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.