English students learn first-hand “How the World Sees Women” with an international author visit
“Women’s literature about women, for women.” That is how English 4 teacher Katie Waferling describes her Senior literature course. This year’s theme? “How the World Sees Women.”
In the second week of school, Ms. Waferling’s English 4 students all got up early for an 8 a.m. Zoom call to Saudi Arabia. Some girls were still sitting in bed with their laptops. Their guest speaker was Rajaa Alsanea, author of the 2005 novel Girls of Riyadh, their assigned reading over the summer.
But as the girls finished logging on, the author was still noticeably absent, which caused a few moments of concern. Did she get the right Zoom link? Was the time zone calculated correctly? The issue was resolved quickly. Rajaa Alsanea is both a professional author and a working endodontist—she was rushing from the commitments of her dental practice to this discussion with a group of young women on the other side of the world.
Teaching remotely has inspired Ms. Waferling to explore more inventive pedagogical skills, like this virtual author visit. “The thought of reaching out to Rajaa Alsanea only crossed my mind because of our unique circumstances of remote learning,” says Ms. Waferling. “I have found that this is a way that remote learning has actually allowed access to experts and authors outside of our school community that we might not have had before.”
Ms. Waferling’s students had been actively preparing for this conversation together—they divided into small groups, discussed it on Jamboards, and, when given the opportunity, they dove in with a list of thoughtful questions. Girls of Riyadh follows the lives of four college-aged friends in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as they navigate questions about their futures and love lives. The students’ very first question? “What inspired the contents of your novel?
Ms. Alsanea said she was compelled to “write a book that I would want to read.” She went on to explain, “The literature written in the Middle East is either written by males or written by older-generation females. I might have been one of the youngest writers who wrote about college life.” And capturing that essence and informality was imperative to Ms. Alsanea as she wrote in the ”authentic language of those young women who are in their early twenties.”
It’s clear that her approach resonates with youthful readers. Mariana Trujillo ‘21 praised the author's ability to connect: “There were parts throughout the book where I laughed out loud, I felt an adrenaline rush, and there were even times where I felt the need to squeal.”
Some English 4 groups asked Ms. Alsanea questions on style and artistic approach like, “Why did you keep the narrator’s identity a secret?” and “What was the process of translating the book?” Others focused on content and context, like, “What was the response to the publishing of the book from society and the government?”
Ms. Alsanea admits she was not prepared for the reception the book received. “It was a topic of discussion for years in Saudi Arabia. It was like the number one topic to discuss: ‘Are you with Girls of Riyadh? Or against?’” Giving a glimpse of the inner life of young Saudi women, especially regarding love and relationships, elicited extreme reactions from readers. There were a lot of positive reactions, but there were also death threats. Ms. Alsanea said that even people who had been supportive of the book initially changed course when it was translated in multiple languages and read outside the Middle East. “We're a Muslim nation. We are a traditional, conservative society,” Rajaa said, “You can understand when some people became very protective of their image.”
Ms. Alsanea says “tradition and religion,” are two aspects of Saudi life that have to be examined critically, and firmly differentiated from each other. Although many practices inside the country are considered to have strict religious motivations, Ms. Alsanea points out in her book how often they are simply codified cultural norms. These ways of being are unique to certain regions, and even differ wildly inside different families. And although Western audiences tend to oversimplify what they see as oppression of women in Saudi society, Ms. Alsanea is much more nuanced about the burden of expectations placed on both men and women, saying, “I realized that both sexes in my society are victims of tradition.”
Although Ms. Alsanea couldn’t have known it, her comments were perfectly in line with Ms. Waferling’s curriculum in this unit on cultural tradition,” more specifically: “How tradition and religion shapes the experience of women.” Eventually these Seniors will be given an assignment to write about their own spiritual journey, and the factors that influence their own decisions and sense of identity.
As the conversation was winding down, some of the students asked Ms. Alsanea about the afterlife of the book: “How much has Saudi culture changed since the book? Do women have more rights?”
Ms. Alsanea talks about the “big change” that took place in Saudi Arabia in 2018. Women were given the right to drive, and no longer needed the consent of a male guardian to authorize and supervise their travel. Women were granted rights to own their own businesses, too. The book represented the dawn of the internet age in Saudi Arabia, but so much had changed for women at a legal level, Ms. Alsanea revealed to the class that she is currently writing a sequel to address this new landscape.
By the end of the conversation, Ysabelle Magat ’21 wasn’t thinking about cultural differences or gender restrictions, but her surprising personal similarities with the author. Ysabelle explains, ”Like Rajaa Alsanea, I grew up in a medical household and definitely felt pressured to continue my father’s legacy.” But Ysabelle was inspired by the way the author exhibited a kind of balance in her professional and creative life, leaving Ysabelle with a newfound perspective. “I thought that I had to choose between these two different sides of me...but speaking with Rajaa Alsanea (someone who was able to find success in both medicine and literature) made me realize that I don’t necessarily have to choose.”
Long after this unit ends, this class will go on to study the other ways the world sees women, with other units on systems of inequality, motherhood, media representation, and creativity and influence. They’ll read Mary Shelley, Sandra Cisneros, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zhao Ban and many more luminaries. But this morning, these girls have much more perspective on this book, and the factors that shape literary characters and the women who write them. They have more tools to examine the stories they can write themselves.
Ms. Waferling couldn’t have been more pleased with her classroom experiment. This was not only her first international Zoom author visit, it was their first-ever visit from an author. “My thinking was that if we are already on Zoom as a class, it should be really easy to invite a guest speaker from anywhere in the world.” Virtual or not, Ms. Waferling says, “I am definitely interested in facilitating an experience like this for my students in the future.”
Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.