By Arthur Tainturier
Photography by Arthur Tainturier
Motivation and regrets
In spite of the adversity and the hardship of the goals she set for her class, Rula just won’t quit. When asked what keeps her going, she simply replies,
“Because I believe in what I do, I believe I owe it to myself, as a human being. I believe I’m creative, I count, I believe no one has the right to tell me otherwise. I believe in good quality education,” she said.
“Critical thinking is my contestation. Pushing back and taking issues with prevalent gender issues. I’ve been brought up to believe in me and to sing my songs of freedom. I am not less, I am more, and I teach my students to be enough.
“I told you I taught Rumi and he said ‘you’re not a drop in the ocean, but an ocean in a drop.’ This is what I believe and when I look at [the students] I see how oceanic they are.
“Arab women are volcanic, Arab women have potential. They have the potential to be whoever they want to be. They must have the space to live up to their potential.
“Why do I come to the university every single day? For my students. To educate and to be educated, they are my source of inspiration.
“I want to be here for them. I tell my students we are all on a leash. My leash is longer perhaps and I hope one of these days we are going to cut it and we’re going to be free and independent.
“We simply exist, with no fear, having people’s respect. Women do not want to be seen as a piece of meat but as a soul — as a mind, as a heart. I have faith it will happen. Not in my lifetime but it will happen.”
When she speaks about her students Rula has sparkles in her eyes.
“They are so young, and some of them have kids — like 22 years old and they have children of their own,” she said.
“They make up their mind, to come and educate themselves. It’s a big decision and I respect them for it. Their classes are from 5 pm to 8 pm and they have day jobs. They multitask because they have families and so on.”
Jordan has the highest literacy rate of the MENA region — 97 percent of the adult population — and this achievement doesn’t discriminate, as women show the same percentage of education, where there are actually more women enrolled in universities – four in ten against three in ten for men — yet they only represent 22 percent of the country’s workforce.
Many feminists however, point their fingers at strict social codes leading to marriage and taking care of the family at home — making it quite difficult for women to either finish their studies or simply start working. Even the mismatch with the market could be blamed on social codes as women are only directed toward certain studies.
With great faith in Arab women, Rula says she would feel incomplete if she wasn’t fighting this fight. When asked if she has any regrets, her response was clear.
“Not a single regret. Not a single one. Would I do this all over again? Perhaps much more forcefully,” she said.
“Sometimes they send me back to the cocoon. Sometimes I’m not that courageous because I need to keep my job and my pay cheque. I tell myself I choose my battles, wisely. But sometimes I’m greedy, I want more.
“I want to say something and suddenly there are chains on my tongue. We’re dishonest [with ourselves]. I celebrate myself, I’m proud to be an Arab but I see our cracks. I see that we’re not doing a very good job and I see how we are regressing. I see our mistakes and we sugar-coat.
“I’m sick and tired of sugar-coating and wearing a mask. Sometimes you lie the white lies as if lies have colours. I’m not willing to do this anymore. I’m not willing to go backward, to be pushed back.
“I’m a rebel. Yes, I do make small compromises, I negotiate and renegotiate. This is life. I work on relationships, I work on my teachings; my students teach me as well. But there are things… I can’t change, I can’t give up. It’s who I am. I’m not willing to change and I pay for it.”
The class itself and its impact
The uniqueness of Rula’s class does not only reside in the content it teaches but also in what it offers to its students — a safe space; something that can be difficult to find, whether in their families or with their friends.
A safe place that allows them to express themselves, to raise questions they would not dare to ask elsewhere. Thanks to this very sense of safety, the class suddenly becomes “a resistance and a brave space.” As she liked to say, a place where instead of being nipped in the bud, ideas could grow and be developed, where the student could pursue their reasoning and push it further.
“The classroom is basically a site of resistance. In the classroom, it’s a safe space and we have a social contract at the beginning,” she said.
“I encourage them, without any judgment to say whatever it is you want to say, push back, explain yourself. We talk about sexuality — politics of sexuality. Things we don’t talk about in other courses or anywhere else.”
Rula is discrete about the results and impact of her class and stays modest, but the tokens of gratitude all over her office wall say plenty.
“I see a lot of changes and I do take credit but I don’t announce that credit. I know that if I’m going to make it known that’s going to affect the outcome of the course,” she said.
“You have to be pragmatic, you have to be realistic. You can see in my office all these things — drawings and small artifacts. They’ve been made by my students. That motivates me.
“Of course I see the change. Sometimes it actually scares me, I am frightened. I see the pain; I see the moves they try to make. I don’t want them to be harmed. They’re my kids, they’re my soul. I can take it but sometimes, I’m afraid they can’t.”
As mentioned above, sometimes some students sadly drop the course but not all of them.
