Asian University for Women liberal arts program is one-of-a-kind. It is inspired by the most successful liberal arts institutions with a diverse pool of students from South Asia and Middle East.
This study primarily aims at highlighting the issues and challenges confronted by liberal arts students from Pakistan after graduating from Asian University for Women (AUW) Chittagong, Bangladesh.
By employing the method of content analysis for analyzing the data obtained through structured interviews, this study underscores the role of liberal arts education in shaping the personalities and perspectives of the 15 liberal arts graduates who were part of this study.
It then goes on to explore the nature of challenges stemming from illiberal socio-political structures confronting the students and the strategies they employ to overcome societal barriers in their quest for positive social change in line with the ideals and values of liberal arts in society.
Liberal arts education has been variably defined and described by various scholars, researchers, and institutions. However, all the definitions converge on one point that liberal arts is a form of knowledge and education that offers an expansive intellectual development in all forms and facets of humanistic inquiry.
This definition provided by Princeton University underlines some of the defining features of a liberal arts education by allowing for a deeper intellectual engagement and debate on issues and ideas. It cultivates the critical and analytical skills of students thus enabling them to express their ideas logically, cogently, and coherently.
Thus, liberal arts education focuses on critical thinking, analyzing, and allowing students to think more deeply and creatively.
It is crucial to define some of the important terminologies in this study for the sake of clarity. Thus, generally and in the context of this research, a liberal society is referred to as a society where every individual has equal rights irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, etc.
Consequently, a society where people enjoy equal opportunities with necessary legal and constitutional protections in place to ensure their fundamental human rights would be considered a liberal society. Whereas, an illiberal society can be described as all such systems, structures, institutions, laws, and values that are antithetical to women’s empowerment.
Thus, a society where there exists is a lack of democratic and fundamental human rights, and discrimination on the basis of gender, class, race, ethnicity, etc is called an illiberal society.
In this backdrop, the purpose of this paper is to explore the kinds of challenges faced by liberal arts students from Pakistan after graduating from the Asian University for Women, Bangladesh. Considering the socio-political makeup of Pakistan as a state and society characterized by religious conservatism, a lack of democratic protections for marginalized and vulnerable communities and groups like women, minorities, human rights activists, etc.
It is tempting to study the personal experiences of liberal arts graduates who often find themselves struggling in such hostile contexts. Indeed, suppression of dissent and free will is the hallmark of all illiberal states and societies and Pakistan is no exception to this. Gender-based violence is ubiquitous in Pakistan and the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 ranked the country among the bottom 10 countries.
Research Question (s):
- What are some of the most pressing and common challenges that AUW graduates from Pakistan find themselves grappling with after returning home?
- How do they seek to overcome those challenges in a bid to make a difference in line with their liberal credentials in an illiberal socio-political context?
- Do you think your perspective changed as a result of the education you received at Asian University for Women? How?
- What type of challenges did you face after returning to Pakistan?
- How do you overcome such challenges and seek to bring about social change?
- What Strategies do you use to counter opposing views
Data Analysis /Findings:
Role of Liberal Arts Education in Shaping Students’ Perspectives
All of the graduates interviewed were of the view that their perspectives have changed significantly as a result of liberal arts education at AUW. In particular, they emphasized the liberalizing impact of liberal arts education and the conducive learning environment at Asian University for Women in reshaping their personalities and attitudes by enabling them to unlearn and relearn so as to become socio-politically conscious individuals.
- Courses that students studied at Asian University for Women played a vital role in changing their personalities.
AUW offers a variety of courses that aim at the holistic development of students. These courses are inherently structured and designed in a way that fosters critical and creative skills. Also, students are introduced to the studies of politics, philosophy, and economics. This helps students unlearn their old biases and indoctrinations and develop independent views by using their critical and analytical reasoning skills.
One of the graduates expressed her experience of studying at Asian University for Women in the following words
“As for my experience of studying at Asian University for Women, the sheer variety of perspectives and views on a multitude of subjects and issues taught and discussed amazed me. So I learned about all that during the course of my studies. Most importantly, I learned about the various kinds of feminism and feminist thought.
The education at Asian University for Women helped broaden my intellectual horizon thus enabling me to look beyond my indoctrinated belief system. Also, it provided the necessary wherewithal of ideas and concepts to re-evaluate my beliefs about my religion, and my culture thereby bringing in more clarity and a better understanding of things.
In particular, the course on Gender and Law helped me a lot in terms of developing and sharing views about women’s rights issues and analyzing policy making and implementation issues.”
Similarly, another respondent shared how the AUW education system changed her views about patriarchy
“We had a wide range of courses with many different professors with different backgrounds. They did a lot of good things to change my perspective, which I was earlier not aware of and it taught me some values that I can talk about. The most significant thing that I would call that changed over time was my perspective regarding patriarchy.
