Rula Quawas, a prominent academic and champion of women’s advancement in Jordan who was removed as dean of the University of Jordan over a video project in which her female students exposed the sexual harassment they endured on campus, died on July 25 in Amman, Jordan. She was 57.
The cause was complications of a biopsy she was having performed in which her aorta ruptured, her brother Audeh said.
Rula Butros Quawas (pronounced KWA-wahs) was born in Amman on Feb. 25, 1960, into a patriarchal society — women were not given the right to vote until 1974 — that as an adult she would refuse to accept.
“I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to write about women,” she said in a 2011 interview with Broad Recognition, an independent feminist blog at Yale. “Feminism is something that you drink and you eat every day; for me, it was a given.”
As a graduate student at the University of Jordan, she focused her studies on feminism in literature, particularly American literature. And as an associate professor there, she became the first academic to introduce courses in feminism. In 2006, she founded the university’s Women’s Studies Center.
“An educational system should give empowerment, skills to think critically, creatively, intelligently, the ability to contest, to challenge and to say, ‘I think not,” Professor Quawas said in an interview with The New York Times in 2014. “The whole paradigm of teaching needs to change. We are graduating robots.”
For the video project, in 2012, she helped students in her feminist theory class address the sexual abuse — cat calls, groping in public spaces, unwanted encounters by men trying to pick them up on the streets — that had become rampant in Jordan.
In the video, students held up signs bearing printed comments, many of them vulgar, that men had directed at women on campus. “Can I take you home?” read one sign. “Hottest gal in the middle,” read another.
The students hid their faces behind the signs. Their images were interspersed with scenes of men sitting on benches or standing along the sides of streets.
“Women do not want to be seen as a piece of meat but as a soul — as a mind, as a heart,” Professor Quawas said of the film project. “I have faith it will happen. Not in my lifetime, but it will happen.”
The video provoked a debate. Jordanian news media criticized her for encouraging students to confront harassment publicly, and conservatives on social media attacked her for allowing students to hold up signs with profane remarks. “I feel all of these eyes constantly piercing me, penetrating me, for something I believe in,” she said.
University administrators and some of her fellow faculty members said the video harmed the image and reputation of the institution. Professor Quawas was removed from her post as dean of the faculty of foreign languages but was allowed to continue to teach.
The Middle East Studies Association of North America sent a letter to high-ranking Jordanian government officials and the president of the university asking for her to be reinstated, but the university stood by its decision.
Later, more people came out in support of her effort, some apologizing for their initial silence. “After two years some of them would come and say, ‘We’re sorry, but we couldn’t,’” Professor Quawas said.
In 2013, she was named a Fulbright scholar in residence at Champlain College in Vermont. In Jordan, Princess Basma Bint Talal presented her in 2009 with a Meritorious Honor Award for Leadership and Dedication for her efforts to empower women. And she was a finalist for the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2013.
In her youth, Ms. Quawas attended the private Al Ahliyyah School for Girls in Amman, where her mother, Hanneh Ghizawi, taught English. Her father, Butros Quawas, served in Jordan’s military intelligence.
She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English language and literature from the University of Jordan and a doctorate in American literature and feminist theory from the University of North Texas.
In addition to her brother Audeh, she is survived by her sister, Reem, and another brother, Ramez.
Professor Quawas sought to help emerging female Arab writers gain readerships through book launches and by writing critiques of their work.
“I understand that you can’t force feminism on people,” she told the online publication Hybris Media. “When a young woman comes to me and tells me, ‘I have wings, but I know I will never ever use them,’ that pains me.”
*Rula Quawas, a prominent academic and champion of women’s advancement in Jordan who was removed as dean of the University of Jordan over a video project in which her female students exposed the sexual harassment they endured on campus, died in Amman, Jordan (July 25).
Rula Butros Quawas (b. February 25, 1960, Amman, Jordan - d. July 25, 2017, Amman, Jordan) was born in Amman on Feb. 25, 1960, into a patriarchal society — women were not given the right to vote until 1974 — that as an adult she would refuse to accept.