Pakistani women at ASU provide glimpse of culture 'Beyond the Hijab'

By

Kristen LaRue

When Tehreem Aurakzai stepped off the plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, she didn’t fully appreciate her new role as “cultural representative.”

A scholar on a U.S. State Department exchange, Aurakzai was in Arizona to research American literature and culture. What she hadn’t planned was having to defend the reputation of her home country of Pakistan, which many Americans view as a strife-ridden hotbed of terrorism.

Aurakzai knows a different view of her home country. Pakistan has an active civil society, with many strong women leaders who are key to combating extremism in the Islamic South Asian Republic. It is also a place of rich culture, history and diversity. Aurakzai worked to convey Pakistan’s complexity to students and faculty she met at Arizona State University and in the surrounding community.

“Terrorism is everywhere because we are living in the age of violence," she said. "It doesn’t happen only in Pakistan.”

Aurakzai believes that to combat negative views of another culture, “The best way is to visit the country itself, meet people and experience on your own.”

Aurakzai is a lecturer in the English department at Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore, Pakistan. She and four other scholars from Kinnaird – Zahra Hamdani, Kanza Javed, Mahwish Khan and Aisha Usman – spent the spring 2015 semester at ASU funded by a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The three-year project, “Globalizing Research and Teaching of American Literature: A University Partnership between ASU and Kinnaird College (Lahore),” aims to create an academic, research and knowledge exchange that will help to empower Pakistani women in academia and in society. Faculty and staff from ASU’s Department of English and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict co-direct the project and participated in the first wave of exchanges to Pakistan in fall 2014 while ASU hosted two scholars from Pakistan.

The newest Pakistani cohort arrived in January 2015 and participated in classes, attended cultural events, met with mentors and gave presentations of their own research and scholarship during the semester-long ASU visit.

One course that two Pakistani scholars attended was professor Melissa Pritchard’s English 594: Creative Writing – Fiction class. Not only did the women gain insight on trends in the field of contemporary American literature, their very presence in the classroom was a learning experience for their U.S. counterparts.

“Having students from overseas in ASU classes brings new perspectives that many students haven’t considered,” said Carolyn Forbes, assistant director of the ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and project manager for the exchange.

“These sorts of exchanges shape new research questions that lead to new ways of teaching the material.”

The ASU hosts, which in addition to Forbes included English faculty Deborah Clarke, Claudia Sadowski-Smith and Neal A. Lester, as well as Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies Yasmin Saikia, provided opportunities for the Pakistani scholars to be immersed in multi-ethnic literatures of the U.S. In particular, the group focused on introducing the unique culture of the American Southwest.

“We built in to the grant a variety of cultural experiences that we thought would enhance their understanding of the literature they were reading,” Forbes said. “For example, we visited Santa Fe where they were able to tour one of the pueblos in the area and explore the intermingling of Native, Hispanic and Anglo culture.”

Forbes said that she and her colleagues did their best to minimize culture shock for the participants. One boon: Forbes found a house to rent, so the Pakistani women were all able to stay together.

“The house was within walking distance of campus, and this sort of living experience more closely resembled the way families live in Pakistan. The neighbors also did a lot of community activities together and this turned out to be a real plus since these sort of social interactions are also more common in Pakistan,” Forbes said.

The five women participated in a public panel discussion at ASU on March 26 called “Beyond the Hijab: Pakistani Women’s Perspectives.” Each scholar shared her introduction to American culture and focused on dispelling some of the preconceived notions of Pakistani women.

During the discussion, panelist Aisha Usman, a member of the English Literature faculty at Kinnaird, addressed a main area of concern – media's role in shaping the perceptions of women in Muslim countries.

Usman sees the media as emphasizing the stereotype that women in Pakistan aren’t able to fill leadership roles. But, she pointed out, Kinnaird College is a women’s college where most of the faculty are women. She also revealed that much of Pakistan’s higher education is co-educational, and women have provided strong leadership in that sector.

“Women in Pakistan do face difficult situations,” Usman said. “But they are also empowered and have minds of their own.” 

Pakistani women are typically charged with providing structure and early learning opportunities for their children, so it is with this in mind that Usman quips, “If we are educating a woman, we are educating a nation.”

As hoped, the exchange has affected the Pakistani women’s own perspectives. Aurakzai says that she now has a global mindset and will apply newly learned teaching skills when she goes back to her country.

“I grew as a person, and this was very intellectually stimulating experience,” she said. “I became an English professor because of the opportunities it provides to enter into others’ experiences. This is the spirit at the heart of this exchange.”

Each of the scholars will return to the U.S. this fall to present academic papers based on research they did while at ASU. Several ASU faculty will travel to Pakistan in the fall, and the next cohort of Kinnaird scholars is due to arrive at ASU in spring 2016.

Written by Paulina Iracka and Kristen LaRue