Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The colored abaya slippery slope

The class I'm teaching now is Business English, and it's a class filled entirely with Emirati (from Sharjah) women. The dynamics are totally different from the classes I've taught at AUS before, and I find I quite like it.

In regular AUS classes, at least at the foundation level that I usually teach (freshmen, most of whom went to sex-segregated secondary schools), the young men and young women are often still ill at ease with each other. The first presentation of the semester is always a challenge, especially for the girls. To get up in front of a class is hard enough; to do so in front of boys when you're not even used to learning in the same room with them can be so daunting.

So to have all women in the class makes for an easier, more comfortable atmosphere. All of these women are veiled - in fact, probably 90% of them wear niqab (the veil where only the eyes show). A few even have the sheer black face cover that they put on whenever they leave the classroom. Inside the classroom, though, they feel comfortable unveiling their faces since the windows are opaque and their teacher (me) is female. This means that when they come into class in the morning, there are a few minutes where everyone is busily removing layers of black fabric from their faces and draping them carefully across the backs of their chairs.

For the first few weeks of class, the women all wore only black abayas and veils. Picture it: the first day of class and I have to learn the names of 24 women based on faces only - no hair color, hairstyle, or clothing style to set anyone apart from anyone else! Most of me loves being able to focus only on these women's expressive faces and not be distracted by the attributes I just listed, but the rest of me is aware that I will call a few wrong names more often as a result.

Anyway, last week, one woman wore an abaya with a few color highlights, and it's like that opened a door. Ever since then, more and more of the women are wearing black + color abayas. I actually asked them about it today - I feel comfortable doing that since it's an all-female class.

They told me that for the first few weeks, they were still scoping things out like their classmates, the AUS environment (they are not regular AUS students; most are married with several children), and me, their teacher. But as they felt more comfortable in the class, they felt more comfortable easing away from the ultra conservative, all-black abayas. One student joked that it was the liberal university atmosphere rubbing off on them, and that soon they wouldn't wear abayas at all!

It's true that you can see almost any style of dress on women at AUS - well, within reason. You'll probably never see bare leg above the knee, but you might see a bare shoulder once in a while. For these women, who come from the more rural areas of Sharjah, I can imagine that it's a bit of a shock to see "so much" skin. And I'm sure that student was just joking when she basically said that colored abayas were at the top of a slippery slope toward t-shirts and leggings. But in any case, it's been nice to see the colors come out and let these women's personalities shine through a little more.

(And by the way, I learned all of their names within the first class period, and now I can even tell who's who when they're wearing niqab. Like a boss.)


Liz Johnson said...

This is really, really interesting. I admit being jealous of an all-female class - I think that would be an awesome dynamic for a business class, in particular. And I'm mad impressed that you can tell people apart so well!

Aimee said...

I think this is a super interesting post as well and would love to hear more about your awesome business class!

Crys said...

Haha....I don't know why I found this so funny...the slippery slope. I do fins it extremely fascinating how when given the chance to loosen up a little many jumped at it. I often wonder how much of who I am is determined by the outside factor of who I'm surrounded by. 24 woman's names on just facial features, I'm super impressed! I'd be interested to know what difference Jeremy and you have experienced as teachers.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

In Young Women the other day we were discussing the way high school girls dress and I brought up the abaya that is common in some parts of the world. The girls grasped the visual--that you focus on the female eyes (or face if it shows) of an abaya wearer, rather than the body, and as one said, that is the real person. Now that you (Bridget) can recognize women by the eyes only, I wonder if that changes the way you look at a non-veiled woman.

Bridget said...

You know, I got to thinking about it and I wonder if I was able to learn their names so fast in part because I only had their faces to rely on. If you memorize someone's name according to a hairstyle or color they're wearing, then you're back at square one if they change that thing. But if you really match a name to a face, then obviously that will stay the same.

Caitlin Carroll said...

SO interesting Bridget! I love these stories from AUS.


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