Three women from three very different backgrounds with three powerful voices who delivered three equally inspirational speeches and all of whom provided their audience with a vociferous testimony of one common cause. The Asian University for Women.
It dawned on me recently that I’m in Bangladesh teaching English at the aforementioned Asian University for Women but I haven’t yet provided any explanation of why or any real insight about exactly what this institution is all about. It’s a fairly vague title in some respects and from it we can ascertain that Bangladesh is the host country of a university exclusively for women from Asia. However, this barely touches the surface, as I found out this week, as the university hosted a special ceremony which brought together a number of influential domestic and international figures. The ‘Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony’ was a significant point in the university’s development as it marked the laying of the first stone and thus the commencing of construction of the new campus on the outskirts of the city. Currently the university functions in a temporary home in downtown Chittagong.
A significant crowd had gathered and were seated under a large temporary tent. There was a section for government representatives, the media, business leaders, dignitaries, faculty members and of course, the students. On the stage sat a table with six seats filled by the Bangladeshi government ministers for Education and Foreign Affairs, the Provost of the University, Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala (Managing Director of the World Bank), Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and last but not least our very own Cherie Blair in her capacity as Chancellor of the University. Significantly and somewhat appropriately, five of these powerful figures are women.
The question is how does a university both new in formation and modest in size attract such an array of influential figures to a ceremony conducted in a tent in the middle of a building site?! Well, something’s happening here….something special. Three years ago the university opened its doors to its inaugural set of students who no doubt arrived with varying degrees of trepidation as they stepped into a unique new learning environment, the likes of which, it could be argued, had never been seen before. In a single classroom you’ll find young women from Bangladesh, from India, from Sri Lanka and from Nepal. Some will have travelled from Vietnam, others from Cambodia. From the east you’ll encounter Pakistani and Afghani girls and further west, from China. To complete this rather eclectic set of nationalities the university also admits students from neighbouring Burma, from Bhutan in the north and from Palestine in the Middle East. It’s an intriguing collection of young, female minds.
So why are they all here, in the dusty, port city of Chittagong, Bangladesh? Well, its central location in the region makes it accessible for all and its history as one of the region’s most active ports has seen the city become a prime location for social, commercial and cultural exchange. A principle the university aims to achieve amongst its students. Bangladesh has also demonstrated a real commitment to education and in more recent years an emphasis on gender equality in society. All of which make it an ideal location for this university. As World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Iweala explained in her speech at the ceremony, at a time when many countries have become far more insular in their activities due to the stagnating world economy, Bangladesh has taken a unique and brave stance in opening its doors to the whole region. The actions of the Bangladeshi government are more than just words though and are certainly not to be scoffed at as they’ve backed up their support for this new university with a substantial financial and symbolic commitment to its mission. Sheikh Hasina’s government donated 130 acres of land on the outskirts of Chittagong as a permanent site for the new campus. The land was valued at $80million and given the severe overpopulation and chronic lack of available land to develop on in Bangladesh, this was a highly significant gesture by the governing elite.
Essentially the remit of the university is to provide quality higher education to young women from across Asia, regardless of religion, race, culture or, crucially, economic backgrounds. There are many students from poor, rural or refugee backgrounds who receive scholarships to study here. In fact, ten students are currently Cherie Blair ‘Fellows’ and receive direct financial support from the Cherie Blair Foundation. As Minister for Education, Nurul Islam Nahid, expressed in his speech, ‘Students at this university are accepted not because of what they pay, but because of what they think’. The university also stands out for its forward-thinking and progressive rhetoric. As the mission statement affirms,
The Asian University for Women offers an educational paradigm that combines a competitive liberal arts education with applicable graduate and professional training.
At the heart of the University is the civic and academic goal to cultivate successive generations of women leaders who possess the skills and resources to address the challenges of social and economic advancement of their communities.
It’s for these reasons that I feel privileged to be playing a very small role in this highly promising and potentially life-changing institution. If the current levels of commitment and drive are maintained and the ambitious new campus becomes a reality it will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the lives of many young women from a variety of backgrounds across Asia for many years to come.
Now, back to the women and the speeches I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this update. There were six speeches in total but these were the three which made the biggest impression on me. The first was delivered by a second year Bangladeshi student of the university. She addressed the large audience with a real confidence and conviction providing her listeners with a glowing endorsement of the role the university is playing in the lives of the four hundred students currently studying here. Incidentally it’s hoped that once the new campus is completed the university will be able to host a community of 3,000 students.
The second speech that stood out for me was given by Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala. She had flown in from Washington that morning and arrived in colourful African dress. Born in Nigeria in 1954, the Managing Director of the World Bank is a fine example to the students of just how gender and background should not impede your desire and ability to succeed. Raised in a male-dominated society, at the age of ten she had to walk with her malaria-stricken younger sister on her back for 10km to the nearest health centre. Upon arrival she found hundreds of other people waiting for help. However, with her sister fading quickly she climbed through a window and found the necessary lifesaving drugs. Ngozi later became a Harvard graduate and the first woman to serve as both the Finance Minister and then Foreign Minister in Nigeria. As Managing Director she now holds the second highest role in the World Bank, an organisation whose goal is to reduce world poverty. Her speech was warm and humorous but striking and empowering in equal measure. She spoke of her journey through life and crucially of how the World Bank is a fervent supporter of the university’s mission.
Finally, up stood Cherie, a familiar face with a familiar accent. I know very little about Cherie Blair if truth be told apart from the fact she’s a successful barrister, wife of Tony and a less than keen supporter of Gordon. I now know however that she’s a vital figure in the development of this institution and has worked tirelessly to garner influential support for its continued progression. This wasn’t the first time she’d visited the university and in her recently appointed role as Chancellor it was clear to see that it’s a commitment she’s taking very seriously. Her speech was also warm and there was an air of familiarity about her tone. She clearly cares and as an ardent campaigner for global women’s rights she recognises that this university has a significant role to play.
All in all for me personally it was an enlightening day as a new member of staff. It certainly provided me with much greater clarity regarding the role of this institution and also for understanding exactly why the students I teach are here in Bangladesh. I came away with a satisfied feeling.