SAADNAYEL/SHMUSTAR, Lebanon: In the Bekaa village of Shmustar, a dozen women spent a recent afternoon discussing a wedding. The group – teenagers and some with children of their own – rehashed the bride’s dress, the food and the table settings. But the women hadn’t attended a wedding together.
Rather, they were studying English at a small community center, and were reading a dialogue that mimicked – rather realistically – chitchat the day after a fete.
The Shmustar students are among some 800 in the U.S. State Department funded Teach Women English program. Running since 2008, the program offers free classes at rural and other under-served communities. Taught and attended by Lebanese, they are part of the State Department’s efforts to empower women, and to this effect appear successful, but not without a share of controversy.
“The students face the same problems I did,” explained Saria Dinneh, a teacher in Saadnayel. Upon completing her bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Dinneh’s husband and his family expected her to stay at home with her two kids.
Instead, she won a minor family battle to teach. Her Saadnayel class began with 50 students, and is now down to 30, as much of the drop is due to similar societal pressures. Dinneh said many of the class’s older women were mocked for their attempts to learn the language.
Her students, and those in Shmustar, had a bevy of answers to – and were slightly offended by – the question of why rural women would want to study the foreign language.
Reading pharmacy and food labels, using a computer and Facebook, communicating with relatives abroad and teaching their children were among the most popular retorts to the question.
And as Iman Shahimi, a marketing student in Saadnayel pointed out, job applicants are almost always asked if they speak English, no matter where they live.
The dominance of the English language can be frustrating though, as a high school teacher and English student in Shmustar explained. “I went to Dubai and in the shops everyone spoke English, in an Arab country,” she said.
Teach Women English also faces challenges other than disapproving relatives. It is run by Hayya Bina, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization that is opposed to Hezbollah.
Inga Schei, Hayya Bina’s program director, said that there has been opposition to the classes in areas “mainly in regions where there is a strong Hezbollah presence,” forcing two classes in the Bekaa Valley to close.
The courses are run through local partners, such as municipalities and NGOs, and as such they assume the responsibility of dealing with political or societal pressures.
Hezbollah spokespersons could not be reached for comment.
Asked about its decision to partner with a group that is outspoken against Hezbollah – which currently leads the government – the American Embassy’s public affairs officer, Amanda Johnson, told The Daily Star that “Hayya Bina’s views are specific to them,” and that when the program began four years ago they found it to be a well-connected organization. The embassy and Hayya Bina have a “good partnership,” she added.
Given the involvement of the United States and Hayya Bina, Johnson said that some “Hezbollah-controlled communities are not going to engage and work with this [program] and that’s fine – no party is a monolith that represents all Lebanese.”
Johnson also stressed that Teach Women English is in line with the State Department’s emphasis on empowering women, saying that learning English helps them “be more involved in Lebanese society.”
Language is ultimately intended as an empowering tool here, as well as one of exchange. Each year, students participate in exchanges with other classes, often with students from different sectarian backgrounds – there are some 35 locations. The mostly Sunni Saadnayel students were a bit reticent at first about traveling to the majority-Shiite Shmustar for an iftar last month, but some eventually caved, enticed at the chance for a trip.
The students may be enthusiastic because of a genuine love for the subject matter – but the new curriculum can’t hurt. The curriculum was designed by the U.S. Embassy and the University of Oregon, who asked participants what they wanted in a textbook. The result is a text that focuses on vocabulary in categories including “family, plans and dreams, women at work, in a restaurant and shopping.”
Unlike many dry language textbooks, the dialogues read like conversations a real group of women might really have, about restaurant bills, pregnancies and job interviews. And the illustrations show women with veils and without, and of different ages.
They look and seem much like the students. Manal Arsayel, a mother of four, is a beginner student who wants to help her four daughters – two of whom came along to a Saadnayel class – with their studies. She doesn’t work outside the home, and is learning alongside Fatmeh Shehme, a secondary school student who wants to improve her chances in the job market. Although the dialogues were scripted, their comradery seemed sincere.