We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
The following is a post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Anina Tweed. Anina has spent the last several months volunteering in Bangladesh. To find an amazing volunteer opportunity, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today.
Recently, on a trip to visit a local Bengali NGO with a group of students, I realized that perhaps all the empowerment we are working towards at AUW comes with consequences.
As we drove back to the university, one of our whip-smart Bengali students waxed on with a smile about how she was changing gender dynamics in her family. She stated that her dad used to boss her mother around and not really listen to her mother’s requests. Now, she proclaimed, she comes to her mother’s aid and forces her dad to take her mother seriously. She says her favorite tactic is a variation on the guilt-trip: “I tell him, how can I be studying about all of the discrimination and oppression that women face and I can’t even do anything for my own mother?” I’m fairly certain her father rues the day he sent his daughter to get “empowered” at AUW. Her headstrong attitude carries over into her marriage (she had to fight her family to have a love marriage at the age of 17). Her husband now openly admits that while he is the boss in the office at work, she is the boss at home – no small feat in a society where gender roles are still firmly patriarchal.
All of this left a smile on my face, It was real evidence that what we are working to achieve at AUW is actually having an impact on family structures and cultural conceptions of women’s roles in Bangladesh. Now, this student will have an impact on her parents, on her husband, and on her future children. My smile, however, only lasted until one of the Afghani students in the van shook her head with an uncertain smile and said, “I am so afraid for my future.” I was shocked. What did she mean? She went on to say, “We come to AUW and we learn all of these new ideas. We feel empowered and we discover the way things should be and can be. But when I go home, my society will not have changed. I will have changed and maybe my family will change, but my society will not accept me. The rest of my life will be a constant struggle.” Unfortunately, not all of our students have an equal opportunity to apply what they have learned at AUW. It is sadly true that the girls from Afghanistan and Pakistan will return to a society in which their new views on gender equality and women’s empowerment not only make them outcasts, but have the potential to put them in real danger. For them, ignorance may be bliss as their new knowledge will mean viewing their society in a new and completely problematic way. We tell them that they can become parliamentarians, that they can revolutionize society, but the reality is that many women who tried to do so in Afghanistan before them are now dead. Their lives may be constant struggle from now on or else a disappointment, as they have to compromise their new beliefs; are we setting them up for failure by giving them goals that are far too lofty? To what extent can I feel ok encouraging them to either martyr themselves for the cause of all women or to pursue a women’s revolution that may never be achieved in their lifetimes?
Today, in a meeting for a tutorial I’m teaching on conflict analysis, I was again reminded of the potential for harm that stems from our own encouragement. One of my Bengali-Hindu students has chosen to write an analysis of Hindu-Muslim tension in Bangladesh, a conflict that personally affects her as part of the minority of Hindus in Bangladesh. Despite violent attacks from Muslim extremist groups against her community, this student asserted that she did not believe that any religion was inherently violent. She stated that she did not want to blame anyone or cause more conflict, only to show how and why these tensions came to be and to find solutions to them. She wrote in her paper that certain leaders, political entrepreneurs with extremist leanings, were motivating violence using violent interpretations of the Quran. In my tutor mode I seized on this bit and said, “Great! Why don’t you do some more research and look into who these leaders are specifically and how they are using this influence to further the conflict?” Bad. Move. My student quickly showed me my error. “But Mam, I can’t do this. If I were to name specific leaders and figures in my paper, and eventually publish it, I would be targeted. I would be in danger. I want to write this, but my mother is very worried for me. I promised her I wouldn’t write things like this.” It took a moment for the full weight of what my student was saying to sink in. How short my memory was, hadn’t I just worked with a student last week on a paper about Taslima Nasrin, an infamous Bengali author who spoke out against Islamic extremism in Bangladesh and eventually had to flee due to the intense backlash and death threats against her? Bangladesh is not yet the bastion of free speech and political security that we hope it will one day become and that means that we also can not fully encourage our students to run around professing radical views that may endanger them, if only in their future job search and career.
As an American student who attended the notoriously liberal, political, critical and outspoken “hippy” university of UC Berkeley, I have never once had to censor myself or consider the consequences of my research, writing or views on my own safety and future. But many of our students do. This realization has led me to a bit of a crisis in my teaching career here; what do we expect to happen to our students once they leave the happy, strongly American-influenced bubble that is AUW? Especially when it is not at all reflective of Bangladesh or of many of their home countries? Many of our students experience a personal, political and academic awakening here, and we revel in watching them grow and develop. But as we prepare to graduate our first class of seniors, what kind of future do we see for them? In what way are we preparing them to go forth and seek change in their communities?
In discussing this crisis with Jamie, our assistant writing center director and a seasoned AUW veteran, I gained some perspective. She too, has been dealing with this very question but has been able to craft a more productive solution. She stated that while she sometimes feels that we are just “raising lambs for slaughter,” she believes that here is a more realistic way to shape our student’s expectations. Jamie speculated that rather than instilling in each girl a sense that they must become the political revolutionaries and leaders of their countries or else have somehow failed, we should instead be relaying more achievable goals. We should be emphasizing that perhaps all they will be able to do is change their own families, and that this is equally worthy goal. We should be preparing them for the reality that not everything will change instantly for all women in their home countries, but that they can seek small and incremental change in their own communities. In short, we should be preparing them to be grassroots leaders that see any small influence as being enough. And hopefully in the end, all of their small efforts will combine to eventually have a more widespread impact so that one day their daughters can freely profess whatever “radical” views they see fit.