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Supporting Rula Quawas and Academic Freedom: An Interview With A Former Student

[Image from screenshot of Supporting Rula Quawas and Academic Freedom] [Image from screenshot of Supporting Rula Quawas and Academic Freedom]

On 2 September 2012, Professor Rula Quawas was removed from her position as the Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Jordan under nebulous circumstances. In a letter addressed to the president of the university, the president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), Professor Fred Donner, urged the former to repeal his decision. Donner hinted that the decision might have been related to the circulation of a video that Dr. Quawas’ students made for her Feminist Theory course in the fall semester of 2011, which addressed the issue of sexual harassment on the university campus. In the months leading up to the removal of Dr. Quawas, the film became a major source of debate in Jordan. In response to the debate, as well as the removal of Dr. Quawas, one of her former students anonymously co-founded the “Supporting Rula Quawas & Academic Freedom” website. In the following interview conducted over email, that student shares her experiences and views regarding the reception of the video in Jordanian media and public space, as well as her motives for creating the website.

Audrey Ann Lavallee-Belanger (AALB): How did you find out about the controversy?

Student (S): I wonder if there is anyone in Jordan who has not yet heard of the “controversial” video. I remember it was everywhere, from Facebook statuses to local news websites. As for the removal of Professor Rula Quawas from her post as dean, a friend sent me the link to the MESA letter the day it was published on Jadaliyya. We were both students at the University of Jordan back in the day, and now we are both part of the group managing the “Supporting Rula Quawas & Academic Freedom” website.

When I first heard about the controversy surrounding the video, I felt I had witnessed an unjust act. I felt sadness mixed with anger. The decision to dismiss Dr. Quawas was not as shocking as the university’s reaction. The university blamed the victim. Once local and international supporters started speaking up, the university’s administration tried to silence Dr. Quawas’ supporters just as much as they tried to silence her. They made many inaccurate statements. For instance, they announced the dismissal of twelve more deans as if they were all part of a larger related process. However, many of those deans were dismissed due to their positions being canceled, and others were substituted for reasons known to them as well as to the faculty and staff. Those cases were unlike that of Dr. Quawas, who learned of her dismissal from a newspaper. Later, many other online attacks were directed at the cause, and at Dr. Rula Quawas personally. Lies were building up, and I felt provoked whenever a new attempt to manipulate the truth arose.

AALB: Why did you feel compelled to make a website in defense of Dr. Quawas?

S: The website was initially just an idea, but we took the decision to make it happen when I and other supporters noticed that some news websites did not publish any of our comments. Rather, they highlighted the other opposing opinions in their extreme perspective. We felt like we were being silenced in a social war directly targeting our freedom of speech. When the video became an issue, before September 2012, we were awed by the general reaction. But it did not really bother us. It was the news of the Dr. Quawas’ dismissal that made us all agree that we should act now or never.

Another reason for creating the website was the way that the university handled all of this. It had issued a statement that we viewed as unsatisfactory. We wanted to show exactly where we stood on both aspects that the controversy revealed. We wanted to denounce a society that prefers to silence the problem and denounce the decision of the university's president, which we believe should not reflect the approach of the oldest academic institution in Jordan.

What happened to Dr. Quawas is not only an issue of a dean who was dismissed. It is a direct strike at academic freedom and the potential for a better future. If a professor such as Dr. Quawas is punished for supervising academic research, where does that leave the students’ stance on freedom? What kind of a message does the university’s president, Ikhlaif al-Tarawneh, send to scholars, instructors, and Jordanian society about honoring education? We wanted to take action fast, and at the time we were left with two options. We could either fight in many directions, or create a platform where we gather all of our efforts to create a space for other supporters to join us.

AALB: What has been your experience since the release of the video and launching of website? What kind of conversations and debates arose from the video and how did people receive your position?

S: The reactions towards the video were extremely polarized. The issue with this video is that it did not only bother people who denied the fact that sexual harassment exists on campus, but it ultimately provoked people who found the mere introduction of such a taboo topic as catastrophic. The fact that female students raised such an issue caused more anger than the harassment phenomenon itself. If you read the comments on the video’s YouTube page, you will notice that there are mainly messages that are hateful towards females in general. To tell you the truth, I was never bothered by that reaction. It was to be expected. Social change is always gradual and has always required tiny steps throughout history.

