Rula Quawas and her Weapon of the Mind
by Elayne Clift

She earned her B.A. from the University of Jordan and, encouraged to believe that she had a right to speak her mind, Quawas chose to do her graduate work in Scotland and the U.S. She says she fell in love with women writers, and discovered a passion for teaching. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature and feminist theory from the University of North Texas, and in 1996 returned home to begin teaching a wide array of undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Jordan.

Currently, Professor of American Literature and Feminist Theory, she was the first to teach courses in her fields of study in the university’s English department. She teaches Arab feminism and contemporary Arab women writers in translation to international students and founded the Women’s Studies Center in 2006, where she was director for two years.

Now a Fulbright scholar in Vermont, in conjunction with Champlain College in Burlington, Quawas has introduced “global module courses” aimed at connecting students from East and West. She is the co-author of a textbook on communication, and author of a book on Jordan women writers, and another on international communication. Her intercultural studies are intended to bridge differences between young people in the East and West and teach diversity.

“Sharing thoughts and ideas, and coming to grips with different perspectives and perceptions are essential for building communities that are empathetic and open minded,” says the energetic and iconoclastic activist. “We look at big questions such as the pull of tradition and the lure of future advancements, moral values and their effect on communities, Islam and the hijab (women’s headscarves), war and peace. These courses fit beautifully with the terrain of feminism and feminist theory.”

Rula Quawas — Photo: Jan Doeler

Her confident tone and passionate arguments reveal Quawas’s way of thinking and her commitment to feminist, humanist activism. Awarded the Meritorious Honor Award for Leadership and Dedication to the Empowerment of Jordanian Women by Princess Basma and nominated for the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award, Quawas has an obvious passion for intellectually charged conversations with people from different cultures. She often brings that energy into her classroom.

“I look at the classroom as a site of resistance,” she says. “We discuss, debate, raise awareness. We need to ensure that grassroots women know what is going on, that they are no longer silent or silenced. It is essential that they be part of the fabric of society.”

Rula Quawas is pictured with her Champlain College class on contemporary Arab women writers; she teaches literature within its cultural, socio-economic and historic context, and says “unveiling” identity formation and the cultural construction of femininity and masculinity is important to understanding sexual objectification and the politics and economics of gender relations in the vast Arab world. — Photo: Jan Doerler

Fast-tracking Minds

This kind of outspokenness has not made life easy for Quawas in Jordan. “They watch me like a hawk,” she says with her customary honesty. “I am called an agent of the West, and accused of colonizing the minds of students. But I am actually decolonizing them. They tell me to slow down, that change is evolutionary. But we live in the 21st century, and maybe what we need is revolutionary change.”

Such rhetoric has a profound impact on her students, most of whom are women. “They come to see matters through different lenses, and they become more expressive. They own their voices, and begin to speak their mind, and write their own ideas, which is always a mark of strength. They shed their silence and stop practicing self-censorship. The wall of fear is no longer there.”

But the walls of censorship remain. Quawas was removed from her position as dean of the faculty of foreign languages because some of her female students posted a controversial video on YouTube. With their faces hidden and holding signs that repeated the language spoken to them on the street, they protested sexual harassment. Quawas’s removal drew letters from organizations defending academic freedom.

Launching the Women’s Studies Center, which enjoys the support of Princess Basma, head of the center’s board of trustees and leader of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, was not easy. “We had to push through the mainstream discourse, which is patriarchal, misogynistic, and sexist,” Quawas explains.

“We were met with opposition and crushing odds, but we persevered and succeeded to a certain extent. We worked to generate homegrown research, although finding funding was not easy. We continue to work on ways to change the mindset of people when it comes to gender issues, but the road is still long because our feminism is interconnected with Islamism, nationalism, and the effects of colonization.”

In many respects, the challenges Quawas faced at the Women’s Studies Center reflect the situation for Arab feminists elsewhere in the region. “Arab feminism is complex,” she notes. “There is no single theory. Rather, we have imported ideas about fighting oppression, and we’ve gone through stages, from awareness to rejection to activism.

“We are accused of being anti-Islamic and anti-nation, and that makes things difficult. We need to find our way through Islamism, but feminism is not a faith position, it is secular. And [some] interpretations of the Holy Koran are misogynistic: They advocate the submission of women through discriminatory acts; they give Arab men the right to be polygamous and domineering. The big elephant in the room is the Koran, a text which we need to address honestly and critically.”

“Women need a new interpretation,” she continues. “This is our jihad. (The word is far broader than its usual translation as holy way; it literally means struggle, and can apply to secular as well as religious effort.) “We must decode the Koran, see it through the lens of gender, find new meanings, new definitions.”

Still, Quawas says there is slow progress in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) Region. While the road is “long and arduous,” some laws have changed, and new ones have been created, even if not always implemented.

She says, “Change is happening on paper but we still need to implement these new laws. We have not yet changed people’s mindset.” Consequently, she adds, “Arab women live in snares of silence and fear. A woman is still thought of as sin and her voice as vice, so she must be cautious. If she besmirches her family’s honor, she will pay dearly.”

Don’t Know Much About Jordan?

