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Into the Archives Column: The Beginning

in Campus Journal/Into the Archives by

If you’re researching Swat on the internet, the first sentence on the “about” page of its website reads:

“Since its founding in 1864, Swarthmore College has given students the knowledge, insight, skills, and experience to become leaders for the common good.”

As students on campus, descriptions like this of the college can seem largely rhetorical. Swarthmore has a long, long history of progressivism and social justice, but with our large workloads and busy schedules, it’s easy to feel detached from our place within the institution as a whole. I stumbled upon random facts about the college’s history last year — Albert Einstein spoke here; Nirvana played here; the FBI investigated students and faculty here — and thought it’d be interesting to look further into the narrative that the school’s history itself creates. I’m hoping to raise my own (and potentially our collective) consciousness, to help us appreciate our place in historical time and be better equipped to hold the college accountable to its promises of the past. With that in mind, I’m going into the archives: this week, to the beginning.

Swarthmore was officially authorized to become a college on April 1, 1864. In its authorization, the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives approved Swarthmore College “to establish and maintain a school and college for the purpose of importing to persons of both sexes knowledge in the various branches of science, literature, and the arts.”

However, the process of founding Swarthmore was begun even earlier, around 1860, by a group of Hicksite Quakers in the Philadelphia area, who placed great emphasis on community building and were ‘liberal’ even for Quakers. (They split from more Orthodox quakers as the other group moved away from women leading services and focused more on material possessions than “common people.”) The Hicksites met in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore to discuss the starting of a Hicksite college; one of their main goals was coeducation, highly uncommon for the time. (For comparison, Yale didn’t become co-ed until 1969.)

Apart from the general Hicksite Quaker goals, the main proponents of the school themselves were visionaries of the time. One such person was Benjamin Hallowell (sound familiar?), the man who wrote the first pamphlet advocating the creation of the college. He was a conscientious objector in the War of 1812, and eventually became the president of the University of Maryland — only on the condition that he serve without a salary and the school’s farm not use slave labor. There were initially conversations about what kind of school Swarthmore should be; some Quakers wanted a grammar school, another a school to train other Quakers, but Hallowell wanted more out of the proposed school. He wrote in a letter to future president Edward Parrish “The Institution must, from its commencement, possess faculties for pursuing a liberal and extensive course of study … equal to that of the best Institutions of learning of our Country” (Swarthmore Bulletin).

Along with Hallowell was Lucretia Coffin Mott, a Hicksite Minister — Hicksites encouraged women leading religious services — as well as a leading abolitionist and suffragist of the 19th century. Mott devoted her life not only to these causes, but also “to the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, school and prison reforms, temperance, peace, and religious tolerance” (Swarthmore College, A Brief History). Her home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and she even received a nomination for United States Vice President in 1848, long before the 19th amendment was even on the horizon.

Hallowell and Mott were a few noteworthy proponents, but the creation of the college included a vast variety of people who adhered to Quaker values: from wealthy businessmen, to abolitionists, to former professors at West Point.

The name “Swarthmore” was actually coined in 1863 by Hallowell’s wife Margaret, who wanted to name the school after a historical house in England called “Swarth moor” the home of another Margaret, Margaret Fell, who dedicated her life to the Quaker movement and was a strong proponent of the right of women to speak freely and be leaders, even in religious contexts. As early as the mid 1660s, Fell wrote in her book Women’s Speaking” that the ministry of women was “Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures” (Swarthmore: A Brief History).

From the land for which it was named, to the people who decided on its inception, to the very sect of Quakerism from which the College was conceived, Swat’s beginnings are permeated with progress. The founders had a vision of a school that transcended the societal expectations of the time; one can only wonder how that vision has evolved. How have we translated this original outlook into our present?

A conversation with Laila Hzaineh ’20: viral Arab feminist

in Campus Journal by

Laila Hzaineh ’20 made her first online video in response to a Jordanian public figure blaming the way women dress for their own harassment.

“He pissed me off a lot, and his video went viral and so many people were agreeing with him, praising him, and sharing him. I mean it’s not something new to me, especially coming from Jordanians, but I don’t know at that time I was like, this is it. So I immediately opened my camera and started recording,” she said.

That first video, posted on November 20, got 76,665 views. Since then, Hzaineh, an international student from Jordan, has continued making viral videos about feminism in the Arab world.

