23 Apr

Lecture by Susan Chenard

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Out Loud: Middle Eastern Culture Series

Chenard, Assistant Professor of Humanities at Gateway Community College, lived and taught English in Saudi Arabia for several years.

Her semi- autobiographical short story, Sword Dancing, records her experiences as an American bonding with the women in her community there. Chenard addressed a small but enthusiastic audience at Housatonic who learned about the shifting roles of women in Saudi Arabia. The audience also had an extended dialog with Chenard about women and their experiences with Islam in the Middle East.  

Chenard spoke of her own assimilation into Saudi culture after relocating with her husband in the 1980's. She learned the language in a few short months, raised a family and came to understand secular and Islamic cultural expectations and values. Time spent as the Chair of the ESL program in the medical school of the women's campus at King Abduhl Aziz University and other academic posts gave Chenard ample opportunity to think about the complexity of women's lives. 

In her talk, Chenard drew in part from the research of Dr. Maha A. Z. Yamani to speak about the role of polygamy and shifting roles for women in Saudi Arabia. According to Yamani, "urbanization, education, and employment of women," had once decreased polygamous marriages. However, today, despite the increasing education of women, polygamy is on the rise as a traditional practice.  

In Sword Dancing, the character Johara daringly uses polygamy to assume authority over her life. By inviting a second wife into her family, Johara automatically achieves a position of power as the first wife. In Sword Dancing, such a bold interpretation of polygamy's potential to liberate women is part of its appeal.

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