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Helping Arab Women Ease Into U.S. Campuses

BOSTON— Speakers at a meeting of international educators last week tried to shed some insight into how Western campuses could better welcome Arab women.

In a warm-up exercise for a session on “Best Practices on Integrating Arab Women Into U.S. Universities,” Salma Benhaida, an international admissions counselor at Kent State University, in Ohio, asked members of the audience to use one word to describe how an Arab woman would feel as she prepared to go to the United States to study.  “Apprehensive,” said one person. “Anxious,” said another.  “Internal screaming,” said another. And lastly, “Excited.”

The discussion took place at the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators.

For women from those Gulf countries where classrooms are usually segregated by gender, their initial campus experience can be unsettling, speakers said. “It is a shock for them to come and immediately be in a mixed classroom,” said Eshraq Alkhabbaz, a counselor and recruiter of middle eastern students at the University of Northern Iowa.  For many Arab women, their families are a central source of support, she added, and a move overseas can strip them of that support.

The speakers brought some written comments from students, mostly from religiously conservative backgrounds. A Jordanian woman who came for a master’s degree in healthcare management said that communicating with Americans after having learned British English was difficult for her. She said getting healthcare when she was pregnant and finding suitable dresses—wide and long—were  also hard for her in the United States.

For an Egyptian woman who won a Fulbright scholarship, her problem was not the United States, but her own family, who expected her to stay in her home country and focus on getting married. “They were far from proud,” she said, adding “My biggest problem was not admissions or classwork but my family and culture in Egypt.”

Speakers recommended some specific things that universities could do to help Arab women settle in, including:

  • Make a point of talking to the future student’s family, said Karen Bauer, regional director of the MENA region for Education USA, a State Department sponsored network of student advising centers. Understanding the student’s family situation—if she is single or married, if her family is coming with her or staying behind, is vital.
  • Help to arrange for childcare for those women who arrive with children. Arab women are used to having their families help care for their children and may be surprised to discover waiting lists at local daycare centers or the expense of a paid childcare provider.
  • Provide halal food at social functions so that practicing Muslims following dietary rules aren’t asked the awkward question “Why don’t you eat?”
  • Break stereotypes when thinking about social activities Arab women might enjoy—go beyond cooking and think about canoeing or ice skating.
  • Make it everyone’s job on campus to help Arab women, not just the international office. Some departments, such as women’s centers, may turn out to be natural allies. Others may resist until convinced.

Some speakers urged the audience to consider women-only events, such as teas, meetings with women from other countries on campus, or women-only nights at campus recreation centers. Then Arab women could take advantage of features like climbing walls or swimming pools that they might be shy to use when men are around, speakers said. But others at the session said campus regulations (and possibly even federal or state laws) might prohibit campus events if all students, including men, weren’t welcome to attend.

Amal J. Fatani, general supervisor of female affairs at the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education, who attended the session, suggested both Saudi students visiting America and their hosts should relax a little. Saudi female students come to the United States to “Live American life,” she said.

“They have to understand that it’s your country, your rules,” she said. Likewise, she advised the Western hosts: “Enjoy them and let them enjoy you.”


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