, with authors recalling poorly trained teachers, dilapidated physical conditions, the difficult task of having to commit the Qur'an to memory, and the frequent use of corporeal punishment with the teacher beating the soles of the pupils' feet with a cane.


Although the katatib were aimed primarily at young boys, there is anecdotal evidence that girls also attended them. In a middle class neighborhood of Cairo in the late nineteenth century, Edward Lane observed girls in a local kuttab, where they sat separately from their male peers and refrained from interacting with them. The famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum also attended a kuttab with her older brother in their small village along the Nile south of Cairo, along with a few other girls, around 1910. There is also some indication that separate girls' schools, funded by the awqaf, existed as early as the sixteenth century in Anatolia and in the larger cities throughout the Ottoman Empire by the eighteenth century, suggesting sufficient demand for gender-segregated education for girls. In the Shi`a cities of Iraq, rudimentary katatib for girls from the middle strata were established during the Ottoman period so that they could learn to read the story of the killing of Husayn ibn `Ali in the battle of Karbala, who became the first Shi`a martyr. This evidence, although far from complete, suggests that girls' formal education was already in existence by the time the Ottoman state and the missionaries began to set up their schools during the nineteenth century.


We do have evidence that some girls were educated in informal settings. Using al-Sakhawi's biographical dictionary of leading figures of the fifteenth century Mamluk period, Jonathan P. Berkey found that young girls from families of ulama, Muslim religious scholars, were taught by fathers, brothers, or grandfathers, or were allowed to sit in on lectures or private teaching circles in the mosques, although they were excluded from the madrasa, the institution of higher religious learning. As Berkey argues, the ulama "took special care to educate their female offspring," aware that all Muslims, both men and women, had to be cognizant of religious practices and behaviors in order to maintain their community's well-being. Moreover, the ulama recognized the importance of providing young girls with knowledge that regulated women's rituals, hygienic practices, and purity. By the nineteenth century, this practice had altered somewhat, with upper class Muslim families hiring unrelated male and female tutors to teach their daughters in the privacy of their homes. Huda Sha`arawi (b. 1879), the future leader of Egyptian feminism, was tutored in Arabic, Turkish grammar, and calligraphy by Arab religious scholars, while she learned French and piano from an Italian woman. As the daughter of a wealthy provincial notable, and whose mother was from the Turco-Circassian elite, Sha`arawi's upper class social status dictated that she be kept out of the public eye and remain in the harim; thus private tutoring in her home was most suitable. In contrast, the hiring of European women to serve as private tutors in foreign languages, arts, and music also evoked notions of modernity deemed crucial to upper class identity at the time. In contrast, middle class pubescent girls who had reached the age of marriage were often apprenticed to older local women, known as mu`allimat (teachers), who taught the intricacies of domestic arts, including embroidery and sewing, as this was thought to give them better chances of getting married. John H. Melkon Rose, for example, tells how his aunt, along with other Armenian girls in late Ottoman Jerusalem, studied for a few months with a woman who trained them in needlework and cooking in preparation for married life.


By the early twentieth century, it was no longer enough for young girls to be educated by mature, knowledgeable older women, male tutors, or within the kuttab. Rather, the political circumstances in the nineteenth century, the growing western economic presence within the Ottoman Empire, loss of territory to Europe, and the discontent felt among many religious and ethnic minorities, all of which were perceived as threats to the Empire's unity, propelled a series of reforms intended to modernize and strengthen the Empire. The creation of a network of state-supported schools was part of these reforms, with the idea that schools would not only educate the Empire's youth, but also indoctrinate them to be loyal citizens, unified by a shared Ottoman identity. The vast distance of the Arab provinces from the Empire's center and the linguistic and ethnic diversity between its Arab and Turkic provinces, however, meant that notions of local patriotism, that is, an almost innate identification with the place in which people lived and to their immediate surroundings, were also nurtured. What Benedict Anderson has argued for print capitalism, namely the production of an imagined kinship and sense of belonging to a greater collective through the medium of the printed language, can also be said of education. The provision of schools, together with the curricula, school celebrations, alumni associations, school sports, and so forth, all provided a means for creating national identification and "imagined" communities. In addition to cultivating loyalty and a shared identity, the Ottoman state schools sought to imbue a kind of modernity among its people, especially in the face of western Orientalism that portrayed the Empire as backward and far from being "modern." Yet this modernity did not mean secularism, as Benjamin C. Fortna has convincingly argued, as Islam remained a central component in shaping Ottoman education, identity, and modernity, and played a significant role in binding together the citizens of the Empire.


