Lea Gabay is a recent graduate of San Francisco State University's Masters program in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). She has taught English online to female Afghan students through two organizations AIWR, (www.aiwr.org) and SOLA (www.sola-afghanistan.org)
“I learned if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand. “
When I read these words from Roya, an aspiring female writer in Afghanistan, who writes for a mentorship program called the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (www.awwp.org), I am reminded of my role as a teacher: I seek to plant a small seed in the mind of my students in the hope that they will one day feel empowered to raise their voices against injustice.
I began teaching English lessons online via Skype to female students in Afghanistan four through a US-based non-profit organization called AIWR (Alliance for International Women’s Rights) (www.aiwr.org). AIWR’s mission is to support women’s rights and promote female empowerment through English language learning in areas where women’s access to education is limited. AIWR partners with a vocational training center known as KIMS (Kandahar Institute for Modern Studies) (www.theafghanschool.org) located in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to offer English classes online to male and female students at this center.
Little did I know that this experience of online instruction would eventually morph into an idea for a project that combined English language learning and a digital tool called VoiceThread (www.voicethread.com), which is used for online voice recording, to enable the student to talk about her life as a woman in Afghanistan.
For this particular project, I worked one-to-one from August to mid-October with a female student whose name is Mahida (name is changed to protect her identity) twice a week for 50 minutes. During that time, we focused on the topic of Identity. The goal was to encourage Mahida to reflect on her different identities and to make a decision about the use of specific words to describe herself by having her write a poem called “Who are you?” and record it with VoiceThread. The poem started with the phrase “I am….”. It was then up to Mahida to choose how to complete that sentence. Interestingly, the first sentence of her poem was “ I am an Afghan girl.”
There were also other opportunities during our sessions to talk about Mahida’s life in Kandahar: She told me about teaching maths at the university, the educational system in Afghanistan, her interest in writing poems about women’s rights, and her desire to study abroad in the future.
I was very eager to hear more about her experiences and really enjoyed teaching her; however, there were many challenges that came about during our lessons which significantly impacted the amount of contact that I had with Mahida. These were mainly due to the weak internet connection. Indeed, it was quite rare that I was able to teach a whole lesson without the connection dropping at least two or three times. Although this was for me a cause of great frustration, for Mahida this was really a chance to connect with someone from another part of the world and speak in another language regardless of the connection issues.
In spite of the many unanticipated pitfalls throughout this piloting stage, this was an extremely enriching experience; enriching because I was able to teach a very brave young woman who took the tremendous risk of participating in this program to learn English. I also learned about the many hurdles of living in a conflict-ridden zone where educational opportunities for women are few and far between and where local traditions continue to dictate gender roles and women’s status in Afghan society. While I may never truly grasp what it is like to be a woman in Afghanistan, this project taught me to listen and allow for Mahida to talk about her situation without making any kind of judgment.
I saw this experience as a way of building a relationship with Mahida, supporting her, providing her with a space to share her views and stories with me, and more importantly learning from her. To me, Mahida represents hope for the future of Afghanistan.