“These women at the end of the course find their voices, own their voices. They speak up, speak back, speak their mind and they’re not afraid. I see their wings. I know that some of them go out there and make a difference — even in their own teachings,” she said.
“They would tell me when they discussed some of the points from the course. That motivates me. And I know that some of them are wise — wise in the sense that they know when to cross the boundaries.
“Somebody told me at the Jordanian National Commission for Women that I was too revolutionary and I thought about it carefully.
“It is a game of survival, they can shoot you down. This is why I had this whole strategy when I introduced that course. You have to choose your battles and I know they will.”
In class, they study Islamic feminism, American feminism, French feminism, African-American feminism, and Arab feminism, and then try to apply the theory to the fiction they read. This is where some of the magic happens when some students go further and apply the theory to their own lives, when fiction becomes reality.
Feminism and religion
“Islam is a strong pillar. They need to understand that they can do it through their own faith, that they have to do it their own way,” she said.
“They need to acknowledge the fact that even in the Holy Quran some of the texts need reinterpretation. Like the idea of beating a wife, the idea of the inheritance law…That living a full life is the call of the prophet.
“I tell them it’s their responsibility to re-read the Holy Quran in their own way and come up with their own interpretation just like Sa’diyya Shaikh, Amina Wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini…we have many women like that and we read their texts.”
Quoting Miriam Cooke, Rula believed feminism is a secular position and that a line should be drawn to separate it from religion which is a faith position. However, it is something almost impossible to do here as Islam is deeply rooted in the culture and everyday life.
“Here, in every classroom, it is inescapable, they talk about Islam — even if you do not want to, because it’s the culture of religion that dominates their lives,” she said.
“I think the beauty of the Holy Quran is that it is all inclusive, it encompasses a way of life. It is social, it is economic, and it is political. So they relate to it because it is intricately interwoven in the fabric of their existence. It is printed, it is embedded, and it is ingrained in their souls. So that is why it’s really, really hard to avoid it.
“Do I want to talk about religion? I think feminism is secular, it has nothing to do with religion, we have to go beyond that.
“Over here though, there are factors you can’t ignore — religion, the culture of religion, traditions, and tribalism. Don’t forget about those either.”
However, feminism and Islam don’t have to be mutually exclusive, as the Islamic feminism movement has shown since 2002 — which Rula includes in her course.
“I encourage them, because at the very end of the day, I want them to make new knowledge. I don’t want them to adopt western feminism, because the narratives are different. I want them to make use of that narrative, to adapt that narrative and to make it fit and suit their own lives,” she said.
Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, Rula acknowledged that the issue was not just about Islam itself. While some specific points deeply bothered her — like the fact it takes two women to testify against one man or that a man can inherit twice as much as a woman. Rula said other factors weighed in as well, even though they manifest themselves through Islam and identitarian enclosures. An improvement in these factors could very well lift some of the pressures exerted by religion.
“That goes back to the idea of colonisation, the rippling effect of it, what is happening in Palestine, Israel, double standard of the US, what is happening in Syria, Lybia, oppression, dictatorship, despotic regimes, lack of money, lack of political will to make changes, and education.”
For Rula’s course, the biggest challenge has yet to come; for her class to survive her departure.
“Let me tell you something, I know, and I say this with a full heart, with full conviction. I know I’m not going to stay here forever, there’s a retirement age,” she said.
“The minute I’m out of the university nobody will teach the feminist course and I think it will be cancelled. Every five years we revise the courses. When they question it I tell them that people signed up for it, I have numbers and they can’t cancel it but who will defend it when I’m out? Nobody.
“Some of the assistant professors were at one time my students, they have taken this course with me. They’ve been to the US and to England, when they came back I mentioned that maybe one of them could take my place. They were all very honest with me and said that they were afraid take the position.
“They witnessed my daily struggles. How strong can you be? And I understand. Some of them have a budding family. They said they would have loved to teach the course but not now, perhaps not ever.
“So I fear that they will simply cancel this course.”
Rula is fully aware of the space of privileges she grew in. Both her parents had high education as well as various members of her family and she had also received one – with a PhD from the US.
As she said, she had access to a lot of books, went to many conferences and travelled a lot. She knew how it made a difference and how it shaped her. She repeatedly stated she understood the situation and could not blame anyone for being afraid to keep the course alive. Yet, she still believes.
“My hope is that one will stand up for it, one would be enough,” she said.
Check out the first part of Rula’s story here.
Rula Quawas is a professor at the Univeristy of Jordan, teaching feminism theory. She had been teaching for over twenty years fighting for gender rights and the right of women — especially in the Middle East and Jordan. Coming from a society that is strictly Muslim and is limited in women’s rights, Rula aims for a more open-minded view on gender’s rights.