Female students in Yemeni schoolsGender sensitivity [Archives:2003/640/Culture]

June 9 2003

Nemah Abdullah Alzabidy *
Hodeidah University

The Yemeni school system has three levels namely, primary (six years), preparatory (three years) and secondary (three years). At all these levels, generally males and females are receive separate education except for a few private schools and that too co-education is only present in the primary levels or preparatory at most. Not only are students separated according to gender but also it is the general trend to have female teachers teaching at girls' school and male teachers teaching in boys school. A few exceptions are there for subjects where no female teachers are available such as Geography and Sciences, in such cases male teachers could exist in girls' schools yet the opposite is quite rare if not impossible.

Women outnumber Men
Numerically, a large portion of the students in the colleges in Yemeni Universities are females. At the Hodeidah University/Faculty of Education, for example, ratio of students undergoing B.Ed courses in English is three females to one male. Administrators in the faculty expect the proportion yet to increase.
Also, the proportion of women teachers to men teachers among the faculty is smoothly increasing. This increase is there not only in the developing countries such as Yemen, but in a country such as England by 1930 women outnumbered men by nearly four-to-one while in 1870 there were rather more male teachers than female. This shift was even more extreme in the U.S.A., emphasized by increasing opportunities for men outside teaching.
Some years back one could hardly find women teachers in the different departments in Yemeni Universities. But by 1990, one could find a set of women as Administrators/ Assistant Lecturers and lecturers i.e. 1-2 women staff members in all the departments except in the Department of Islamic studies.

The Classroom and the Community
Language as the embodiment of a community at large is the foundation on which language thrives. The interdependence of language and community is so great that both could form sides of the same coin. The class is a miniature community which is formally structured to imbibe all aspects of the life of the community.
The mixed classes in Yemeni Universities, Faculties of Education in Hodeidah for example, are not really mixed as some think. In each classroom, girls' seats are separated from boys' seats and located inside the classroom by left-side windows, while boys' seats are located by the doors, so there are two BIG GROUPS separated from each other inside each classroom in all the different disciplines. This seating arrangement is a replica of the real world situation.
This division of the students (boys/girls) inside each classroom originated from the Islamic rules and the social belief that “Women don't socialize with men other than family members”. While in the other countries such as U.S.A. effort is made to separate religion from education, in Yemen religion dominates all aspects of life. Islamic rules and instructions must be applied in all the different environments including the classrooms i.e. small environments.
Depending on the fact that such a situation arises from obligatory beliefs and deep-rooted culture, to propose changes in the social notions or even in the order of the seats inside the classrooms, then is to propose changing the culture.
Now let us give a clear picture of the mixed classes (girls/boys) and the teachers' role in giving the students opportunities to use English and interact in such classrooms.

