The WHY in Teaching Women English

So it finally happened: I’ve pissed off people in my town. Was it the typical faux pas that Peace Corps Volunteers commit? Did I sleep with a local or smoke a cigarette? Nope. I tried to get women to come to my English classes.

Traditionally classes at the Youth Center are filled through word of mouth. A few key community members are alerted and voilà, there are fifteen students. But this fall, my women’s English classes just weren’t getting the attendance as I was hoping. I could only count on a few die-hard students to show up.

So I decided to stop playing things by the old rules and look into technology as a way to get the word out. My town has several Facebook pages that are filled with announcements, so I figured that this could be an additional way to get in contact with possible students. I made up a flier, had my friend edit it, and showed it to the Director of the Youth Center.

His reaction to it wasn’t exactly as I had expected. He seemed confused as to why a flier was necessary and reminded me that usually these things were just done by word of mouth. I told him that the town was becoming a modern place and it wasn’t possible to get in contact with everyone just through conversation. He seemed uncomfortable with the whole idea for reasons that he wasn’t clearly expressing, but he said “yes, sure, post it if you want and let me know if you need anything.”

He’s known to be quite the people-pleaser and probably wouldn’t have said no if I had suggested blowing the whole place up. So, I decided to play it safe and started by using WhatsApp to spread the flier around, asking my friends to send it to any women they thought might be interested studying. Women in my town already loved using WhatsApp to send me inspirational quotes and pictures of cute twins, so why not use this popular medium to my advantage? And it worked. I reached them where they were and my next class had eight students, a distinct improvement from before.

That same day I received a message from my friend saying that she asked someone to post the flier on the town’s FB page. We hadn’t talked about the flier since before I showed it to the Director of the Youth Center and she didn’t know that I was feeling a little hesitant about the whole thing. Even through I wasn’t sure anymore that I wanted the flier online, I thanked her.

A whole eight hours later, I found the flier while scrolling through Facebook, complete with 147 likes, six loves, three laughing emojis, one shocked emoji, one crying emoji, and 23 comments – mostly negative. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t read most of them as they were in Tamazight, but it wasn’t hard to get the gist of them.  

There was one in Classical Arabic that Google translated into, “What is the purpose of the education of women here English and arabic laytqn Arabic language wish that this education is headed to the traditional industry to benefit from it.” Lord knows what the second half of that meant, but I can only imagine the worst.

Another blood-boiling post said something that Google translated to mean, “They learned our English matches. Teach them Arabic. These are missionary campaigns, not English.” I responded to this one by saying that we will be offering Arabic classes for women in October.

In regard to the comments in Tamazight, I outsourced the translation to a member of a linguistics FB group that I’m part of. His name was Youssef, and he told me “What I can get from some of comments is that some people are not really cool with it” It obviously being the classes. “Thanks” I said. “I already figured that bit out.”

According to Youssef, one comment said “Normally it’s strange, just give the kids some education and what’s the benefit of teaching women English, they don’t even know how to bring up their kids.”  

A young women commented, “It’s the baccalaureate students who need the supporting classes not my mom, is she going to have a meal with Trump?” I couldn’t help but respond to this one too, and said “Hahahah, I don’t want to eat anything with Trump, he is very bad. But hopefully we will have classes for BAC students. We did them last year and we want to do them again.” Looking back at it, she was questioning if her mom was going to eat with Trump and not me. I get that now.

I messaged my friend who is helping me with the class to talk about this tragedy of a post and she told me, “I am upset too, most of the people have a rude mentality, they said, “What is the sake of a housewife to learn English while pupils and high school students need English more than women do” but it’s okay we shall keep going.”

And she’s right. Writing this post has already made me calm down a little.

What’s so damn frustrating about this whole matter is that it doesn’t match up with the image that I have of people from my town. Those that I talk to are often overtly positive about my presence and speak highly of the importance of educating women. Sure, I know in the back of my mind that women face a lot of resistance to get an educated, but I’ve never seen that resistance so firmly expressed. 

On the post, many people asked “What’s the use of English classes for women?” And sure they have a point. None of my students have a high chance of moving to an English speaking country or getting a job that requires English. They don’t have a high chance of getting a job at all. But many of the women in my classes left school early. Maybe they want to make up for some of the lost time, maybe the urge to learn hasn’t quite diminished yet. Maybe they see their children studying English and want to as well. Or maybe they simply need a reason to break free from the routine of housework and spend some time with friends.

I don’t believe it’s worth it to be bogged down by the question of why. The women want it and that’s what matters. They have the desire to learn English and I don’t want to question that. For people who spend the whole day doing things for other people, there’s nothing I want more than to see them do something for themselves. So instead of asking “Why English?” I’d rather focus on how I can make it happen. 

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