'You should know that I am a mosaic': The legacy of Rula Quawas

'You should know that I am a mosaic': The legacy of Rula Quawas
Comment: The death of Jordanian professor Rula Quawas is a great loss; she shaped many lives and staunchly defended women's rights. Amal Awad shares her experience of their meeting.
8 min read
27 Jul, 2017
'If you want to become someone, you have to be highly educated' said Rula's mother[Facebook]
I met Rula Quawas on a sunny afternoon in Amman, Jordan last year. She was one of many interviews I was undertaking for my book about the lives of Arab women. She turned out to be the most memorable for many reasons. 

I felt oddly connected to Rula from the outset. She greeted me with enthusiasm, immediately giving me a book of stories written by her students: The Voice of Being Enough: Young Jordanian Women Break Through Without Breaking Down.

The book begins with an excerpt from Marianne Williamson's A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles': "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

This was my frequency and I was immediately curious.

I would soon realise this was the essence of Rula's spirit: She had an unshakeable dedication to pursuing a life of meaning. Her email signature was a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: "To be what we are and to become what we are capable of becoming is the only end of life."

Her last words to me, in an email, were to remind me that I am my own dreamer. "Follow your own heart at all times and be happy. There is nothing like this in the whole world. Be empowered and blessed."

I'd only met her once, but I truly felt love for her.

Our discussion let me to see how accessible Rula was to her students: It wasn't unusual for one of them - in the throes of life confusion - to ask for a private chat. She offered them more than lessons in feminist theory in the classroom.

'Throw kindness like confetti,' she would advise her students

"Throw kindness like confetti," she would advise her students. "Even in the classroom, we have like a social contract. I say, 'You never jump in. You listen carefully, and you don't have to agree with what is being said'... One of my students felt safe enough to say, 'I am bisexual'.

"Oh my God, what is going to happen now?" Rula thought to herself. "They report me sometimes. They think [I'm] too forward [a] thinker."

Quawas' last words to Awad: 'Be empowered and blessed' [Chris Larsen]

Indeed, Rula was no stranger to conflict. In 2012, she caused controversy when her students made a video about sexual harassment. When she tried to introduce Kate Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening to the English department, a book with adultery in the plot, she came up against a conservative institution. It is now taught at Jordan University thanks to her efforts.

But the imprint she has left behind is not that of someone who stirred emotions for the sake of controversy. Rula was a feminist who believed in the rights of women as human beings, and she fought for others to find a way out of cultural constriction.

An avid reader, Rula found herself in literature: In Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte and in Jane Austen. Then later, she fell in love with Edna from The Awakening - "a poem", which Rula said "resurrected her", though she said Edna is only a small piece of her - "You should know that I am a mosaic".

"I make it a point to teach [The Awakening]. Edna is the embodiment of the 'new woman'. The 'new woman' who said 'I want to live my life the way that I want to'…"

Rula's decision not to focus on the works of T.S. Eliot and Tayeb Saleh in her MA led to rejection from her supervisor, but set her on an ultimately rewarding path. Joining her brother in the US, over three months Rula spent long nights in libraries, leading her to discover American authors such as Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Agnes Smedley.

Rula was a feminist who believed in the rights of women as human beings

She was 24 at the time, and operating in a pre-internet age. "I read all these women American writers. For me, as a Jordanian, raising my eyebrows, crying my eyes out, feeling disappointed about my own life," said Rula.

I was taken aback by the depth of her feeling. Was it really that bad?

"Yes, because sometimes you feel the wings, Amal. I felt my wings reading these books, that I have the potential, I have what it takes to be whoever I really want to be, but because of the limitations and the restrictions, they're killing me... so why?"

Rula's mother was also a seamstress. "When you come to my home, you see it's everywhere. The cushions and the pillows, the serviettes, my mother, waking up at 5am… This is who she is. She's an artist in her own way."Rula was the Greek Orthodox daughter of Palestinian parents who came, penniless, to Jordan in 1948. She said that she has enjoyed privilege in her life - education not wealth, because her mother was a teacher - but like many of us, she acknowledged the inheritance of trauma. 

Read more:  There's no shortage of Middle Eastern Wonder Women

Rula's mother told her kids that "Education is it". If you want to become someone in the future, you have to be highly educated. It was unusual for the time, added Rula, who found encouragement from her mother to pursue her academic goals.

It would have been difficult not to get lost in Rula's experiences of self-discovery, self-assertion and self-affirmation. "You know when you submerge and you dive, and you think you're not going to be able to surface? With Edna, I was able to surface, to come and to understand the meaning of an awakening,” said Rula.

"It's all of the images, all of the silences, the gaps and the blanks. This woman, by the way, trying to do what is right, not for the community that she is living in, to do what is right for herself. We do what is right, they teach us, they give you a script, a cultural script, that you have to follow. 

"With Edna, you un-write that script, and you author a new script. You author a script that fits you. Even with all of your imperfections, with all of your holes and inconsistencies. You know the pain that we have inside of us, but all of the same, you wake up every single day and you say, 'You know what? I love me no matter what.' That is Edna."

Rula found her solution in American literature, finding a connection in the "silences, the gaps and the blanks", the words thrillingly echoing back parts of herself.

'I make it a point to teach The Awakening. Edna is the embodiment of the 'new woman'.'

So she took this topic of four American women writers back to her professor. "I tell him all about it. Then, he says, 'You want to write about sex?' I say, 'You know what? It's not going to be about sex, but if this is your understanding of feminism and feminist theory ...'"

To appreciate how ground-shaping this was at the time, it's worth remembering there were no female professors Rula could count on as examiners. No feminist leaders who could guide her work. The professor offered fair warning: All of the examiners are men who would give her a very hard time. Rula declared she was willing to take the risk. The professor acquiesced: he would read it once it was done. Rula instead submitted one chapter.

"I give it to him, and then the change of heart."

"He liked it?"

"He could not believe his eyes. Until now, I see the look in his eyes. Respect and admiration. It was just about these women's awakenings, their growth, what happens to them socially, spiritually, and emotionally."

Read more: Jordan loses leading intellectual and women's rights champion, Rula Quawas

What Rula did in her classroom is significant.

She steered younger people, both men and women, towards discovering their individuality and authenticity in a society that favours a collective approach to life. She operated in a tough environment steeped in a religiously-flavoured culture many would easily define as patriarchal.

The value of reaching people at a formative stage in their lives, in a safe space of learning, cannot be underestimated.

Rula did not sit in problems, she lived a life focused on solutions, on creating new ways forward. This crystallised for me when we shared our observations on how migration had affected our mothers.

"When I saw my mother making, producing, weaving, knitting, putting pieces together, inventing, you have this mentality as well, because trauma is about fragmentation," said Rula.

"It's about, if you want, disrupting something. It's about ruptures and holes. I saw my mum fixing, making, you know what I mean? I saw her with the patchwork, like the African-American quilts for instance. Quilting. Maybe she was patching her life up, and I was a witness to that. I bore witness to that life.

"Maybe that was her way to go through the pain, and through the trauma. I was able to see the reinventiveness, how to deal with that pain, how to walk through it, by making new things."

"Creating instead of going backwards," I responded.

"Creating, exactly."

"Being proactive instead of looking back."

"Beautifully said."

Rula Quawas is featured in Amal Awad’s new book, Beyond Veiled Cliches. 

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad