Friday, May 4, 2007

Woman as "the Other"

Over the years Champlain has run many successful Global Modules, with themes such as globalization, images of the self, terrorism, peace activism, ecological impact, and the freakonomics of naming. However, the Global Module that has most consistent resonated with students centers around a topic that we call Woman as "the Other."

We have the students read and discuss the introduction to Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. Simone de Beauvoir spoke of society being structured around the needs of man as "the One," with women left to adapt in their status as "the Other." After the students have come to grips with de Beauvoir's main argument, we then break them up into virtual groups - for instance, if we're pairing with a university in Jordan the groups would be half-Jordanian and half-American. The students then discuss ways in which women are "the Other" in their respective societies, as well as determining similarities and differences between the two cultures. In addition, the groups need to come up with specific proposals for improving the situation for women around the world.

The approach, as with all the Global Modules, is straight forward and simple, but has inspired extraordinary conversation. One female Jordanian student, when talking about the challenges that women face, proposed, “Our society is built on the notion that we’re dependant units: objects that can not exist without being attached to a main CPU.”

A Moroccan woman wrote, "Simone de Beauvoir is totally right in her definition of women as "others" in many societies. In my country Morocco, for instance, women are seen in different way from men. Women do not have the right to laugh or speak loudly. They should come back home at an early time and respect certain rules. In other words, they have to talk, behave, interact in a special way completely different from the male."

When asked to prepare specific suggestions for improving the lives of women a Global Module featuring students from Al Akhawayn University in Morocco and Champlain College in Burlington proposed solutions such as improved education, expanded political participation, and the involvement of NGOs and the United Nations. One group suggested an answer that was closer to home: "I believe that we need to start with women themselves. The most important thing to evaluate is the way they perceive themselves as “women”. A woman who thinks that she is worthless without a man or that the he has a better status or abilities than her in any field will never be equal to him even if given the conditions of this equality. The mentality is the most important, and the most difficult, thing to change. In our society, there are still women who think that their husbands have the right to hit them and who believe that if it happens it is their fault. This is dangerous and sad, and this is what should be changed. Women need to be aware of their rights and of the injustice they live in daily."

One of the things that we always stress in the Global Module program is that it is not intended to be "colonial" - that is, the goal is not to convince our international friends that everything is better in the U.S. All we ever want is dialogue. Often it is the American students who have the most eye-opening experience, both in regards to learning more about the rest of the world but also in coming to terms with their own cultural blinders. One American student, when discussing the wearing of the hijab, commented, "I have to say that, as an American Woman, I have never been more embarrassed by my culture's inability to understand and appreciate the richness of such a diverse and intriguing area of the world. For me, the Hijab is a symbol of not only cultural identity, but an image of pride in one's beliefs and the pure love for faith. I see nothing "wrong" with the idea of covering, and believe that Western cultures need to open their eyes and understand the reasons behind it, rather than being antagonistic and narrow minded."

Often you'll find students, on both sides of the virtual divide, question their own cultures but, in the end, decide that their own tradition is the one with which they feel most comfortable. If anything, their tie to their own tradition is stronger because they have now discussed different world views. In education we call this concept committed relativism - they are gaining an appreciation of the rest of the world, but have committed to their own foundation beliefs. Here a Jordanian student, while discussing the hijab, wrote, "well, though I am an arabic muslim 20 year old, hijab still puzzles me. Is it about being modest? being conservative? and if the case is either, why the hijab in specific? why can't we just dress properly and humbly?? However, I have come to the conclusion that it's not the most important issue in Islam. Islam is a religion of values and morals, and it seems that most people have forgotten that, girls now think that if they wear the hijab only then that's it, many of them do dress extravagantly even more than unveiled girls , because they want to express the point that the hijab is not a sign of poverty. I truly believe that all muslims should study their religion, and their holy quran instead of being blind followers. If you want to do something, then do it for the right reasons." Essentially, she is criticizing her fellow students for wearing the hijab for the "wrong" reasons.

As the Global Module project expands at Champlain, the Woman as "the Other" theme - as well as other gender-related topics - will continue to be a key component.

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