Through education and empowerment, students at Schmidt Girls College are making a difference
It is very clear to the students at the Schmidt Girls College in East Jerusalem that not only will they succeed in their studies and ambitions, not only will they excel, they will — like their predecessors who have graduated before them — become leaders in whatever field they choose.
In a conservative patriarchal society, the girls who study in this private Catholic school (grades K-12), supported by German nuns of the Congregation of Jesus, are encouraged to question, explore, express and investigate both mentally and physically.
“I want to prove our rights here,” said Nadine Ayoubi, 17, as she sat with her classmates discussing their role as young women in Palestinian society. She recounted how a family friend was forced to leave her budding medical career after her husband’s friends started chiding him for letting his wife come home late at night after her residency shifts. “I want people to know that we have rights here, too.”
The Schmidt Girls College was founded in 1886 and is owned by the German Association of the Holy Land. The school is a recognized German School Abroad and offers both the Palestinian Tawjihi and German International Abitur matriculation exams.
The school’s stated mission is to teach the students to live justice, tolerance and respect, promoting an open climate of tolerance and interreligious dialogue. Both Christian and Muslims students attend the school — 85 percent of the students are Muslim, as are 15 percent of the teachers. The kindergarten is run in conjunction with the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo in a Jewish neighborhood of West Jerusalem.
The school is one of few Christian institutions working specifically to strengthen the confidence and position of young women in Palestinian society. Another, the Holy Land Trust, while not specifically Christian, has support from various Christian groups and has been sponsoring a girls’ empowerment program as well as a women’s leadership seminar.
“Palestine is not a place where being a teenage girl is easy,” according to a statement about the program on the Holy Land Trust’s website. “The program was created to offer these young women a place to come together and speak about the struggles they face, and to learn how they can empower themselves in their family, relationships and community.”
Strength in numbers
The ability to meet in a safe environment allows the girls to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and learning to be empathetic toward one another, according to the Holy Land Trust. Often the issues they face are very personal, and brought up in a conservative society, they don’t feel like they can talk about them and are powerless to change their situation.
“So many of these realities are culturally and traditionally enforced that imagining a circumstance where the girls can decide these things for themselves might at first seem challenging and unlikely,” according to the Holy Land Trust. “However, bringing problems into the light helps the girls look at the situations from new perspectives ... the purpose of the workshop is to help them realize their potential. The group is encouraged to challenge their pre-existing ideas and support each other as they engage with new ideas and come to terms with the struggles they experience.”
Indeed, because of the tense environment surrounding them, the Schmidt Girls College’s mission statement holds that it is important for their girls to learn how to resolve the normal tensions that come up at the school in a peaceful manner.
“We are a girls’ school, and as such, it is very important to give them the right ‘weapon’ to succeed in their lives,” said Suzy Mauge, deputy school principal whose German co-principal is Rüdiger Hocke. “We strive to give them a sense of self-confidence so in the future they can make their own choices. Our graduates are known in the society as having very strong personalities.”
Graduates have gone on to roles in the government and its institutions, as well as prominent positions in academia and nongovernmental organizations.
Palestinian parliamentary ministers, ambassadors and university vice presidents such as Khouloud Daibes, Hind Khoury and Safa Nasserdin are alumnae of Schmidt Girls College.
“All the leading Palestinian ladies are usually Schmidt girls,” Mauge said. “We want to build leadership and self-esteem. We are still in a society which prefers boys, but we believe our girls should have the same opportunities as boys, and the parents who bring their girls here know that. Knowing their rights is very important.”
In the past, the school used to have dormitories, and families from Gaza and Jordan sent their daughters to the school; but today, the more than 500 students hail mostly from East Jerusalem with a few from the West Bank, Mauge said.
Classes include all the sciences — biology, chemistry and physics — as well as mathematics, art, music and sports. Preparing the girls for a multicultural life, the school also teaches German, English and Hebrew, in addition to Arabic.
Their students are taught to speak their minds and to use critical thinking, Mauge said. And speak their mind they do. Their desks gathered in a circle during a recent English class, Ayoubi and her friends did not refrain from talking about the things that bothered them as young women: the sexual harassment and crude remarks they often confront on the streets — even close to their school or while walking with their mothers; the stereotypical expectations of them at home; the limitations on their clothing choices; and freedom to move about as young women.
“People here are conservative, and we are not allowed to wear what we want. People look at you in a certain way if you wear shorts, and start talking about you, and you have a stigma,” said Dina Daghash, 17. “Sometimes I feel sad I don’t have the freedom a man has — that makes me feel inferior to them. I can’t do whatever I want, and they can. That’s not fair.”
Even the very act of a girl riding a bike can bring unwanted attention to her, noted Marwe Wa’ary, 16. “Everyone follows you,” she said. A few years ago, the athletic Wa’ary was given the chance to go to a soccer training camp in Sweden but was dissuaded by her father who worried that she would be disappointed when she came back and had nowhere to play.
She is thankful, she said, that at the school sports are given a prominent role, and one day every year there is an all-school mini-Olympic sports competition.
“We are thankful for our headmaster who supports this idea, and we do it every year,” she said. “It brings attention to the need of our physical development.”
Aware of their role
In addition to acknowledging the professional roles they can take on in society, the girls are already aware of the importance of their future role as mothers in educating the future generations toward greater gender equality.
“We can’t change everyone, but each one of us will become mothers, and we have to raise our male children to respect the role of women,” said Lina Obeid, 17.
“Changing society isn’t easy. If we want to achieve something, we have to work hard for it and fight for; we have to stand strong for it,” added Maria Lubbat, 17.
Their career aspirations range from psychologist, dance therapist and nutritionist, to chemist and sports instructor.
“Our school is a special place,” said Widad Karram, 17. “We have teachers from different international backgrounds; they encourage us to speak our ideas on different topics, and they always encourage us to have an opinion, to stand up and defend ourselves.”
This is a marked difference from Palestinian state schools, which are still very much strictly run with traditional teaching methods, they noted.
“In schools, usually the students have to be silent, especially women,” said Sireen Tahher, 17. “Women have to go by what the society says, but in our schools, we are taught to speak our opinion.”
English teacher Lilia Muslah sat watching as her students continued their animated discussion.
“I believe with these girls at Schmidt College, there will be a change in society,” Muslah said. “They have strong ambitions and personalities, and they are very capable.”