Student / Teacher interaction
The English classrooms in the Yemeni Universities, for example, Hodeidah University, are large ones i.e. each class contains more than 50 students in which girls outnumber boys, nearly 40 girls to 10 boys. Because the boys are few, their names are known by the girls when the teachers take the attendance of the students at the end of each class. This makes the boys so careful while giving answers inside the classrooms. They always try to give correct answers inside the classrooms to avoid losing the colors of their faces.
Girls are silent most of the time during the lectures, feeling shy and some of them never try to give answers even if they know them. “Female silence is exploited by educational institutions and contributes to the over-representations of males and the under-representation of females ” (Spender, 1980a:149) as quoted in (Poynton 1989:33). Most of the girls avoid situations in which they feel that boys will laugh at them, or they will know their names i.e., they are under a misconception, that is “it's shame if a lady's name gets known by a set of men” especially the tribal girls. Therefore, they prefer silence to asking questions even if for clarification, though the teacher always asks “is it clear”? But when the teacher winds up the class, girl students follow her/ him asking some unclear points claiming that they have felt shy so they did not ask inside the classroom.
In classroom discussion, boys talk more than girls and “girls don't talk as much as boys” (Cherry, 1975 b, P 175) as quoted in (Poynton, 1989: P 30). Sears and Feldmen in their large scale study on gender, note that “boys in upper elementary grades participate more than girls do in classroom discussion, making more statements and asking more questions” “Even at the post graduate level, males are twice as likely as females to ask questions during a lecture “.
Sometimes when the teacher finds no response from the girl students, she/he directly selects some girl students.
Teacher: Amna, do you have any idea about ?
Amna: ah ah oh . no can't . sorry.
“They are threatened by being required to talk to boys” (Spender 1980a:150) as in (Ibid: p 32). It seems as if the teacher forces “the girl students to play an unfeminine role when he insists to take part in classroom discussion with boys”.
Though boys ask and talk more than girls inside the classroom, they don't achieve well in their final exams. For example, most of the top students who have got the first rank in the final exams in the Faculty of Education, Hodeidah, are girls especially in the English department. But most of the top students are not good communicators in English. So this is evidence to dismiss the idea that girls have a greater natural aptitude for English.
The teachers always encourage the students, especially girls; “Don't feel shy”, “Just try and talk”, “Don't bother yourself about the mistakes”, “Making mistakes means learning the language”, “Be confident are the kind of comments they make. Girls fear the boys' negative comments or the teacher's correction of their mistakes in public which creates the inhibition to use the language inside the classroom.
Girls prefer female teachers especially in the “Microteaching” and “Teaching practice” courses, claiming that “a female teacher will excuse us and understand our situation easily”. Many excuses from the girl students a female teacher receives and many requests for avoiding them in the classroom she gets. Boys don't care if the teacher is a female or male. They skillfully attract the teacher's attention and participate inside the classrooms. “Boys dominate in turn-taking time for talk and attracting the teachers' invitation to speak” (Paechter 1998:25).
I think the extent to which boy/girl students interact/communicate inside the classroom depends on the teacher's methodology, techniques, encouragement reinforcement, selection of the topics / text / remedial / teaching, attitudes, respect students' points of view and neutral relationship with them inside the classroom.
Depending upon my experience in teaching such mixed classrooms that are representative of gendered society, I'm suggesting the following:
Opportunities should exist for both girl/boy students to examine their ability of speaking through involving them in discussion, group-work, and local seminars.
Respecting the students' opinions, solutions and points of view in solving some problems, the teacher should never belittle their points of view even if they lack sufficient knowledge/skill. Dismissing the idea that girls are greater than boys or vice versa because as I believe there is no difference in the ability of the students (boys/girls) but the difference is in their attitudes.
Breaking the girls' silence through encouraging them so much to talk to make them feel self-confident and secure. But the teacher should avoid creating a binary opposition which sets girls against boys.
Trying to achieve gender parity between girls/boys, “rejecting the idea of amending English syllabuses to accommodate boys' needs and skills, condemning it as a process of “dumbing down”. “English teachers need to avoid a polarized literary focus for girls and boys and rather plan for the curriculum to be made accessible and enriching to all” I agree with the idea of “preferring sensitivity towards ideas, language and imagined reader”.
Selecting suitable topics/texts that motivate and interest both boys/girls and give them a chance to use English inside the classroom and avoiding the topics/texts that contrast with the religion, culture and society. For example, most marriages in Yemen are arranged and alcohol is forbidden so “materials which deal with dating or western-style parties aren't appropriate for use”. I believe that the teacher should see his work as a “mediator whose principal aim is to link the classroom with the community”. Students (girls / boys) might be willing to talk using English inside the classroom if their materials are drawn from instances related to actual life in the community because they are inextricably bound up with their society at large, having knowledge on what is going on outside and they can transfer their personal opinions to the classroom using English.
Boys are proficient in attracting the teacher's attention and dominating turn -taking, so the teacher should not give the boys a chance to dominate the turns all the time and should not create a polarized focus on the boys' speech because girls will feel frustrated, more inhibited and suffer from “a lowering of self-esteem as they receive less attention”.
Involving students (boys/girls) in work on some projects to force them to search for knowledge, references and sources of information in the libraries creating competitive work that reflect their broader abilities and teach them how gender influences access to powerful success.

*This paper is presented by Nemah Abdullah Al-Zabidy (PhD SCHOLAR) in 'ALL INDIA SEMINAR', RIE – BANGLORE…ON 13 MAY 2003.