“My main goal is to change mentalities and mostly women’s mentalities. I’m not expecting things to actually change, like culture and laws … at least in my lifetime, but I’m really targeting women … I just want to give women the courage to speak and think for themselves, to know their rights and fight for them,” Hzaineh said.

Despite some pushback since her first and subsequent videos have gone viral, many women living in the Arab world have reached out to Hzaineh, telling her their personal stories and asking for advice.

“It gives a purpose to my life … they tell me that they want to do this certain thing but they don’t feel like they have the power to do it, and then they actually do something that empowers them or that they didn’t think they were able to. Personally that makes me feel like I’ve done something. Even if I end up helping one woman, for me, that’s a huge thing,” Hzaineh said.

One of her videos, specifically on the topic of the female hymen, is particularly contentious because it addresses a centuries-long belief about female bleeding during first intercourse to determine her virginity.

“I wanted to do [the video] because for the first time I thought about the name for the Hymen in Arabic, which translates literally to ‘virginity membrane’ … this name is not scientific. It’s just a cultural thing, it’s a social thing. And for the first time I’ve realized that wow I’ve been using this name for so long, like that’s the name in books, that’s the name we use, and it has nothing to do with science,” Hzaineh said.

She believes that the hymen is an incredibly pressing issue in the Arab world because a lot of women actually die because of misconceptions and cultural standards surrounding it.

“If a women doesn’t bleed during her wedding night, or if there’s no hymen, in some conservative families, they would kill the girl because she would stain the honor of the family. Not to mention that even if you have a hymen, you don’t necessarily have to bleed, in many cases you shouldn’t bleed.”

This ties back to sexual aggression and rape, which can be blamed on the honor of the woman who was victimized.

“If a girl loses her hymen because of rape, that doesn’t matter for her family — like if she lost it, she lost it. That honor is gone basically. So for me it’s very ridiculous that our definition of honor is tied to this membrane that sometimes doesn’t even exist … when it comes to this issue a lot of people are not like inherently evil, or like misogynistic, they just don’t know. We don’t talk about it, not even in school, we just never talk about it,” Hzaineh said.

Some of Hzaineh’s critics have accused her of “going against God,” but she does not believe this is the case.

“I’m not interested in making people stop believing in Islam, but there are things that I think Islam normalizes that shouldn’t be normalized. I’m not going against the whole religion, I’m kind of defining the lines that religion shouldn’t pass,” she said.

One thing Hzaineh emphasized was the sometimes salient disconnect between feminism on Swarthmore’s campus and feminism in the Arab world.  

“I mean feminism here and feminism in the Arab world, are completely different, because in the Arab world we’re still fighting for basic rights. Like here there are movements like free the nipple, and things like that. We’re not even there yet. We’re still fighting for women to not get killed when they get raped, you know, so it’s a whole other world,” she believes.

Although awareness is important, Hzaineh believes that change in the Arab world must come from within.

“What people need to understand … [is that] we don’t want anyone to come and like change things. We want to change it on our own … A lot of Arabs kind of hate the idea of feminism because they think it’s a western thing that’s coming into our world to ruin whatever or go against Islam, but that’s not true,” Hzaineh said

In the future, Hzaineh is planning on highlighting feminist histories within the Middle East and North African region.

“I’m actually thinking of doing a video about feminism, how it’s not exclusively a western thing, how we’ve always had empowered women throughout history in our region, so it’s not something that we’re bringing from the West, we’ve always had it, but we need to work on it and work on ourselves and the way we view women,” she said.

To feminists in the West, Hzaineh wants to stress that these issues are not always clear-cut.

“The West shouldn’t look at every woman who wears a hijab as an oppressed woman, because indeed a lot of women do choose it — even though personally I don’t like the concept of it — if I know that a woman actually chose it, [then] she knows she has a right to take it off. But she chose not to, [and] I should respect that. And that doesn’t mean that she’s oppressed in any way,” Hzaineh said.

As her online following has increased, Hzaineh warns against the West looking down on the Arab world.

“The reason I have English subtitles on my videos is that I want people to know that there are Arab women speaking up, and that there are women who are aware of their rights, of the feminism movement, and that. So I don’t want the West to undermine us, or look down on us, because we have a lot of great achievement and we have a lot of great people, but we’re still trying to create a platform for them to speak out,” she said.

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