The Ottoman state schools were established as missionary schools throughout the region also began to develop. Scholars of gender and colonialism in particular have focused on the British and American Protestant missions and their provision of education to Arab girls throughout the region. The missions especially were a site where issues of gender and modernity, as well as questions of religious and national identity, collided. Some scholars have also explored the French, Italian, and German Catholic orders, all of which had a strong presence in the region and created popular schools and health clinics. Much of the existent literature on missionary education tends to focus on the provision of education to the Christian communities, among whom American and British missionaries especially hoped to convert from what they considered to be "nominal" Christianity, whose religious practices they found "appalling," "ossified," and "backward," to a more "correct" form of Christianity, namely Protestantism. In contrast, it seems that the failure of the missionaries to convert Muslims to Christianity also has been construed as their inability to provide education to the Muslim community, an idea that Heather Sharkey refutes in her important study of the activities of the Church Missionary Society among Muslims in Sudan. Sharkey's additional work on Christian missions in Egypt as well as that of Mahmoud Haddad on the responses of Muslim intellectuals and religious reformers to missionaries in nineteenth and twentieth century Syria shed light on the need to examine those communities where the missionaries may not have been successful in conversion, but were accomplished at educating.


While the focus of works on missionary education has raised questions about identity, the scholarship on education during the British Mandate over Palestine has emphasized the nationalist struggle between British colonial officials and the local population for control of their education. Several scholars have argued the role of boys' education in Palestine, as in the works on the Arab Government College, the male teachers' training institution established by the British in 1918 in Jerusalem, as being central to the nationalist narratives of Palestine. Unlike in other higher schools in Palestine, Arabic rather than English was the language of instruction, and it had an all-Arab staff, including known educators Khalil Totah and Ahmad Samih al-Khalidi. Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow complements these works, while acknowledging the suggestion of Julia Clancy-Smith to reconsider "approaches to, and narratives of, education in the colonial context which only view the question through an institutional and national—indeed merely a nationalist—lens," as it has tended to privilege the education of upper class boys. Her argument is that scholars have downplayed girls' education as well as educational experiments, as they "do not fit neatly into the nationalist trajectory; thus they have been consigned to collective forgetfulness." Yet as this book posits, girls' education was just as central to Palestinian nationalism as it was to modernity.


Although both Christian and Muslim girls in Palestine were the beneficiaries of education, Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow focuses on the provision of girls' education to the Muslim majority. Palestine's Muslim and Christian populations often lived in the same neighborhoods, shared many of the same norms and customs, and worked together politically in the nationalist struggle; the differences arose, however, when it came to schooling. While the Ottoman state provided education for the Muslim majority population throughout the Empire, it recognized the Empire's non-Muslim minority communities as autonomous religious communities, and gave them the right to control their own religious, judicial, and administrative matters, including education. Known as the millet system, this gave rise to separate education for various religious communities throughout the Middle East. Although highly critical of the Ottoman rule, the British continued to apply the millet system to the non-Muslim denominations in Palestine, while they assumed responsibility for the Muslim majority, including the provision of education. Thus, the educational opportunities open to Muslim girls tended not to be the same as those available to Christian girls in Palestine, with the exception of the missionary schools and a single government teachers' college where there was some overlap between the Muslim and Christian populations.


This book also seeks to correct the idea that Muslim girls were less likely to be educated than their Christian counterparts, an idea that has shaped the historiography, even though Islam and its canons affirm the right of Muslim women to be educated. This idea was rooted in the West's representation of the East as inferior, downtrodden, and in need of controlling and taming as a means of asserting its dominance and power. Orientalism, which shaped the writings and images produced by travelers, missionaries, photographers, and British officials alike, cast Muslim women as idle and "shackled," while Christian women were portrayed as being more free, liberated, and receptive to modernity. Palestinians themselves were not immune to this way of thinking. Muhammad Bahjat and Muhammad Rafiq al-Tamimi, educated Palestinians who were also officials of the Ottoman administration, expressed an "internalized form of Orientalism" in their important survey of the Beirut province on the eve of World War I, in which they differentiated between Muslims and non-Muslims. Upon visiting the mixed town of Safad in Palestine, they remarked that the Muslims there were "indifferent to matters of education, while the non-Muslim peoples, they are more enlightened and awakened as in other places."


