'What's so scary about smart girls?' Nicholas Kristoff asks, writing in The New York Times on May 10th. Sensible men might well reply that they have many reasons to feel scared of smart girls. But far from making a trivial sexist point, Kristoff is referring to the horror of teenage girls being kidnapped from school in Nigeria. The extremists perpetrating this atrocity want to sell young girls into slavery, rather than allow them a basic education. 'The greatest threat to extremism isn't drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.'
This is one of most shocking episode in human history. It attacks the core values that underpin every civilised society, values of equality, human dignity, liberty, safety, and the right to education. It has echoes of classic dystopian narratives that posit a world where every aspect of human behaviour is controlled by political rulers, including even our thoughts. In Fahrenheit 451 reading is prohibited and all books are burned as dangerous sedition. In Nineteen Eighty Four Orwell introduces the spectre of the thought police, who watch and monitor people's private thoughts. Brave New World imagines a world where people are controlled by drugs, sedated to prevent them from thinking for themselves. Without education books become superfluous, and the capacity for independent thought is stifled. Reading matters. Without the inspiration of other people's ideas, without words to think about our own ideas, we are no more than intelligent animals with an unused potential for abstract thought.
When we were about eleven or twelve, my school friends and I leafed through Lady Chatterley's Lover. We were hunting for the sex scenes which are so subtly written as to be almost impossible to spot. It's natural for children and young teenagers to be curious about sex. Needless to say, we were disappointed in DH Lawrence. How times have changed! When fifty Shades of Grey came out, I made no secret of my views. I have no problem with consenting adults behaving in any way they choose in private. That's no one else's business. But I worry that girls of eleven or twelve are now leafing through a book where a woman masochistically submits to a domineering man. Is this what young girls today are accepting as a role model? Is this how they believe they have to behave in order to attract a boyfriend? It's a far cry from Lady Chatterley's delicately worded sexual encounters. And it's very worrying.
What we are seeing is an extreme from of censorship. Creationists in the US refuse to allow their children to learn about evolution, different faith schools in the UK restrict their syllabus to suit their own beliefs and bigotry, and now children are being deliberately denied any education at all. There is an old saying, 'Knowledge is power'. Literacy gives us the power to determine our own path in life, the power to think. In being denied education, these young girls in Nigeria are being condemned to physical and mental slavery.
Where should we draw the line in deciding the influences to which our children should be exposed?