If you want to understand how Donald Trump’s America is being perceived by women in the global South, my students are a good place to start.
I teach international relations at an all-female liberal arts college in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which follows a Western curriculum and is attended by 700 enthusiastic young women from 16 countries in Asia and the Middle East. Syria and Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are all represented, as is Palestine.
Most of our students at the Asian University for Women are the first in their families to go to university. Many come from war-torn societies. Although the university is largely supported by Western donors, not one of our students heeds from — or has been schooled in — the West.
Like liberal arts colleges elsewhere, we take a holistic approach to education, focusing on life-long skills, such as ethical leadership and critical thinking (“fake news” is a growing concern). Our classes tend to be small, student-centered and discussion-based — in a region where schools encourage rote-learning, female literacy is low and patriarchy dominates. Because of its normative mission, social justice is the core of what we do: virtually all of our students are on full scholarships, and the institution relies almost entirely on donations.
The divide between idealism and reality is often stark, so mechanisms are in place to address it. A pre-collegiate year assists students in bridging language gaps and developing critical thinking skills, while a pre-foundation year enables two groups of heavily marginalized young women — Rohingya immigrants and garment workers — to find a path into education. Through a unique scheme, factory owners support their employees’ education by continuing to pay their salaries with the expectation that upon graduation, they will return to the factories in more senior roles.
Because of my teaching subject, since the 2016 presidential election in the United States, I have heard a fair share of views about Trump and America. Most are not positive: if, in late 2016, the sense among our students was one of disbelief that the US would elect Trump, his Muslim immigration ban has done more damage to America’s image here in Chittagong than anything I have seen in a long time. How can such an advanced democracy elect somebody like him is a common question.
As a secular university located in a Muslim-majority country where the US is considered an indispensable but arrogant superpower, these views are hardly surprising. More intriguing is the complex and contradictory approach adopted by most of my students toward the US, the United Nations and the Trump administration, including the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley.
But let me step back, when a pedagogical dilemma awaited me upon arrival here in late 2013: should international relations and the UN be taught irrespective of students’ backgrounds? In other words, is it the students who ought adapt to the teacher or the reverse? Not having given much thought to this question, it was with a confidence born out of ignorance that I went to my first class — on Syria, of all topics.
The experience was memorable: within minutes, hands shot up and questions were asked that exposed not only the inadequacy of my approach, but also the Western-centric and parochial nature of my discipline, one that is supposedly global in outlook.
How can war be humanitarian? Why should we rely on the UN, given that it was established — and is controlled — by the US? And, why should we trust the US more than we trust Russia or China? These were some of the questions I faced in the first minutes of my first class.
Testier queries awaited me: why are non-Western regions and issues underrepresented in your course? Why do our readings ignore non-Western contributions? And, trickiest of all, Don’t you think that your Western identity affects your teaching?
This was no facile anti-Americanism; it was people from different backgrounds coming together. As I soon discovered, teaching humanitarian intervention feels rather different when your pupils include people whose parents have been killed by coalition bombs. The fact that I am a man teaching at a college with a Western curriculum but with a non-Western female student body makes the experience all the more fascinating.
I threw away my notes, discarded my PowerPoint slides and engaged in a debate with my students that has been continuing for the last five years.
What I did notice in my students’ attitudes to the US and the UN is that they are hardly linear. As one would expect from a motivated group of people trained not to take anything at face value, most of my students are critical of America’s dominance in world politics. Many also question what they see as UN passivity and –perhaps more surprisingly — its human-rights regime, which some see as a byword for Western dominance. Though this is a legitimate view, it harbors contradictions that usually come to the fore during class exercises and simulations.
While few of my students see the US as a force for good — most associate its foreign policy, including former President Obama’s, with self-interest and neo-imperialism — they admire the superpower’s ability to “get its way.”
In simulations of UN Security Council meetings, for instance, most students want to “play” the US role — or at least another powerful country — because of its dominance and the (mistaken) belief that America’s high profile will result in higher grades (nobody wants to play the hapless Bhutanese ambassador)!
As a powerful woman, the role of Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN, is in especially high demand, and I was surprised at the ease with which my students adapted to her positions on issues as diverse as North Korea, Iran and climate change.
Interestingly, they all want to “play” Haley regardless of Trump’s harsh policies. That she is seen as an influential diplomat appears to exert special fascination (Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton are equally popular) for the students. Power, it seems, is despised only when one does not have enough of it.
The fact that Haley is Indian-American does not seem to affect my students’ views of her. To give an example of their sentiments, most of my students dislike Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist for global girls’ education, viewing her as a pawn of the West.
A final tension involves the issue of human rights. Though one can see why some of my students would be skeptical of the UN’s ability to enforce such rights, the skepticism varies. So, while freedom of expression –especially the secular type — is often considered a foreign implant, religious freedom scores better. Yet it is gender equality that lies at the top of their priority list, with virtually all my students arguing that women’s rights are universal, rather than a product of Western dominance.
For most of the students, as for most people anywhere, some human rights are clearly more universal than others: a reminder that what unites us is bigger than what divides us.
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