As a result of this dichotomizing between Arab Christians and Muslims, an educational hierarchy was created. The official publications of the Department of Education during the British Mandate, for example, regarded missionary schools as the apex of education, which catered primarily, although not exclusively, to the Christian population, while the same reports described the schools primarily attended by Muslim children, namely the British-administered government schools and the locally founded institutions, as being of lower standards and encountering difficulties because of the population they served. Even if some of the missionary schools were better schools, I argue that this hierarchy of education has caused a lopsided understanding of education, in which we know far more about the missionary schools and their pupils, who came primarily from Christian denominations, than about the educational opportunities of the Muslim majority. This hierarchy also helped to efface the kuttab from the historiography because of its association with "non-modern," rote methods, with the kuttab only recently being reconsidered by scholars.


The prevailing notion that the missionary schools were the best schools has also contributed to the relative scholarly neglect of locally initiated private schools founded throughout the late Ottoman and British administrations. Demands to control education and create schools free of foreign, government, and/or religious influence were one of the main forces driving the establishment of these schools. The pioneering works by Donald J. Cioeta and Martin Strohmeier have shown that these schools in late Ottoman Beirut emphasized a modern education appropriate to the needs of the local people, which included instruction in their own religious rites as well as in the Arabic language, mirroring Arab demands for self-determination and sovereignty. Similarly, Rashid Khalidi has highlighted the role that several of the privately founded boys' schools in Palestine played in shaping local patriotic and Muslim identities. As this book shows, locally initiated schools in Palestine transcended issues of social class in the name of nationalist and religious unity, while also adding gender to the equation.


Little attention has been given to Islam as a factor in girls' education despite its prominence in Palestinian nationalist politics. The Supreme Muslim Council (SMC), appointed in 1922 by the British colonial administration, oversaw the affairs of the Muslim community, and used Islam as a means to gain supporters. Controlling the awqaf, or religious endowments, the Supreme Muslim Council restored the haram al-sharif, the third most important site within Islam, home to the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, in addition to its many other projects benefitting the Muslim population. By the 1930s, the SMC began to portray the struggle for Palestine not only as a nationalist struggle, but also as a religious one. The popularity of Muslim preacher `Izz al-din al-Qassam, who mobilized Palestinian villagers in the revolt of 1936-1939 against both British and Zionist targets, also gave Islam political legitimacy. Islam, alongside nationalism, also played a decisive role in shaping the identities of young Muslim boys in Jerusalem's Rawdat al-Ma`arif School, founded in 1906 by members of Jerusalem's ulama, and later administered by the Supreme Muslim Council. As I argue in chapter three, Islam was equally significant in shaping relations between teachers and their female pupils in Palestine's two Anglican schools and in complicating issues of identity. In chapter four, I continue to examine identity within a private Muslim girls' school in Jerusalem.


As this book shows, especially in chapters one and two, this new modern education for girls remained circumscribed by class, religion, and geographic location. Disparities existed between urban and rural areas, with towns enjoying access to girls' education far more than villages. Religion also shaped access to education. Members of the Christian communities in Palestine had not only greater opportunities for education than the Muslim majority, but access to a higher level of education. Ayalon posits that "Christian institutions were wealthier and better equipped, their teachers more numerous and better trained, and they often enjoyed the powerful backing of a mother organization abroad." As a result, Christian girls were the main beneficiaries of secondary and post-secondary female education, while for the majority of Muslim girls, their education came to an end after, at most, six or seven years of elementary education if they lived in the cities, and three or four years in the villages. Although some of the Muslim upper and middle class sent their daughters to a few years of post-elementary school as it became available, for the majority, regardless of social strata, elementary education was considered sufficient, as their chances of advancing to secondary school and beyond were circumscribed by gender norms, economic considerations, and the socio-political reality of Palestine during this time period.


Certainly by the end of the Mandate period, however, girls' education in Palestine had become a means of social mobility for mainly middle class and even lower middle class families. Rashid Khalidi has made a similar argument for the rising middle classes in Ottoman Syria, who saw the development of modern boys' schools as a vehicle for their advancement. Just as boys' education gave rise to new professions that had previously been unknown in the region, namely medicine, pharmacy, law, and journalism, so did girls' education. I contend in the final two chapters that girl's education in Palestine, even though it aimed to create modern mothers, also opened doors for non-elite Muslim women to pursue careers primarily in teaching, as well as other occupations, in addition to giving rise to social, charitable, and political associations of primarily upper and middle class women.



“Ela Greenberg’s first book is a gracefully written work of scholarship that highlights an important but overlooked aspect of Mandate Palestinian history: girls’ education.”
Journal of Palestinian Studies


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