She was soft spoken but never apologetic, and so must we be after the passing away of Professor Rula Qawas.
Indeed, she preached love and respect for all, but for the sake of her memory, I will not over-universalise her message: women’s rights were her priority, to fight for the dignity of all Arab women, regardless of their social, economic and religious backgrounds.
Rula did not just pay lip service to this cause, urgent now more than ever in an age when the social call for women’s rights is overwhelmed by the noise of political polarisation.
I graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature. My memories of Rula’s presence in class are vivid.
It was Novel 2 and American Literature modules. She seamlessly and sensitively wove Arabic threads into the narratives she taught.
Though aspects of the struggle are universal, our story is unique, in its causes, tools and activist manoeuvres.
The religious-political and social topography we navigate is different, yet by creative education we can assert our needs and identities as Arab women.
Without any abrasiveness, she reclaimed the term “feminist” in a society where this was a “dirty word” that elicited nonchalance at best, jeering and personal attacks at worst.
This reclamation was not by means through theory that does not spill out into the reality outside the classroom, but through practice.
Look at the many lives she touched: Muslim and Christian women, women with hijab or niqab and those without, all expressing their gratitude during her life and after her tragic departure.
That is an activism that does not divide.
Look at the work she has done to integrate women’s studies in institutional structures.
I did not go on to pursue a career in English literature or women and gender studies. I am an intellectual historian specialised in the history of Islamic esotericism (al batiniyya al islamiyya), working in the UK and in Belgium.
I chose a field that some might consider unusual and that is definitely male dominated. Notwithstanding, the support and encouragement of Professor Qawas contributed immensely to my objective of representing Arab women boldly in my hardships, perseverance and successes.
Rula offered the tools of change to her students, colleagues and friends, and never shied away from confronting those attempting to suppress women’s voices and choices.
She was clear: “Dare to dream, scheme for fulfilment, and in the absence of legal and institutional support, know that my office, my house, and my heart are open.”
A colourful mural can be painted with the deep impressions and stirring memories, though nothing commemorates better than future actions motivated by remembrance.
The repeal of Article 308 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which absolves the rapist of his crime if he binds his victim in a non-consensual nightmare of a marriage if she is between the ages of 15 and 18, was just approved by Parliament after heated debate.
This is one brick knocked off the wall of sexist injustice.
Article 98 considers a “fit of fury” a mitigating circumstance that dramatically reduces the sentence of the murderer who slaughters a female relative to keep intact a weak and truly shameful notion of “honour”, still...
This supports the “amended” Article 340, according to which the perpetrator of a (dis)honour crime is no longer exempt from punishment but may still “benefit from a reduction of penalty”.
Is that enough?
Women do not get equal pay still. Sexual harassment is normalised and often blamed on women themselves (it is a disgraceful phenomenon, not just a “problem”!); and a Jordanian mother implicitly loses her national status if she marries a non-Jordanian, rendering her unable to pass the Jordanian nationality to her children.
It is not, however, legislation only that needs to be combated, but also the abusive mentality that has formed its own unofficial council, lurking beneath the legal structure, having immense influence on it.
Let our dignity surge in our hearts, intellect and bodies to move us into action against these injustices.
The ways, as I learned from Rula, are abundant: there is the pen, the poem, also the streets can swell with the rhapsody of our resistance.
“Write without fear”, Rula used to tell us before our assignments. Act without fear.
The writer, a post-doctoral fellow at the Oriental Institute of the University of Oxford, is specialised in philosophical and esoteric ideas in the Islamic world and Europe. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.
Jordan Times: Aug 6, 2017.