Women’s university challenges gender bias

Growing up in Pakistan, Meher Jabeen (pictured) saw first-hand how women suffered from domestic violence on a daily basis and on an extreme level. Her desire to see things changed has only strengthened after enrolling at the Asian University for Women, or AUW, in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Backed by a charitable foundation whose patrons include Akie Abe, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Cherie Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, AUW has brought together talented women from around Asia, many of whom would not have had access to higher education without the full scholarships offered by the non-profit university.

But it goes beyond providing educational opportunities, particularly for those who are the first in their family to go into higher education. AUW’s US-style liberal arts curriculum includes a “notion of service” and the institution aims to inculcate a “responsibility and obligation to do larger public good”, according to Kamal Ahmad, AUW founder and president of the AUW Support Foundation.

AUW students are admitted on merit and leadership potential. At admissions interviews, candidates are judged on their reactions to scenarios of injustice and their empathy with the conditions of the unfortunate, according to Ahmad.

Jabeen, a final-year major in politics and philosophy, speaks out against the deeply entrenched sexism in her country.

“Our women don’t know about their rights – they accept all the injustice done by society or male members of their families. They think that it’s the women’s responsibility to obey the men in order to keep the family honour. I would love to change this mindset.”

Internship opportunities in both non-profit and for-profit sectors further develop this side of their education. For example, final-year student Zahra Saifey, an Afghan who fled to Iran with her family at the age of three, spent summer researching the issues faced by Afghan immigrants in Iran.

Another internship at the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics two years ago, brought her face to face with gender bias at work every day, yet far from discouraging her, she will work at the ministry on a one-year fellowship after graduation.

By then she will have finished her thesis on street art in Kabul and its role in Afghan society, and says she is prepared to combine street art with social activism. “Before, I didn’t have any idea that I could do something like that because in Afghanistan there is only one female street artist.”

Xiangba Lacuo, an Asian Studies major from Tibet, oversaw a solar panel installation project that brought her neighbours electricity before she came to AUW. She plans to do a masters in sustainable development for the benefit of her home community.

“My goal is to establish a vibrant learning space in the community, and provide the best quality of education particularly to women and girls, and encourage them to see their own potential and value their dreams,” she says.

A diverse student population

Among its 600 students from 15 countries, some 50 are from India, with the rest from other parts of south Asia, Bhutan, Malaysia, China and even war-torn Syria, plus exchange students from France and the United States. Most of its internationally recruited faculty members are female.

Some of its students would not have been allowed by their families to venture to a distant country for education if it were not a women-only institution.

Bangladesh-born Kamal Ahmad says there is a need to nurture women leaders for the region as a powerful force for change in Asia and the Middle East. “No country can develop if half of its population cannot make a contribution,” he says.

A women-only institution can better nurture female leaders, partly due to the concentration of role models, he believes.

“The teachers, many of the people who run the university are women, so you are supporting each other. There might also be some intangible chemistry that fosters women in an all-female environment to assume positions of leadership more easily.”

“We have been particularly focused on women who are first in their family to enter university,” says Ahmad.

“We are also looking into creating pathways for workers from garment factories to prepare for admission into the university by undertaking intense preparatory courses. Hence, scholarships become essential to achieve the mission of the university,” he says.

On top of its four-year liberal arts and sciences undergraduate programme taught in English, AUW offers a one-year programme called the Access Academy that provides a stronger foundation for students not taught sufficiently well in subjects like English or computer literacy in secondary schools.

Ahmad believes the residential community of students from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds shapes the students.

“They emerge as problem solvers, individuals who take a lot of initiative and who are fluent in English. Our graduates have had little difficulty in being employed as a result,” he says.

For example, all of its 11 Cambodian graduates to date found employment within a few weeks of graduation, working in fields from education to research to business, he added.

About 20% of AUW graduates move on to graduate schools in the UK, the US, South Korea, India and elsewhere.

Funding is a challenge

But a major challenge facing the university is finances. Classes and other activities are held in converted classrooms, laboratories, libraries and dormitories in eight rented buildings in downtown Chittagong.

Initial funding to set up the university came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, the Citigroup Foundation and the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, among others.

AUW has long planned to build a permanent campus with a capacity for up to 3,000 students on land granted by the Bangladeshi government.

However, it lacks the US$60 million required for Phase I of the construction plan, after two anonymous Chinese philanthropists donated a total of US$5.5 million for infrastructure development in 2008 and 2009, covering the building of roads, bridges, culverts and getting the site "shovel ready".

Ahmad concedes campus construction cannot restart until adequate funds become available.

Pressure also comes from the need to offer full scholarships to newly admitted students whose families often cannot afford university tuition fees.

“To make a university functional, secure, and appealing to a community of international students, campus development is essential. We hope that we will succeed in securing the US$60 million this year that will enable us to launch the construction in full steam,” he said.

By May AUW will have graduated about 400 students since 2008.