• Metin Esen

How EFL Teachers Can Help Prevent Femicide

It is already the end of the second decade of the 21st century, and one dark aspect of the human nature still haunts us with all its reality and luridness: misogyny, and all sorts of hate crimes against women brought along with it, including femicide. Many things have changed for women since the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, 1848; they have claimed their rightful place in the workforce, they have gained suffrage, and in many parts of the world, they have the total say in matters concerning their own bodies, ranging from simple matters such as dressing to more serious ones like abortion. However, women can still be considered, unfortunately, an inferior group in a considerable number of places around the globe despite all these positive developments.

My heart feels heavy to post the news that another cruel femicide took place in Muğla, Turkey on July 16th, 2020. Pınar Gültekin, a senior university student aged 27, was ripped out of her family, friends, and beloved ones by a cold-blooded murderer. I prefer not to speak of the murderer’s name or identity as I do not want to grant him, as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says, the notoriety he might obtain in the end. Right after the news went public on TV, there were a few supporters of the monster on Twitter and Instagram, claiming that he is happily married with a child, and it is only Pınar to be blamed as she should have seduced the “desperate” man. It is an undeniable shame in the face of humanity to know that this was not the last hate crime committed against women in Turkey and all around the world, and will recur unless serious, deterrent actions are taken by the authorities before more innocent lives are lost to the unquenchable abyss of patriarchy.

World Health Organisation defines "femicide" as the “intentional murder of women because they are women”, but they emphasise “broader definitions include any killings of women or girls.” The reasons for this violent act can be traced to several cases such as perceptions of jealousy or unfaithfulness within intimate relationships, lack of communication that results in verbal or physical harassment, laws that allow gun ownership and use, certain psychological problems, and socioeconomical inadequacies that lead to mental breakdown. Whatever the reason is, no excuse can justify the killing of an individual regardless of gender or any other identity trait, and one does not simply decide to kill another person in a moment of dispute or quarrel. Just like many other personality traits, the tendency to claim the life of a living being is rooted in the geography and the micro-culture we are born into, the way we are raised by our families, the adult behaviours we are exposed to, several childhood traumas, religious fundamentalism, lacunae in law, and many other visible and non-visible factor. However, I believe that, before all else, violence against women and femicide start in language and the symbolic level. We start to discriminate when we tend to use “she/her” to refer to a person in a joke that involves a traffic accident. We start to discriminate when we put a picture of a pipe on a men’s restroom door. This is why we EFL teachers, as language mentors and culture ambassadors, play a significant role in changing certain cognitive, affective, and behavioural tendencies of our students, and help prevent hate crimes committed specifically against women by deliberately preferring or avoiding specific language or remarks.

“If a woman is harassed, it is because she asked for it? She dressed for it? She walked for it? She spoke for it? I would like to challenge that.”

― Fatima Mohammed, Higher Heels, Bigger Dreams

Being More Intentional in What Put on the Table in the Classroom

As a matter of fact, even targeting a text or any other learning material that points to differences among sexes or genders would be a discrimination. Morgan Freeman , the legendary American actor, told an interviewer asking him how to get rid of racism, “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman.” However, such an ideal level of awareness cannot be hit unless we start somewhere with baby steps. First, we can create in our students an awareness about the difference between sex and gender, and how culture and popular beliefs change our perspectives of the two concepts. Then will it be possible to show them that all individuals are equal in all areas of life, and gender is only used as an imaginary barrier by the patriarchal society. In the last step, our learners will see that it is actually meaningless to refer to such differences no matter what the context is.

Most of the time, EFL teachers are free to adapt and use their own material as long as the objectives in the daily or weekly syllabi are achieved, or they feel the need to support their students with extra material to be covered in or out of the classroom. At this point, we may prefer to provide our learners with a learning material that specifically addresses issues related to women issues, gender equality, or hate crimes. When we come across a section of the coursebook or the extracurricular resource touching upon one of these matters, we may choose to slightly sway from the lesson plan and elaborate on the topic with an oral/written task or a whole-class discussion. One day, the discussion we started during the lesson with my students led us to the topic of difficulties women usually experience in traffic. One female student asked to speak and frankly confessed that there was a truth to the matter, and most of the time, women shouldn’t have been allowed into traffic because of their reckless behaviours and neglectful attitudes. Within the couple of minutes, I found myself defending women’s right to drive and be in traffic against another woman, which is enough to describe the absurdity of the situation.

