Building Bridges

Before classes began, there were placement exams to determine the young adults’ English proficiency levels. New students dutifully filed into their designated rooms and went to one of two sides; on my right sat the young men in their white dishdashas and headwear (either a small embroidered cap (kuma) or a scarf), while on my left, the women in their black abayas took their seats. All looked miserable – it was exam time, after all. While the seating distinction was marked – especially given the contrasting attire – I didn’t think too much of it. After all, I was surprised to learn that I was even teaching coed classes; yet here they were, in the same room together.

This shared space, I soon learned, was about as close to coed as it gets here. I had no appreciation for what was to come.

Classes have now started. I’ve been assigned two to start my first semester, but really I have four. The separation of the sexes continues and has even intensified. This situation is almost comical as in both my classes the women outnumber the men by about 4:1. On my right is a crowded room full of women in black, vying for the seats in the back until there are no more and they are forced to choose: sit close to me or on the other side of the room. They sit close. To my left the few men (three in one class, six in the other) spread out and sit in the front, confident. I notice that the women, for the most part, sit with paper and pen ready, while the desks in front of the men lay bare.

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The school, before students arrived

Not only do the young men and women not sit together, but they don’t interact with each other at all. Despite the orders of the Sultan which are encouraged by the Dean, no conversations bridge the aisle. This dynamic appears to be driven by the females’ request, even though their actions are dictated by the presence of even one male. The males don’t seem to mind.  This means that when I go around the room to monitor student group work, I need to address the two sides of the room as if there was a wall between the two. The men in white are simply not allowed to lean over the chasm to listen in on what I say and wait their turn. Going over to talk to the men means that I begin to lose the attention of some of the women. I go back and forth as quickly as possible.

Although the questions to begin the term have been few, one woman did ask if, during presentation time at the end of the semester, the women had to give their final project talks in front of the men. I answered, “Yes, per the Dean’s orders.” The room erupted in whispered chatter; the right-hand side of the room looked concerned.

I have yet to decide how much I am going to push the issue of co-mingling. If I do encourage it, I will be upholding the declarations of the Dean and even the Sultan himself. On the other hand, I will be going against the wishes of the students, their families, and tribes. Who will win out in these classes will be revealed in Week 14 when I take attendance before presentations. It’s been said that the students make their gender interaction preferences known by simply not showing up when the other side of the room presents.

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