Jordan has been home to humans since Paleolithic times. Its history spans the development of agriculture, the rise of Muslim empires (660-1200 C.E.), the Ottoman Empires (1558-1914), and the establishment of the state of Jordan after World War I. Situated on the western bank of the Jordan River, it is bordered by Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. King Hussein bin Talal ruled in 1953-1999, during the Cold War and more than four decades of Arab-Israeli conflict; Jordan recognized the state of Israel in 1994, becoming the second Arab state to do so (after Anwar Sadat’s Egypt).

Upon Hussein’s death in 1999, Crown Prince Abdullah became King Abdullah II. (Basma is Abdullah’s sister, daughter of Hussein.) In current times Jordan struggles to remain at peace with all its neighbors, no mean feat. The situation has been further strained by the war in Syria. The U.N, estimates that 175,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, while Amman puts the number at 250,000 as of January.

Arab Spring’s Women

A resurgence of fundamentalisms in the region adds to this repressive climate. “For fundamentalists, “a woman is essential rather than existential,” Quawas says. “She is an instrument, a baby maker and breeder, and a toy to be used and abused. The harem has become a state of mind in which women are colonized.”

That kind of insight raises many questions about the impact on women of the so-called Arab Spring. Quawas believes that related political events have been regressive in terms of women’s rights, noting that almost no women sit on post-conflict committees, and when they do, they are mere window dressing.

“Everyone is equal before the law, but where are the women?” she asks. “Why is an Arab woman still an appendage, a problem from cradle to grave? Why do [silenced women] have no self-love?”

The self-loathing and fear she sees in many Arab young women upsets her. She gave a talk in Amman, Jordan, in 2009, and was filmed addressing women: “Empowerment comes from within,” she said. “You need to arm yourself with the training and skills and knowledge you need to protect yourself, to shield yourself. So don’t dare say, ‘I need to be protected.’ Look at you! You are young, vital.”­­­

Holy Text! Parallels Here!

Our American feminist foremother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, came to a conclusion about the Bible quite similar to Quawas’ thoughts on the Koran. Popular misogynistic interpretations needed to be countered by serious scholarship. Stanton went to work on The Woman’s Bible, first published in 1896, based on her committee of 20 scholars and ministers whose interpretations challenged mainstream ideas limiting women. Stanton’s scholars quoted Bible verses to make their case, but still were considered radical. Opposition to women’s freedom often came clothed in religious garb here in the United States, too—and continues to do so today.

Four years later and thousands of miles away, Quawas reflects on more recent events. “The Arab Spring is a big topic,” she said, “and we cannot yet determine what kind of impact it had on women. In some instances it excluded women and sent them flying back to the domestic sphere. In other instances it gave women space to demand change, and to work toward that change through laws. Women are still trying to figure out where they stand. They are still fighting the good fight.”

So is Rula Quawas, who still finds inspiration in American feminist writers such as Kate Chopin and Willa Cather. “Western feminists have what it takes to be whoever they want to be,” she says. “Their feminism is not homogeneous, but its richness lies in its diversity and its passion for empowering all women. For me it is a beacon of hope and a fountain of inspiration.”

Recalling the first women’s rights gathering in the U.S., the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 (first organized by Stanton), she says effusively, “My heart flutters with joy to hear the voices of women asking for their rights. And when I think of Alice Paul, my heart is moved.” (Suffragist Alice Paul reorganized coalitions of women to successfully win the vote in 1920. In 1923, she wrote The Equal Rights Amendment.)

For Quawas, the struggle for full freedom, equality, and human rights continues. “My rope is longer, but I am still tethered,” she says ruefully. But there seems no doubt that her wish to “be the change I want to see in my lifetime” is occurring. And that her impact is felt when she tells her students her philosophy:

“Working together we can secure a more peaceful world for all humanity. Through love and empathy, we can transcend our differences, and birth a world based on justice and peace for all,” she says.

In her presence, there seems to be no doubt at all about that.

Literature Matters: Syrian Women on Stage in Jordan

Twenty-four refugee Syrian women spoke out onstage this month in Amman, Jordan. They were taking part in a new Arab production of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, Women of Troy, written 2,400 years ago.
Haben Habteslasie, reporting on its production at the Jordan’s National Center for Culture and Arts, said: “The play's antiwar theme clearly resonated with its cast of 24 Syrian refugee women, who wove their personal stories of the Syrian conflict into the production. Euripides focused his play of 415 B.C. on the horrific aftermath of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women of Troy, the ruins of which lie in modern Turkey.

“The immediacy and relevance of the themes which Euripides touched upon, including the effects of war on women, the role of women, and the importance placed on honor and dignity, were brought home when the actors recited from letters they had written about their own experiences in Syria, and of escaping the war, which has forced millions of people into exile in Jordan and elsewhere in the region.”

Will the play be duplicated elsewhere? We hope they find inspiration in The Lysistrata Project, which Vermonter Kathryn Blume and her colleague Sharon Bower created, and which has had 1,029 performances worldwide. Lysistrata, another ancient antiwar play also based on the Trojan War, showed us women not only protesting, but sensibly refusing sex with their men until they agreed to give up war. (It’s a comedy, and the men do.) About 225,000 people in 59 countries participated in the theatrical protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March of 2004.

Elayne Clift writes about women and politics from Saxtons River. ( A long-time women’s health educator and advocate, she recently spent time as a volunteer doula in Somaliland.

Her book, Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-Supported Birth in America, co-authored with Christine Morton, will appear shortly (Praeclarus Press).