I was okay before coming to AUW. And was okay with patriarchy. Surely, I never saw it as a hurdle carry along. But of course, the way they were installed at AUW totally changed my perspective. I would say the AUW education system, culture, and class environment made a significant change in my life, and in my perspective.”
In addition to this one of the respondents stated that “the courses taught at AUW really changed my life. It was a transformative phase of my life. My perspective of life changed for the positive. I used to be resistant toward a lot of things, be it religious ideas, political or cultural”.
Moreover, another participant expressed that “Yes, I think my perspective has changed a lot due to the courses I took at AUW. I was kind of a misogynist when I was living in Pakistan but going to AUW, literally changed me into a feminist and it changed my perspective on how I seek the world before”.
Another respondent highlighted the fact that faculties from different international universities and organizations visiting AUW were indeed crucial in providing deeper insight and understanding of the purpose and objectives of the courses offered. Also, the mandatory karate class at AUW was an empowering experience for her in many ways.
The curriculum has leadership classes, and visiting professors from the UN and from other universities really helped me in understanding more. The gym, being forced to take karate class/ defense fighting class. That taught me that no matter how economically empowered you are, you also need to be empowered physically because no one cares about your degree unless you punch them in the face if they do not behave themselves. So that really empowered me.
Another participant underscored how liberal arts education at Asian University for Women helped them overcome her narrow outlook toward life and society at large in the following words.
“My perspective about society changed because of the courses I studied at AUW. In the first semester at AUW, I was taught world history and human history, which I believe played a vital role in enhancing my awareness.
I was awakened for the first time to the inherent oneness of humanity when my personal prejudices fell apart after receiving a liberal arts education. Also, as a student of political science and moral philosophy, I learned and internalized the idea of peaceful coexistence in this world. May it be with human beings or other species.”
- The diversified and democratic environment at AUW contributed to changing the way students think and behave
The unique environment at AUW was found to have a huge role in shaping the way students see and think about themselves and the world at large. Since it inculcated the values of diversity, human dignity, and pluralism, tolerance, and respect for the ‘others’ was a natural outcome of liberal arts education in those.
In this way, it played a pivotal role in broadening the intellectual horizon of students. In the case of many respondents, the education at AUW was like getting baptized and cleansed of all their biases. It provided an opportunity to have an open discussion and logical exchange of ideas with followers of various religions and cultures thus fostering mutual understanding, tolerance, and interfaith harmony.
One of the respondents said, “I used to have the belief that my perspective was the ‘right one’ but the environment at AUW taught me to respectfully consider alternative and often opposing views. Thus, it taught me the value of appreciating different perspectives and learning from them. It changed a lot of my prejudices about different religions, cultures, and people’s behaviors.
I am more accepting and pluralistic as compared to the rigid woman I was before AUW”. In the same vein, another participant expressed that “I was just very limited to the culture and political situation of just Pakistan, but then after going to AUW I think I became more of a global citizen. Like I look into other different issues and different cultures”.
Another participant highlighted an important feature of a liberal arts educational set up i.e., the availability of a more liberal faculty at AUW. She thought a friendly, cooperative, and liberal faculty was crucial for her to be able to study and openly share her views without inviting criticism or ridicule on some of the culturally and socially ‘sensitive’ and hushed-up aspects of society.
AUW changed my perspectives to a great extent. This is because the diversified environment of AUW opened up new possibilities and visions for the personal growth and development of society. This seemed very unlikely in a non-liberal educational system.
As one participant said that
Studying liberal arts with students from more than 20 countries across Asia, especially from the war zone areas like Palestine, Afghanistan, and Rohingya played a huge role in understanding different perspectives regarding Political Economy, the role of INGOs, and the UN. When I went to AUW, I had to live with Buddhist and Hindu students which opened my mind to new realities and perspectives and helped me leave the comfort zone of my bigoted views.
Being a student of AUW entailed many benefits like greater exposure to different religions, cultures, political ideologies, and philosophies. In order to make peace, you have to be open-minded. I think it really opened my mind and now I am more receptive to different cultures and religions.
The impact of a liberal arts education or for that matter the Asian University for Women in shaping perspectives and personalities is acknowledged in clear terms by the graduates interviewed. One dominant theme that emerges from their responses is that liberal arts education helps produce socio-politically enlightened students. One respondent states “Liberal arts education empowered and enlightened me enough to question things which I previously did not dare to question.
Previously I had no skills and confidence to question some regressive cultural norms and values that I always felt were discriminatory. After studying liberal arts education at Asian University for Women, I began to question and call out the deeply entrenched discriminatory attitudes towards women in my predominantly patriarchal society.”
