A Middle East Angle on Diversity Part 1: When is protection oppression? – by Dana Winner

Each time we convene a new JASSPr class in the city of Jahra, Kuwait, the girls sit at the back of the room while the boys take their place at the front of the room. The first time I saw this, I felt offended on behalf of the girls. I wondered who told them they must sit at the back of the class? Is it an explicit order or implicit habit? More important, what could I do about it? Should I do anything about it? Their culture is about protecting the girls. When is protection oppression?

First, let’s see the context. Kuwait is a tiny country south of Iraq, East of Iran and West of Saudi Arabia and has population roots in all three. You might remember that the world, led by USA, defended Kuwait in 1990-91 from the invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq military. The city of Jahra is the second largest city in Kuwait and has a culture closely aligned with the Saudi Arabian culture.

JASSPr is the nickname of the Jahra After School and Summer Program which is dedicated to Kuwaiti stateless students age 13-21. There are more than 100,000 stateless Kuwaitis and they are severely lacking in human rights. JASSPr was created specifically for Kuwaiti stateless students, based on the U.S. State Dept. Access to English Microscholarship Program (Access).

Access provides English language, cyber and intercultural skills for underprivileged students around the world. The Access program opens doors for students to prepare for educational exchange programs in USA. Programs like Access are part of US Dept of State “soft diplomacy”. Explicit in such programs is support for human rights in countries around the world, especially for girls and women.  For example, like Access, JASSPr must be equally inclusive of girls as boys. “American Diversity” cultural values are promulgated around the world.  JASSPr is one such case. Now let’s look into why and continue asking, “When is protection oppression?” and “How should we respond?”

A gender integrated education program in Jahra, Kuwait, such as JASSPr, is progressive, possibly reformist and even revolutionary. Even in other parts of Kuwait, government schools are gender segregated.  In colleges that are gender integrated, the girls and boys sit separately.  In Jahra, the separation by gender requires clothing that obscures women. The normal female clothing seen in Jahra public places is a black robe (abaya) that covers from neck to ankle and wrist. The abaya is normally topped with a black scarf (hijab) that leaves only faces uncovered. Some women and even girls wear a face veil (niqab) that leaves only eyes visible. During COVID19 everyone was wearing niqab – a mask so we have a clear idea of what impact that has on communication.

The Kuwaiti Stateless people mostly live in the Jahra governorate. The Jahra culture is so closely aligned with Saudi culture (wahabi), that parents often request JASSPr classes for girls only. When we explain that we are preparing students for the real world where girls and boys, men and women, study and work together, they often withdraw their girls. For those who have the courage to send their girls to a gender integrated class, there is residual fear. On one occasion, when the teacher was late to class due to a traffic jam, a father made a crisis call to the male member of the JASSPr teaching team claiming the unthinkable, “boys and girls are together in the classroom without a teacher”.  He appeared to be on the verge of withdrawing his daughter from the class. The male member of the teaching team calmed the father, telling him, “The boys are polite boys. They know how to behave. There is an adult there. He will sit with them until the teacher arrives”. The crisis was averted.

However, that is merely a mild example of a greater problem, when protection clearly becomes tyranny. For example, one exceptionally talented girl was removed from our class by her brother, because he didn’t like her to be in a classroom with boys outside the family. This is a relatively mild example of a horrendous problem named, “honor killings”. It is not only fathers who have the right to isolate, control and even kill young women who they perceive as dishonoring them – brothers also have that right. The exact number of honor killings in Kuwait each year are not known. So far, the legal penalties defined by Article 153 for such behavior are mild and thereby appear to condone the practice, despite a movement to “Abolish 153”, abolish honor killings.

So, when does protectiveness become oppression? We all evaluate the question in light of our own experience. Incidents of protectiveness by a father for a daughter, triggers a memory for me. When I was 15 my friends came to pick me up and take me with them to aimlessly drive around. My father refused to allow me to go with them. I was furious and yet, secretly, I understood. There was risk in being involved with those girls and their “joy riding”. Dad protected me.

By contrast, another kind of risk was introduced to me by my father. He was my anti-racist role model, leading me into social risk as a child activist. I insisted to ride in the back of the bus with the black students who attended “black schools” in the still-segregated State of Maryland.  I suffered humiliation from the taunts of the white students, but inspired by Rosa Parks’ courage, was dedicated to justice. I understood that accepting risk in service of justice was different from taking risk to get social acceptance.

Not everyone can withstand loss of social acceptance. I have known women who removed hijab and suffered severe criticism from family and friends. As often happens, the cultural norms are attributed to religious mandate. Without reading the Quran, people most often refer to the Quran as the basis for their clothing culture.  Progressive theologians, like Dr Taj Hargey of the Oxford Institute for British Islam, insists that there is no Quranic basis for hijab and certainly not for niqab. Nevertheless, there is significant argument around the two Quranic verses (Holy Qur’an 24:31, 33:58-59) that may or may not support clothing traditions that are associated with Islam. What is clear is that, in a free and diverse society, women and girls should be free to wear what they want and what they feel comfortable to wear, so long as they comply with public decency and safety laws.

Our approach to the gender integration issue for JASSPr, is that girls and boys are to be separate yet equal within the same room. Within a few weeks of convening each class we encourage the boys and girls to sit on opposite sides of the room, so that one gender group is not at the back of the class. At the appropriate moment in the curriculum, I teach them about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We study Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We conduct small group discussion about American Diversity, the human rights issues in USA and what we can learn from American progress and its current problems.

When we do teamwork, whether online or in classrooms, the teams must be gender segregated. I have observed that the girls are quite shy of speaking in front of the boys, especially at the younger ages. It is their first experience of being in the same room with boys from outside of their family. Because of the gender segregation, when we have team games, the games become boys vs. girls and any loss by the boys is an afront to male egos. The girls tend to be deferential to the boys. They already know that they “should not” challenge male superiority. In reality, in general, Kuwaiti girls are superior students, to the extent that the Kuwait University has higher entrance standards for girls than for boys so as to give the boys a leg-up.

I must be satisfied with what seems to be a small progress just by having girls and boys in the same room. For them it is a big cultural change. I remind myself constantly to accept the cultural diversity about gender norms of others, except when it is harmful. Of course, that acceptance calls for an ongoing struggle between my cultural values and the values of the culture in which I live. In general, I feel able to navigate the gap. However, there is one struggle I find very difficult to accept. When we go on a bus trip, the girls sit at the back of the bus and the boys sit at the front.

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