Sunday, March 14, 2010

International Women's Day

In America, every day is "both Women's Day and Men's Day." That is what I told my students. But Rwandans celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th. Every other day, they joke, is for men. My students and fellow teachers were shocked to learn that International Women’s Day is not celebrated in the United States. In fact, I had never heard of it.

I was shocked to learn that women celebrated Women’s Day by doing nothing at all—literally. Rwandan women are not obligated to perform work of any kind on Women’s Day. Our female teachers all stayed home. That is, except for me, of course. I wasn’t made aware of Women’s Day. I taught a full hour of class on Monday until a student pointed out to me that the school was closed. It was also pointed out to me that I shouldn’t be making the female students study and/or think on this particular day. Why, you may ask, did the students even bother to show up for class? Well, let me tell you! Because they LIVE in their classrooms!!! My students wake up at 5:30am, get ready for the day, and are booted out the doors of their ridiculously crowded dormitories, which are promptly bolted shut behind them. The students reside in their classroom most waking hours of the day! But I digress. Women’s Day is a big deal here. Ironically, the fact that the school closes on this most celebrated of days means that the male teachers have the day off as well.

Unbeknownst to me, I had picked the perfect topic with which to introduce the concept of “debate” to my Senior 6 (12th grade) classes. My students were to ponder the statement “Rwandan women should not have the same rights and entitlements that men have,” and present arguments in agreement with, or in opposition of, this statement. Never mind the fact that in most classes, the women are too shy to vocalize a negative argument, let alone an affirmative argument—my brighter students, both male and female, took to the assignment with gusto!

It quickly became obvious that most students were presenting their own points of view, rather than playing devil’s advocate. Many of my students are fairly progressive in their ideas regarding gender equality, although the men are not necessarily thrilled with the “affirmative action” policy employed by the Rwandan university system to increase the number of female enrollees. However, a few of the male students shared views that more closely mirror those of the older generation (i.e., the male teachers who call me “Mister” when I teach in slacks). Since Rwandans are devoutly religious people, Biblical references were often cited as evidence that women were not meant to share the same rights as men. “Woman was created from man and must therefore be subservient to man.” My favorite response to that argument: “Objects made from wood are more useful than the wood itself; thus, women are more useful than men and should share the same rights.” While I truly appreciated the originality of that argument, I tried to gently prod my classes into accepting that men and women could form equal partnerships. Most of my students, however, seemed eager to embrace the battle of the sexes in a war for superiority. Well, at least I got them debating!

Someone decided that a school “pageant” would be a good way of celebrating Women’s Day. A girl from each class was selected by her peers to participate in the pageant. Contestants were selected based on six criteria:
1. Devoutness and participation in prayer/religious activities
2. Intelligence (high grades)
3. Participation in sports
4. Singing ability
5. Ability to speak both English and French
6. Sociability

During the pageant, contestants wore traditional Rwandan garb, resembling complexly wrapped saris in bright floral prints. Each girl was required to answer two general knowledge questions—one in French and one in English (read at a rate of 1/2 syllable per second by yours truly, yet still nearly incomprehensible to most everyone present, due to my deplorable “American pronunciation”). Each contestant was also required to sing a song of her own choosing, with or without accompaniment. Oh, and she was expected to do this while standing alone on stage in front of 7 judges and an apathetic (and sometimes heckling) audience of 700 + students! Individual performances ranged from tragic to laudable, depending on the self-confidence of the individual, the difficulty of the questions (drawn by lottery), and innate singing talent. All of the girls displayed a lot of guts just by participating—I would NOT have. However, our headmaster had previously let me in on a secret: all of the girls would be crowned winners! I fully agreed with the spirit of his decision.

The pageant largely passed without incident. Some of the singers were heckled for an obvious lack of singing ability, but the worst singers won favor from the audience by hamming up their terrible performances with enthusiasm. Each contestant had her high points and her low points, but the woman who outshone everyone else on stage was one of my Senior 6 students, who co-emceed the show with grace, intelligence, and wit. After all of the contestants had performed, it was proclaimed that each of the women was a pageant winner, to the disappointed boos of the crowd. The student body wanted a definitive winner. However, the young ladies who possessed the poise and courage to perform in front of both the judges and their peers demonstrated that they were definitely all winners!


  1. I'm glad you took the stage and acknowledged the fact that they got up there and tried, Emma.

    (Seems as if that school needs a new dean.)

  2. Honestly, the Dean tried too. The concept of gender equality is new here, and Rwandans don't really know how it works!

  3. kudos to how you handled this. love the wood analogy (women/ribs)

  4. So much I do not understand about my own I can't begin to understand this..but I can feel the sense that those girls were being crushed..someone must speak up for them! Thanks for your efforts,Emma! They need an advocate as well as a teacher.