Paying Attention to the Connotation behind Words and Sample Sentences

One of the best things I admire in us, English teachers, is how resourceful we can become when coming up with sample sentences from meaningful contexts is concerned. While teaching a new grammar form or a set of vocabulary, we do our best to render the topic more meaningful in the minds of our learners, and reading/writing samples sentences is one of the best ways for students to see the new form/word in a meaningful context and in its correct place within a sentence structure. The wording we put in these sample sentences could reveal a lot about our perception of genders. If the unit is about kitchen and cooking, we might find ourselves making a sample sentence about a woman, or ideally a mother, because the traditional family structure attributes the domestic role of cooking to the mother. It appears to be only natural for us to refer to a “boss” or a “manager” as “he/him” in a sentence that goes off in a business context because in the heated competition of the business world, there is no place for a woman with her emotions and soft attitude, or so does the popular culture want people to think. This does not necessarily mean that we should never make sentences about a woman cooking or a male boss; the main point is if we tend to do so constantly, unconsciously or not, there is problem in our understanding of identities, and we need to change the way we see societal roles starting right away in the language level. This might seem like so small a contribution but believe me; a huge tidal wave hammering the coast with all its might starts with a tiny ring in the middle of the ocean. Google Translate, one of the most useful technological developments our students benefit from, used to translate the Turkish sentence “O bir hemşiredir” to English as “She is a nurse”. While the Turkish third person singular pronoun (O) is gender-neutral, its English equivalent was regarded only as “She” since the traditional nurse image the society holds is a female individual, which is now considered a highly sexist perspective. When you write a similar Turkish sentence onto the platform now, however, you get the English translation for both pronouns (He/She) separately. Interestingly enough, if you write a sentence about breastfeeding involving the Turkish pronoun “O”, you will still get separate translations. I believe discrimination and hate crimes will easily end once we are able to achieve this neutrality in every aspect of language and symbolism.

Keeping the Male-Female Balance in Activities and Assignments:

I am well-aware of the fact that there are studies proving the high success rates of single-sex education just as there are studies showing mixed-sex school do absolutely great. Yet, we cannot always measure success with high grades; we also need to educate our students to be better citizens to integrate well not only into their own society but also globally, and this can only be achieved by installing the notion of equality in them. It is a good idea to have our students work in missed groups in classroom activities and long-term tasks just as projects or group assignments. This will bring their minds round to the idea that they can easily cooperate with and learn from all their peers regardless of gender, age, or any other identity trait. On the other hand, it is not a good idea to favour female students in the classroom and make decisions to their benefit with the intention of “supporting” them. Although this may seem as a well-intended affirmative action, it actually spreads the message that there is a difference, and we will just have brought the matter out just as Morgan Freeman tries to say. As the facilitator in the classroom, of course we are the best judges of this balance, but our foundation should be the purpose of treating all students as equal individuals.

Getting Ourselves Educated in Matters Concerning Gender and Identity

The Turkish culture thrives with many meaningful sayings, and one of them affirms, “Not knowing of something is not a shame; making no attempt to learn is.” It is quite normal if we do not know what gender is, in what way it is related to identity, then what sex is, or many other delicate issues. We can always create opportunities for ourselves to learn more about such matters, and then it will be easier for us to cascade our perspective to our students. There are lots of fictional and non-fictional books, documentaries, movies, and TV series elaborating on the matter of gender. We could read or watch these ourselves first, and later we could recommend them to our students.

A few months ago, I organised a seminar for our students on how to study writing effectively with the kind request of the Independent Learning Centre at our school. At a certain point during the seminar, I told the students that I wanted to see all the feminists in the room. To my shock, in a room full of over 150 students, only five people raised their hands, and three among these five people were teachers including myself. What did “feminism” sound like to the ears of those students? Why did they, even the female students, think that raising their hands in that crowded room would be inappropriate? If I could time-travel back to that exact moment, I would have stopped the seminar and suggested the book We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or the TEDx talk with the identical name. One reader comments on the book as follows:

“This is the single most convincing essay I’ve ever read on feminism. It does not point fingers and blame men for a cultural mindset they were born into. Instead, it offers calm logical arguments for positive change going forward.”

Having an Open Mind and Showing Empathy

Last but not least, what we actually need is an open mind that is more precious than any other qualification we can have considering this matter. A mindset that is open enough to welcome all sorts of differences but wise enough to strain them through critical thinking is what we should inspire in our students. We cannot tell right from wrong on their behalf all the time; we can teach them to be tolerant and understanding individuals and they will magically start to separate right from wrong on their own. The example we set in the classroom is very important to achieve this, so we should also be open-minded and avoid judging our students based on their physical appearances, ages, notable behaviours, or opinions.

“The thing is, it's very dangerous to have a fixed idea. A person with a fixed idea will always find some way of convincing himself in the end that he is right.”

― Atle Selberg

Empathy is an equally valuable attitude we need to portray before our students. Some of these students might be coming from rural areas and very small towns in the far corners of the country, and they might have grown up inside a micro-culture that is highly enclosed and resistant to change. We should treat these students keeping their background in consideration. When they portray a behaviour such as insulting their female friends, it is not wise to put them in the blacklist or tell them off for this improper behaviour. Instead, we should be patient and try to help these students see why their behaviour towards their female peers was wrong, and what a better and more equal way of looking at this matter is.

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