From what I have encountered, people who were against the video were not very moved by Dr. Quawas’ dismissal to begin with. It is those who saw the video as a brave attempt to reform the climate that are sending us support messages and writing about it on their personal blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. We come across new articles everyday. It is not only academic instructors or news reporters who feel obliged to fight for this cause; many people are concerned and they happen to be from all sorts of backgrounds.

AALB: Do you think that the video helped tackle the issue of sexual harassment? What debates arose in the media, in the government (if any), and at the university level?

S: Definitely. What was once a single project done by four women for a class assignment has now become the talk of the town. Almost all local print newspapers have published at least two articles addressing the video, and later addressed the dismissal of Dr. Quawas from her position as dean. A friend recently told me that he heard a group of people discussing the issue in a restaurant over coffee. The video has actually raised many questions, and that alone is generating an immeasurably positive effect.

As for the university, it expressed an overwhelmingly negative view of the video. In a recent case, an instructor of shari’a at the University of Jordan, Dr. Amjad Qourshah, publicly organized a protest on campus using his private Facebook page. He called for “action” against Dr. Quawas. He openly accused her of “tarnishing the reputation of the university,” demanded that she be dismissed not only as dean but as a faculty member, and requested that students file legal action against her for defaming the university. The university’s administrative staff paid no attention to Dr. Qourshah’s objectionable and intimidating behavior, nor did they take any action against such an academic violation. On the contrary, the university’s president approached the media and denied that there was any “sexual harassment” worth mentioning on campus, and accused Dr. Quawas of “delusional heroism.”

In general, I felt more intimidated than attacked. People directly involved were/are left feeling insecure on campus, thanks to Dr. Qourshah’s call for action. He claimed that we were “externally funded,” implying that we were funded by parties with hateful/harmful agendas. By calling us a "suspicious organization," which is an unfounded accusation, he legitimized attacking us. On the other hand, our website only quotes legitimate sources and keeps an objective approach in addressing every article. We are pleased that many are joining us, and that our visitors-base is growing larger by the minute.  

AALB: What kind of impact do you think the website has had or can have with regards to the situation of Dr. Quawas, as well as issues of sexual harassment on campus?

S: We tried our best to collect online reactions in a diary style. We made sure to copy anything that supported our cause. We list all the sources from the posts we put up. Our statistics show that hundreds of people from all over the world visit the website daily. Many choose to leave comments and share their point of view on the matter. We aim to keep this blog up and running to assist in an academic revolution, which is the first of its kind here in Jordan. We are certain that our efforts are not in vein, and that this is the first step in a journey that has yet to begin. Even if we fail to effect change right away, we will keep trying regardless. Something that I also find to be quite expressive, and speaks almost the same language as all of the supporters of this cause is a recent article written by Nermeen Murad.

In my humble opinion, there is a silver lining to the polarized debate over the video. It has encouraged people to write more and more about the issue, and to raise awareness about the gravity of sexual harassment on campuses. The lack of convincing arguments from the other side made some people ponder the issue. Indeed, the university president’s argument that Dr. Quawas was seeking publicity is not convincing. The “controversial” video was never meant for publishing. It was, in fact, leaked. The video’s popularity was an accident. University president Ikhlaif Tarwaneh claimed that “Western forces and NGO’s” were behind Dr.Quawas, and that they sought to tarnish the university’s reputation. There is a limit to how far you can utilize conspiracy theory. For me, that is totally absurd.

What was the impact that Dr. Quawas had in your life?

Back when I was a student, I did not really understand how much of an influence any one teacher could have on my life. I took about five classes with Dr. Quawas between the 2002 and 2005, and each of them had a different taste. It took me a while to appreciate what she did, and how profound her inspiration was. At the time, she was one of the very few instructors who encouraged creative thinking and intellectual discussions. Her lectures were a mixture of mental fireworks and difficult assignments. Her approach in the classroom was unmatched. Examinations with Dr. Quawas were anything but traditional. I remember how we had to write an essay by matching a collection of symbolic photographs displayed on a projector with various themes of a novel we had studied. That exercise alone was exceptional in a time when the “Q &A” style exams were the norm to evaluate students. Rula Quawas is that kind of teacher, one who—as Robert Frost would say—"just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” I am indebted to Professor Quawas for the way I perceive life now and then.

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