Another graduate in response to a question regarding the impact of liberal arts education at AUW said that:
I come from an underdeveloped and far-off region of South Asia where my community struggles with various forms of violence and deprivations including political victimization, religious oppression, and abject poverty. At AUW, I lived as an individual unburdened by the rigid identities I had developed.
The freedom at AUW allowed me to look beyond the cultural and religious biases and binaries that had wrapped my vision and helped me become whole again. Thus, being tolerant and compassionate towards people from other cultures and religions seemed natural as a result of the hope and promise of a bright future for humanity envisioned and embedded in the liberal arts education that I received at AUW.
The Challenges Faced by Asian University for Women Graduates in Pakistan
- All of the participants who took part in this research had faced various challenges ever since they returned to Pakistan after completing their studies at AUW. One of the common challenges that they faced was sexist remarks. In this regard, one participant mentioned that
I think the first one would be not being able to understand people, I think, people do make such remarks that are sexist. They would make remarks about the bodies of different people, they wouldn’t really talk about ideas. But also, like being aware of feminism, sexist remarks, body shaming, and all those things. When I see people making those remarks it really upsets me.
Before going to AUW students were fine with the social structure but when they got an education at AUW then they found their culture monotonous. It was hard for them to get adjusted.
Before I was okay with the laws and the norms of the society, but after learning about my rights, after learning about different perspectives, and after getting exposed to all these ideas about my rights and what I as a human deserve, I cannot stand inequality. I cannot stand the way women are treated in my society and I cannot stand the norms and cultures which are subordinating women. But now, I feel angry about it. And this is the challenge that I feel after coming to Pakistan now I cannot accept whatever I see, and I have to speak up and I have to take action.
In Pakistani culture, women are supposed to be well-mannered. By well-mannered, it means a person who cannot challenge the existing norms and values of a society. One respondent mentioned that
The first thing I noticed was people’s strange glare at our strong and vocal personalities. Overall, this culture of telling us to conform to some of the social norms was a challenging one because most of the time the norms are sexist and discriminatory in nature. We can’t be truly ourselves; we have to be careful about what we say and where we say our opinions.
When I came out of AUW and entered practical life. I faced challenges in adjusting myself to the work environment. I would very bluntly say like no, I would speak up about things and I would put up my opinion about anything and I would disagree and I would debate and challenge. So that wasn’t really acceptable, and I faced some serious kinds of issues. I faced were people telling me, like, I cannot challenge certain beliefs and notions that exist in society
People’s racist attitude towards Bangladesh
People in Pakistan still have stereotypes about Bangladesh. Many graduates face challenges studying in Bangladesh, people would denounce and ask the reasons for studying there. One of the respondents said that “But when you come out of that people don’t give a damn especially when you say I study from Bangladesh.
You are sometimes not treated well. People have certain stereotypes regarding Bangladesh. So they don’t take you seriously. The mindset of people is still the same as the way they were before”.
Another participant mentioned that “Most of the time, people would ask questions, Like, why are you studying in Bangladesh? Instead, you would have gone to another developed country. Don’t you have universities in Pakistan? And even now people have that mentality”
The Strategies Used to Overcome Opposition in the Quest for Social Change
In their quest to create a positive difference in their illiberal societies in line with the aims and objectives of the liberal arts, students were faced with various challenges and in some instances received explicit threats to life from conservative and extremist elements in society. Their bold and outspoken style or demeanor did not go down well with the so-called guardians of religion and culture.
They were shamed, belittled, ridiculed, threatened, harassed, body-shamed, and in some instances declared agents of the ‘enemy’ for questioning flawed state policies, regressive social structures, and anti-women legislation. Indeed, they faced all these challenges because a large section of the society cannot stand a bold, educated, and independent woman having the necessary understanding to question the ways and methods of the patriarchal and illiberal socio-political setup of Pakistan.
Given below are the comments and responses of the participants
I try to understand their context and their perspective as well. I try to see why they follow these norms. Why are they comfortable doing that, why don’t they question it? I try to connect the dots and I try to understand the perspectives of those who don’t think like me.
The first thing I do to overcome such challenges is to make peace with the fact that it takes time to bring change in a society where something has been practiced for years. To seek to change the first step is to create awareness. To create awareness in a way we need to start with people who are around us then with our friends then with the community.
Some respondents were of the view that social change takes time and one should not expect deeply entrenched structures to be overhauled in a matter of days. They said it takes time to bring about social change and that through greater awareness, education, and civic engagement we can hope to realize our dreams for a peaceful and better life and the world for all disregard of gender, class, ethnicity, etc.
