Lesson 3: Traditional Women’s Roles in the Arab World
About this Lesson:
Traditional social norms in Arab society assume that girls aspire to get married and raise a family. In this lesson, students read “The Next Step,” by Daisy al-Amir and “The White Page,” by Ghada al-Sammen to explore how this pressure impacts young women and how they negotiate and challenge these social norms.
In “The Next Step,” by Daisy Al-Amir (b. 1935, Iraq), the narrator introduces ‘Alya, a beloved and admired specimen of femininity, with a promising future as a wife and mother. Rumors of ‘Alya visiting a medium anger and confuse the townspeople who cannot understand what man would not fall in love with her. It is revealed in the end that ‘Alya seeks psychic guidance to gain the ability to fall in love. Although the assumed “next step” for ‘Alya is love and marriage, taking that step proves difficult for her. Through this story, students see one way in which social pressures and expectations are handled.
“The White Page,” by Ghada Al-Samen (b. 1942, Syria), presents a conversation between a female narrator and a piece of white paper, symbolic of the ideal virgin girl. The narrator admires the paper’s purity and chooses not to “pollute it,” for which the narrator is admonished by the paper. The paper explains that it wants to “live to burn up” and not become an “old maid.” The poem highlights the value assigned to girls and women in various phase of their lives. It also opens a discourse about societal expectation and the consequences of fulfilling them, or not.
In this lesson, students will:
- read “The Next Step,” by Daisy al-Amir and translated by Sharif Elmusa and Thomas G. Ezzy.
- read “The White Page,” by Ghada al-Samen and translated by Ruth McDonough.
- write a poem or short story.
- Gender is built, defined, and fulfilled by social and cultural norms and can vary from culture to culture.
- Traditional gender roles are negotiated and contested in a variety of ways.
Curriculum Framing Questions
- What are the different ways that individuals negotiate gender roles within the Arab world?
- What insights can Arab literature and film offer about gender roles in Arab culture and how individuals experience them?
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
- identify values associated with women’s roles by analyzing prose and poetry in translation.
Assessment & Evaluation of Student Learning:
- Answer comprehension questions about “The Next Step” and “The White Page.”
- Compose a short story or poem that explores gender.
Curriculum Standards Information
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
History / Social Studies
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
History / Social Studies
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.
Bring the class together and discuss “The Next Step” Comprehension Questions. Ask students the following:
- What are the expectations for women in the narrator’s culture?
- How does ‘Alya conform to or subvert those expectations?
Compare the two texts.
- How do these two pieces of writing set up expectations for ‘Alya and the White Paper?
- How do the perspectives of ‘Alya and the White Paper impact the message of the texts?
- Do both stories contain the same message about what women want? Or what society wants for them?
- Moving Beyond the Assumptions: Understanding Yourself in order to Understand Others and Vice Versa. In this TedX talk, Carine Allaf explores her own personal identity in relation to the role and position of women in the Arab world. She discusses her research interests and the need to increase the visibility of women in the Arab world by looking at their diverse and educational backgrounds.
- Dunia (2005), Jocelyne Saab. This film follows Dunia, who is writing her dissertation on love poetry and training to be a professional dancer. It presents the double standard of women’s purity and sexuality in Egyptian society. Trailer