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Michelle Obama promotes girls’ education initiative: “Your story is my story.”

Michelle Obama spoke at a London school on Tuesday to promote Let Girls Learn, a recently announced White House initiative on girls’ education. 

The Ivy-educated lawyer spoke in highly personal and inspiring terms to an audience at the Mulberry Schools for Girls, where almost all of the students are Muslim and from immigrant Bangladeshi families and three-quarters live in low-income households. Despite facing a climate of Islamophobia and the structural barriers associated with immigration status, language access, and income, the girls’ school consistently ranks as high-achieving. And while I don’t understand the need to discuss girls’ empowerment in terms of capitalist productivity — or the chance that one of them holds the “cure to cancer” — it is indeed remarkable that 80 percent of these graduates go on to pursue a university degree.

Like Obama years ago, these girls have achieved incredible academic success despite modest upbringings. Drawing these parallels, Obama told her young audience:

In so many ways, your story is my story. Those kinds of achievements seemed totally out of reach when I was growing up. I was just a working-class kid. The fact that I was a girl and I was black — that certainly didn’t help things, either.

[...] Maybe you feel no one is paying attention to you, you wonder whether it’s worth it, to even aspire to be something great. Maybe you read the news and hear what folks are saying about your religion, and you wonder if anyone ever sees beyond your headscarf to see who you really are, instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their own minds. And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be. I know how angry and exhausted it can make you feel.

But here’s the thing – with an education from this amazing school, you all have everything, everything, you need to rise above all of the noise and fulfil every last one of your dreams.

[Watch the rest of her speech here].

I must say a good part of me wants to — and does — find beauty in the words she shares. There seems to be something undeniably special about the First Lady highlighting the stories of low-income students. There is something refreshing about political leaders formally recognizing Muslim communities outside the auspices of discussing violent extremism and our holy month that starts tomorrow. (Ramadan Mubarak!) There is something validating about Michelle Obama addressing girls that look like my young sisters and saying the things that my mother says to them. I see you. I hear you. I recognize the people and systems built to hurt you. But I will help you succeed. Hell, here is the First Lady explicitly drawing the connections between marginalized communities that solidarity work depends on.

That being said, I walk away from her talk feeling the way I do walking away from most political things: aware of hypocrisy, stuck with bitter distaste for Western feminism, and a whole lot of questions.

Creating a $180 million partnership between US and British international aid agencies to promote girls’ education when our governments would rather wage war is a noteworthy feat. But suggesting that this aid somehow proves that Western governments have “for so long … been doing such wonderful work to support adolescent girls’ education around the world” is distracting and delusional.

Obama says she is “thrilled that our two countries are announcing a series of new partnerships that total nearly two hundred millions dollar that help girls like you get the education they deserve.” But how many billions have the same two countries poured into the series of partnerships that denied those very girls the right to live in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Somalia? Do all girls deserve an education or just the ones that conveniently fit imperialist narratives? And in all of this, who exactly are we telling to “let” girls learn? Poor brown and black men? Because we sure as hell are not moralizing about our own military and government’s “strategic partnerships” with corrupt authoritarian elites.

Officials say “thousands of girls in developing countries” will undoubtedly benefit from this program — and again, I don’t doubt much of their claim. But it’s hard not to simultaneously wonder whether that’s a few thousand more or less than the hundreds of thousands of civilians in developing countries we’ve murdered in the last few years.

Letting girls that look like the ones at Mulberry learn is a laudable goal. But perhaps the Administration and girls’ empowerment NGOs should start with letting them live.

Header image credit: Matt Dunham/AP

Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

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