Rosa, Ruth, and Malala

The past two weeks have been rather busy. I’m working on an article on masculinity and effeminacy in Josephus’s Jewish War. My Arabic teacher has decided I am advanced enough in speaking to need the extra challenge of learning to read and write in Arabic, rather than in transliteration. My upstairs neighbor has appointed me as his unpaid teaching assistant (editing exams and quizzes for his English classes). And I have been lecturing in Bethlehem and in Ramallah.

Instead of teaching a regular class, I’ve been giving lectures through the Cardinal Martini Leadership Institute at the university. One of the unforeseen benefits of this placement has been a lack of grading; another has been the opportunity to interact with different groups—students at the university, mothers of children from area schools. I’ve given a similar lecture on women in leadership to three different groups now, and it’s been illuminating to see their different reactions.

The institute director had invited (which would, in this case, mean ‘commanded’) me to speak on several women in leadership in the western world. After my initial panic—women in the modern world? what? I don’t know anything about women after the second century!—and thanks to some inspiration from a Facebook request, I chose Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Malala Yousafzai. Two Americans and a Pakistani; a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim; a poor woman who didn’t finish high school, a well-educated woman in Washington, D.C., and a teenager with a remarkable father and a remarkable sense of self. A couple of the students and mothers had heard of Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai, but these three were new to most of the people in the three classes.

The students at the university got sidetracked by the issue of civil rights in the story of Rosa Parks. We ended up deep into questions of stereotype, prejudice, and racial discrimination—the students were very interested in how and why such discrimination would develop (did white people really think they were somehow better than black people?), and how it would be passed on in society. The mothers in both classes saw a correlation between the situation of African Americans under the Jim Crow laws and the situation of Palestinians under Israeli rule: identity cards, restrictions on voting rights, limited ability to travel. This comparison has been made before, of course. What was most interesting to me was the resulting recontextualization of Rosa Parks in the modern West Bank. In fact, for one of the groups, ‘the revolution of Rosa Parks’ translated into the ‘intifada of Rosa Parks.’ The mothers were impressed with the courage of this woman in the face of oppression.

They were also impressed with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work to ensure equal rights for women. We spent some time talking about one quote from Ginsburg: “It is not women’s liberation; it is women and men’s liberation.” One woman commented that this reminded her of a particular verse from the Qur’an about human equality and justice. I said that I thought Ginsburg would agree with the sentiment—but that she is, in fact, Jewish. All three classes brought up the potential cultural differences in the place of women in Christian and Muslim families in the West Bank; wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to add Jewish women to the mix, to draw lines through the wall on this particular issue? (There are different organizations that work for peace who do bring together Palestinians and Israelis, with varying levels of success; I’m thinking of more precise connections addressing women’s roles in Israel and the West Bank.)

I was surprised that only a few of the students and mothers (maybe 3 or 4) had heard of Malala Yousafzai. The mothers were particularly impressed by her story. They have daughters who are the same age—and they wondered how they could raise their daughters to be brave, to be leaders like Malala. One mother told me she had told her daughter all about Malala; another mother recorded Malala’s CNN interview (which was a few days after the lecture) for me to show to the students when I meet with them next. But I think the most affecting response came from one of the students, a Muslim woman dressed in an ankle-length robe and hijab. She told me after the lecture that she dreams of studying abroad for her master’s degree, but her family will not allow it. Did I have advice for her, in how to fight for the right to further education? I wish that I did.