I was at Rider University in New Jersey last week and sat in on a global studies class
that has a video link-up with Kufa University in Najaf, Iraq. The link failed the day I was there but the professor used the time to discuss the focus of the class, which is about what constitutes a civil society, and how the two campuses might put their ideas together to help form one. She started by asking what the Rider students admired most about the structure of Iraqi society, explaining to me that their counterparts in this exercise are all women and all wearing the traditional head covering, or hijab, that identifies them as Muslims.
It was an unseasonably warm day in late October and a technician tried in vain to get the international connection up and going. Sometimes a sandstorm interferes, but this time it was the back-up generator the Iraqi university relies on, which had run out of juice. When it was clearly a no-go, one Rider student peeled off her jacket. She was wearing a sleeveless top and had kept the jacket on out of respect for the Iraqi women.
With all the hullaballoo in New York about building an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, or the French banning head scarves in state schools, it's heartening to see how seamlessly a college class of middle-class kids modify their behavior to respect different customs, and how open they were to a guided discussion, suspending value judgments and debating back and forth among themselves.
Professor Roberta Fiske-Rusciano has conducted similar video conferencing with American University in Cairo, and finds it a really useful tool to promote understanding between cultures. She encouraged the students to think about what constitutes a civil society, and the qualities they quickly settled on were close family ties, with access for all to education and health care (with health care considered a human right). So far, so good, I thought. These students are building a list that indicates their idealism is alive and well.
Encouraging the students to dig deeper than generalities, the professor asked what qualities they admired about family life in Iraq. A number of the female Rider students said they liked how Iraqis put women on a pedestal. One said she liked being treated as a princess. Another countered that she was raised to never depend on a man. "I can open the door myself," she said. "I don't want to be treated like a princess. That comes at a cost."
"Because you become dependent?" Fiske-Rusciano gently probed. "Since he's paying for everything, maybe you don't need such a high-paying job?" That of course was the thinking before the women's movement fought for a level playing field, even if it meant giving up the perks of being the fairer sex. One young woman flared at the notion that being treated like a princess might mean accepting something less in her career. "I'm a triple major," she declared, "but I still like being treated like that." Some minor dissent followed, with one student warning that it's fine to be on a pedestal, but if you get knocked off, you could be the victim of an honor killing
Several women students gave what sounded like testimonials to the practice of having the guy pick up the check. One said it's a form of disrespect to the woman if the guy doesn't pay, or at least make the offer. The handful of men in the class stayed mostly quiet, exchanging eye rolls at the thought that they had to bankroll everything.
Did I miss something in the last several decades? I remember when Nora Ephron said, "The major concrete achievement of the women's movement in the 1970s was the Dutch treat
." She was being wry of course, as only Ephron can, but of all the symbolic behaviors that define the relationship between the genders, paying your way is the one that punctures the fantasy that a man will always be there to take care of you. As these women study their opposite numbers in Iraq, they are also exploring their own customs and traditions, and sometimes their reactions puzzle those who remember fighting over these issues of money and chivalrous behavior and thinking they had been resolved.
I visited this global studies class in my role as a fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation
, which brings people from various walks of life to small liberal arts campuses with the goal of enlightening the students, and fortunately the lessons work both ways. I thought of these students during Saturday's rally on the National Mall to "Restore Sanity and/or Fear," when I saw a sign that said, "Palin, O'Donnell, Bachmann -- For this I burned my bra?"