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Michelle Obama spoke at a conference in Qatar Wednesday to promote girls' education

The first lady also referred to her own experience of gender discrimination as a child growing up in Chicago

CNN  — 

First lady Michelle Obama told a conference in Qatar Wednesday that it’s time to confront ingrained cultural oppression of women, insisting that men also take up the cause of promoting girls’ education in their societies.

“We cannot address our girls’ education crisis until we address the cultural norms and practices that devalue women’s intelligence, that silence their voices, that limit their ambitions,” Obama said at an international education conference held in Doha, the capital of the Arab Gulf nation.

Michelle Obama highlights education with #62milliongirls

Obama was speaking midway through a five-day trip to the region promoting her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. Later in the week, she’ll speak at a U.S.-constructed school in Jordan that’s educating 400 refugees from Syria.

The first lady also referred to her own experience of gender discrimination as a child growing up in Chicago, recalling that even though she was “bright and curious, and I had plenty of opinions of my own, people were often more interested in hearing what my brother had to say.”

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Obama, who attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School, said she was told as a young student she’d never be admitted to a prestigious university.

“I got the message that I shouldn’t take up too much space in this world,” she said. “That I should speak softly and rarely.”

Her remarks Wednesday did not appear specifically directed at her Qatari hosts, though in its annual human rights report the State Department said “legal, institutional, and cultural discrimination” in the country limits women’s participation in society.

In her speech, Obama said countries had made strides toward achieving gender equality in early education but that female students were still lagging behind their male peers in secondary schools and universities.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that we’ve reached gender parity in primary but not secondary education,” she said. “When they hit adolescence and start to develop into women, and are suddenly subject to all of their societies’ biases around gender, that is precisely when they start to fall behind in their education.”