Why the Voices of Arab Women are Critical in Education

Google “Arab woman.” Click the “images” button. Ninety percent of the search results display expressionless, black-veiled portraits and the remaining 10% show sexualized images, results that align fairly accurately with the two-dimensional ways in which Arab women are portrayed in 2016.

We can’t tune into media without hearing the words ISIS, clash of civilizations, hijab ban, Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine, terrorism or refugees. The media is controlled by frames that only show us a barbaric Arab and his chaotic world devoid of any humanity, expression, art, identity, or meaning and overflowing with oppression, bloodshed, violence and anger.

But in reality, there are many beautiful, diverse voices flowing out of the too-often-homogenized Arab World. There are stories of love, longing, pain, heartbreak, family, sex, sexuality, memory and magic in the creases that the Western media overlooks.

Students got a whiff of these voices in Professor Waed Athamneh’s class “Arab Women Writers” (ARA/GWS 234) in the Spring of 2016, a course which sampled a selection of literature by contemporary Arab women who wrote of feminism, gender, religion, family and other topics the modern media silences. The course explored Arab women writers such as Leila Abouzeid, Hanan al-Shaykh, and Ahlam Mosteghanemi.

Fara Rodriguez ’16 reflected on how the course gave her a critical sense of her social location: “The novels and other works for this class gave me the ability to analyze my privileges and look at the different dimensions of oppression. Through analysis of colonialism, empire and Arab feminism, I have been able to learn how to challenge the white supremacist imperialist patriarchy.  Through the literature analyzed in this class, I was able to draw connections and notice how colonialism and racism affects other women in similar ways but to different extents.”

Similarly, Matt Luciani ’16 emphasized how the course’s multi-media style allowed him to absorb voices of Arab women writers: “each class had its own flow of dialogue and discussion, engaging literary analysis, history, social science, and aspects of critical race and feminist theory. The courses blended disciplines and media to fully understand real and exciting voices of Arab women.”

In most classes offered at Conn, we speak about the Middle East from a political perspective, which feels detached from many Arab students’ personal experiences there. To be able to read the creative and expressive works of Arabs, especially Arab women, was therefore very meaningful for many female Arab students.

To Nayla Tohme, this class was meaningful for many reasons: “Our discussions were rich and quickly created a sense of community. They revolved around a population that is both underrepresented and misrepresented. It was almost therapeutic for Arab students like myself to learn about their culture, history and literature through a different lens that is empowering for both women and non-Western cultures. In this class, we explored the hardships and the complexities that come with the emancipation of Arab women in relation to the Arab society as a whole. In fact, we discussed topics that are taboo and not usually mentioned in classrooms back home, such as sexuality, patriarchy, sexism, feminism… This class kept us on our toes throughout the semester as it involved a variety of material that ranged from autobiographies to music videos. I believe that this class is a tremendous addition to the Arabic, GIS, GWS and Classics departments as it incorporates history, literature, creative writing and a variety of other topics that embody a Liberal Arts education.”

The course’s online description defines how the course’s showcasing of everyday, human voices of Arab women actively counteracts a broader patriarchal, Western-centric (and heteronormative) narrative: “The texts we will study in this course not only advance the status of Arab women and fight for their rights, but also rewrite modern Arab history from the perspective of Arab women. The patriarchal narrative often fails at addressing women’s challenges and representing their voices. Therefore, such literary and theoretical works offer a different insight into the role and impact of religion, tradition, and socio-politics in the lives of Arab women across the globe.”

Courses as fruitful as ours can easily be found within Conn’s Arabic Program, which offers courses in language, culture, literature and media. Since its inception by Dr. Athamneh in 2011, the department has been a home for students who wish to immerse themselves in the language and cultures of the diverse Arab World. As the Chair of the Committee on the Status of Faculty Women, the author of Modern Arabic Poetry: Revolution and Conflict, and an active researcher, educator and advocate, Dr. Athamneh brings her various worlds of experience to play in the classroom.

Professor Phillips, chair of the Classics department, discussed the department with us: “As the only faculty member teaching Arabic, Dr. Athamneh has done a remarkable job of providing students with a top-notch education in Arabic language.  She’s also been working hard to provide an array of courses that teach students about Arabic culture and link to other programs, such as Gender and Women’s Studies and the new program in Global Islamic Studies.  Dr. Athamneh’s new course on “Arab Women Writers”, a course taught with English translations of the texts, introduced a new group of students to the complexities of the Arab world.” He explained how her scholarship on modern Arabic poetry and the intersection of literature and politics, as well as her publications on revolution and conflict, shows how research can be brought into the classroom as a way to enrich students.

The course was powerful because it highlighted the purpose of education. Unless we work toward decolonizing our education, what we learn in literature classes will be no different than the biased, racist media we are already fed. However, through enriching courses such as this, students are encouraged and challenged to examine their privileges and perspectives in the arts of another culture. In this way, literature becomes a vehicle to critically examine our social locations and immerse ourselves in the rich stories of individuals and communities across the globe. •