Another participant expresses her sentiments in the following words
Most of the time I am exhausted and there are times I feel hopeless too. It’s not just outside, most of the time we have to deal with family members too against patriarchal issues, against sexist comments and norms. I am not sure if we overcome such issues or deal with them on a daily basis even though we feel exhausted at the end of the debate.
I mean, some days, I keep on debating with people until I feel like I have told them enough of what should be done and sometimes I let it go because I know whatever I say, they are not going to change their opinions. Some days, I prefer to be myself with all the challenges, and some days.
I have understood one thing: we can’t change someone with one discussion, it’s a long process. It’s through education we can bring social change. We are in the process and it will take time but it’s worth it.
In order to achieve the objectives of social change, the Asian University for Women graduates from Pakistan are on the forefront of various protest marches championing the cause of women’s equality, social justice, and freedom of expression and thought in society.
One such important event was the “Aurat March” or “Women March” held across Pakistan by women of all socio-political strands. However, another group of women was launched by the vested groups to discredit the Aurat March and its stated goals and objectives.
By participating in such activities they create awareness about women’s rights among people. They also use various social media platforms to highlight the issues confronted by women in society. They invite people to join such events and spread awareness among youth and other members of society.
One entrant mentioned that “I was a volunteer in the Aurat March and my aim was to spread awareness among youth. And other members of society about the rights of women”.
Likewise, another respondent said “I invited many of my friends from different universities to participate in that event. And to engage them in group activities and discussions. My main aim was to create a safe environment for youngsters. By highlighting and sharing ideas about the problems faced by women in Pakistan.
I did this because I felt that if they will discuss the problems then they will find the solutions by themselves”
Students mentioned that they fought against the work culture which was male dominant and tried to make people understand gender discrimination and women’s rights. They showed them that a woman can do whatever a man can. One interviewee mentioned that
I work with the production and supply chain, which is male dominant work culture there. I was the first girl to join an international company in Pakistan. My first objective was to have more girls in the organization. I fought against the work culture. I brought change and after four years we have 6 women in the organization.
Now things are changing and it helps my male colleagues to understand that there are no gender-defined roles. I am successfully doing a job that man was doing. A girl can do the same job as men if give them an equal opportunity
Strategies that Students Used to Counter Opposing Views:
All the participants implemented various strategies at various levels. Some think it indispensable to question the masculinist interpretation of religious scriptures or for that matter any other phenomena. Thus, they sought to bring some sense of balance to life by providing a feminist interpretation that takes into account women as well.
One participant highlighted one of the pervasive issues afflicting Pakistani society in particular and the Muslim world in general i.e., the misinterpretation or self-serving interpretation of the Holy scriptures for parochial interests
The holy Quran is often misinterpreted for vested interests including terrorist groups, extremist religious groups, or political parties in Pakistan that are unfriendly and discriminatory towards women. Their primary motive is to keep women politically suppressed and subordinate. So it is an important issue to talk about with people who always bring in the holy Quran and Islam to defend their own bigoted views on the status of and role of women in society, especially so when they run out of logical arguments.
In fact, as per Quran and Islam, discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, color, etc is prohibited but it is primarily the misinterpretation by clergy class and male members of the society that deprives women of their right due place and status in society. Yeah, so that’s how I tell them I question their interpretation because that’s where people usually interpret ground for themselves in such a way that it benefits them.
In this regard, students mentioned that they also participated in various awareness sessions and group discussions to spread awareness about the issues faced by women by giving day-to-day examples. One participant mentioned that “many men were not ready to participate in the Aurat march (Woman march) and were reluctant and fearful of allowing their sisters, daughters, and wives to go out in the streets to raise their voices for women’s rights.
Many men tried to downplay the Aurat march by dubbing it non-representative and a club of urban, elite-class educated women. I spread awareness about women’s rights and made people understand the fundamental human rights through advocacy campaigns on various formal and informal media platforms”
Summing up, liberal arts education plays a significant role in shaping the identities and political perspectives of liberal arts students. Indeed, the core of it is to produce socio-politically conscious. And enlightened citizens who could contribute to the development of society. Using the skills and values learned through liberal arts to question injustice in society.
While this may be the case, different societies pose different challenges to liberal arts students or human rights activists due to their unique historical and socio-political makeup. In the case of this study, the socio-political context was extremely unfavorable for liberal arts students in fully realizing their true potential.
This study suggests that in such contexts, non-confrontational strategies rooted in greater compassion and understanding of the social malaise can prove effective, whereas confrontational tactics for short term gains can prove counterproductive
The writer is a graduate of Asian University for Women Chittagong Bangladesh with major in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and a minor in Development Studies. Her area of interests include Women Rights, Ecofeminism, Climate Change, and Development related issues.