Teaching Personal Narratives of Youth, Gender, and Activism in the Middle East

Teaching Personal Narratives of Youth, Gender, and Activism in the Middle East

Mural exploring gender relationships in downtown Amman, Jordan.

I use this resource in three classes: my introduction to sociocultural anthropology (when talking about the social construction of gender), a class on everyday subjectivity in the contemporary Middle East, and a class on Arab activism after the Arab Spring. I will outline the lesson plan from my intro course here, but I use it similarly in the other courses.

Sample Lesson Plan: Introduction to Anthropology, Topic: Gendered Subjects

The goal of this lesson is to get students to think about the ways that gender is constructed in everyday practice, as gendered subjects encounter social boundaries and policing mechanisms. In preparation, the students are assigned a reading, “Gendering the City, Gendering the Nation: Contesting Urban Space in Fes, Morocco,” by Rachel Newcomb (2006). This article examines the ways that women in Fes, Morocco negotiate social spaces where gender roles are not clearly defined, including cafes, internet cafes, and gyms. I open the class with a debrief of the reading, asking first, generally, how social space connects to gender in the article, and then how gender roles are enforced. After laying out the basic concepts, we discuss the specific spaces analyzed in the article: cafes, internet cafes, and gyms, asking why gender roles are ambiguous in these spaces, and how the subjects of the article negotiate these ambiguities.

We then turn to the videos. I break students into groups of four or five and assign them a “jigsaw” exercise where they view and then discuss videos from the website. Students are instructed to visit the website, pick a video, and watch it. Each student in their group should watch a different video. As they watch, they should pay special attention to the following questions: What happens in the video? What social situations make the narrator especially aware of gender? How do they negotiate and/or challenge gender roles? (For example, one young woman becomes aware of gender while riding a bicycle. One young man describes being criticized for playing with dolls).

Then, students should discuss the videos with other students in their group. Each student should share with their group mates, describing the video they saw and how it addressed gendered experience. Students should compare their observations with one another. In what ways were the experiences described in the different videos similar? What differences could be observed? How does this build on (or challenge) themes raised by the reading?

Optionally, as needed, we can take 5 minutes of class time for students to read the attached publicity article. This can be useful in two ways: first, the article draws explicit connections between the different gendered experiences discussed in the videos (helpful if students are having trouble drawing these connections themselves), and second, it provides additional context, including commentary from the video makers (useful for students who are ready for a more in-depth conversation). Once students have had a chance to discuss, we’ll reconvene as a large group and work together to draw out some general observations.

Finally, I challenge the students themselves with the prompt that the activists in these videos were addressing. I ask the students to describe a social situation where they became aware of gendered difference and their own gender role, preferably the earliest such situation they can remember. “What is an ordinary social situation where you became intensely aware of your gender?” Depending on the available time, students can either write a short response or they can storyboard an imaginary video similar to those created by these activists. Sharing is optional, but there should be time for discussion.

Important note: It is important for the instructor to be prepared to help relativize the experiences described in these videos. The aim is for students to understand how subjectivity is constructed through everyday encounters that help define gendered selves. This exercise connects the student’s own experience with the experiences described in the reading and the videos. It would be a mistake for students to take these as evidence of exceptional Arab difference.

Accompanying Ancillary Materials:

https://www.challengemystory.com/7iber  (The video collection)

https://doi.org/10.1525/city.2006.18.2.288 (Recommended preliminary reading: Gendering the City, Gendering the Nation: Contesting Urban Space in Fes, Morocco,” by Rachel Newcomb)

https://www.dapp.dk/ligestilling/challenge-my-story-unges-egne-fortaellinger-koen/ (Optional: A short publicity piece I wrote about the video workshop as part of my participant observation. It needs to be read through a translator app, but it scans pretty cleanly in English. Students can use this for additional context on the videos or as a discussion prompt).


Teaching Resource Contributed by: Colin McLaughlin-Alcock, Scripps College

Colin McLaughlin-Alcock is a visiting lecturer at Scripps College. His research examines the community building practices of artists in Amman, Jordan, and the political impacts of artistic community. He received his PhD from University of California, Irvine.

Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning

Photograph: Trans performer, model, and AIDS educator, Octavia St. Laurent walking in a ball in Miramax film, Paris is Burning. 


I’ve used clips from the ethnographic documentary Paris is Burning (1990) in undergraduate anthropology courses, as well as a graduate-level linguistic anthropology course, to teach linguistic concepts of speech acts and speech communities. The film presents an intimate portrayal of drag “ball” culture in New York in the 1980s. In one scene, drag performer Dorian Corey explains the nuanced difference between “reading” and “shade.” Reading is the art of playful insult, considered somewhat of an art form in this community. Shade, on the other hand, is considered to be the nonverbal counterpart to reading; it includes alluding to flaws with gestures or ignoring a person altogether. The way these forms of speech are portrayed in the film can not only be used to discuss Bauman’s speech acts, but also how language can illuminate or build speech communities.

Here’s a link to the specific clip I’ve used: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnVSklVO-t4

There is also potential for it to be used to teach gender and kinship, and it would be a brilliant addition to an undergraduate cultural anthropology course syllabus. The drag performers in the film are frequently working to enact an authentic gender performance on stage, which they dub “realness” (as in “butch queen realness,” or the performance by gay men of male heterosexuality). The film simultaneously portrays the daily struggles of gay men of color and trans women of color to perform gender off stage. It is through these struggles, along with the shared experiences of homophobia, transphobia, racism, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and homelessness, that this community is able to fashion forms of alternative kinship and intentional families. Various individuals in the film discuss these topics outright, providing ample scaffolding for students to get a basic sense of these ideas before discussing them more in depth.

The film is 78 minutes long. If used in class to discuss language, I would recommend finding relevant clips online (like the one posted above), providing some background on the film, its cast of characters, and the significance before showing them. If used in class to discuss gender performance and alternative kinship, I think it’s worthy of being shown in full.

As of 09/21/18 Paris is Burning is available to watch on Netflix and on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/199274267.

Other resources (specifically for graduate-level courses):

  1. If you’re planning on teaching Paris is Burning at the graduate level, I’d recommend pairing it with chapters from this book which provides further context, analysis, and critique.
  2. For a critique of the film from multiple angles (e.g., the position of the documentarian, drag in the film as misogynistic), see:
    • hooks, bell. 1992. “Is Paris Burning?.” Black looks: Race and representation. 145-156.
  3. For an exploration of authenticity in gender performance, see:
    • Butler, Judith. 1997. “Gender is burning: Questions of appropriation and subversion.”  Cultural Politics 11:381-395.

Teaching Resource Contributed by: Evan P. Conaway, University of California, Irvine

Evan P. Conaway is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Irvine. His dissertation work examines how computer servers shape the way gamers experience place, memory, and law. With funding from an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, he is exploring the experiences of gamers, companies, and museums who are using servers to preserve, memorialize, and resurrect online game worlds. He is also a Contributing Editor at Platypus, the official blog of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing