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A Day at Baghdad’s Elite Girls’ High School

Feb 24, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Baghdad– If Iraq has a version of the US’s most-celebrated high school, “Beverly Hills High 90210”, it would be here in the upscale district of Mansour, nestled between mini-mansions and manicured walls, at the city’s elite Baghdad High School for Girls (BHS).

Christina Asquith

I decided ’embed’ myself one morning in Mrs. Dalil Kamel Aboud’s classroom to see firsthand the latest post-war changes in Iraqi education. No flak jacket necessary on this assignment, only my tan leather heeled boots and matching bag.

Indeed. On this morning, the hundreds of girls milling in the outdoor courtyard of BHS looked like a scene from Iraq Vogue. These were and still are the daughters of Baghdad high society-it’s ministers, businessmen and foreign diplomats-one of the few schools were many girls actually cried in class when they heard Saddam was captured. So, while Iraqi girls still cover from neck to ankle and don the school uniform, a loose-fitting grey dress, they accessorize with fancy leather jackets, gold earrings, tiny butterfly clips and diamond pendants. Hair is styled, curled, painted, swept up, you name it. Less than half the 850 students wore head scarves. Most wore boots with high heels.

At 8:15 a.m., the assistant principal steps into the courtyard and (literally) rings a bell. The girls disappear into classrooms.

Baghdad High school sits in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by 15-foor high concrete walls, beyond which one can only see the tops of swaying date palm trees. Its structure forms an F, with an outdoor walkway connecting about a dozen classrooms, and lining two dirt courtyards, bathed in sunlight. There is a teachers’ lounge, and an administration room with five desks and two couches, shared by the principal, the secretaries and the vice principal.

When Mrs. Aboud, the English language teacher, enters the classroom, all the girls stand to greet her. Inside the classroom, the new government has brought little but positive change so far. BHS was selected as one of the schools to be rehabilitated. The school is freshly painted in eggshell and turquoise blues. New English texts without Saddam’s face sit on the desks, and hundreds of desks have been replaced. All of their teachers have had salary hikes from $5 to $15 a month to $200 to $500 a month.

One girl has already written the date and name of class on the board. Another girl takes attendance. Class is conducted entirely in English.

“Let me see your homework, please,” Mrs. Aboud.

As girls open their flower covered notebooks to show a list of English sentences, Mrs. Aboud moves up and down the class’s three aisles and nine rows of desks– 43 girls in total. The girls sit two to a long desk. Up front are two new chalkboards, and above are four fluorescent lights and two fans, all new.

A girl carrying a USAID-donated school bag flutters in.

“You are late,” says Mrs. Aboud, sternly.

“So sorry,” she replies.

Under Saddam’s regime, teachers primarily lectured. A good student was a silent student. No child got out of their desk. No student ever, ever, approached the teachers’ blackboard. But many of BHS’s 42 teachers, including Mrs. Aboud, took part in the U.S. led teacher training earlier this month, and learned modern teaching techniques like group learning and student debate. Techniques are modernizing.

On this day, she wants students to practice giving directions in English. She has a lot more in mind than just lecturing. Mrs. Aboud spends 15 minutes a night planning. On the board, she has posted a giant hand-drawn map of a town.

“Shermia, ask Ramia about the location of the bank,” she says to two girls up front.

The girls stand up. “Yes. Ramia, can you tell me about the bank?”

“The way to the bank,” corrects Mrs. Aboud.

“Yes, can you tell me about the way to the bank?”asks Shermia.

“Yes, take your second turning on the left,” answers Ramia.

“Excellent.” Mrs. Aboud asks another girl wearing a fringed scarf attached with a diamond pin to approach the poster on the blackboard and describe how to get to the mosque.

She gets out of her seat.

“The mosque is on the left,” she says, pointing at the board.

With the prospect of approaching the board, all the girls wave their hands in the air and make the noise “Sssss.” “Sssss”-the Iraqi version of ” Mee. Mee. Mee. Mee”

“I have run out of petrol. How do I get to the petrol station?” asks Mrs. Aboud.

Sssss. Sssss. A girl approaches the board. “The petrol station is the turning on the right.”

“Thanks a lot. I won’t miss it,” says Mrs. Aboud.

BHS sends 98 percent of its female students on to university, with many accepted into the most prized schools: medicine, science, engineering and computers. Fields such as political science, English and law are considered not very prestigious in Iraq. BHS offers one course a week in Housekeeping, with lessons in how to cook, sew and raise babies, but otherwise Iraqi girls from wealthy families are considered equal to boys in education, and take physics, calculus and foreign language. They are not shy in class, and participate vigorously.

Later, Mrs. Aboud experiments with “group learning” one of the techniques she perfected in the US training course. She hands out 10 slips of paper with a question on it for girls to answer in groups of four. The girls all seem to be answering the question, however when a low chatter spreads through the room Mrs. Aboud approaches my desk to say she doesn’t really like “group learning”.

“I don’t accept this-this noise,” she says to me. “I am an old-fashioned teacher, and I feel this talking should not be allowed.” Plus, she adds: “I have to get through the curriculum, and this takes to much time, especially with 43 students.”

Discipline is not an issue here. Occasionally, the principal will call in a parent to discuss a child, but when I ask about discipline techniques, most teachers shrug and say the students know to listen and be quiet when the teacher asks.

Mrs. Aboud returns to the class and tells students they are changing lesson to review The Prince of Aragon.

“As part of the new teaching methods we are learning, I will check you past learning before beginning with new material,” says Mrs. Aboud. “Who can summarize for me what we know so far in The Prince of Aragon?”

Under Saddam, many teachers say students were discouraged from thinking or analyzing material. Baath Party leaders wanted students to recite the party line, and not ask questions. In the “new Iraq” education leaders are training teachers to evaluate material, make relationships between characters and other literature, and form opinions.

Along those lines, Mrs. Aboud teaching techniques now include frequently checking comprehension and encouraging the girls to “Think. Think.”

A ringing bell announces the end of class. Before dismissing the girls, Mrs. Aboud assigns an exercise practicing sentences for the following day. She has another 45 minute class, and then the students are allowed a 10 minute break. The school day runs from 8am until 1pm. There is no lunch served, or gym class.

During the break, Mrs. Aboud invites a few girls to chat with us in the court yard. Soon, a large group forms. Here, I ask the students about changes in the school.

“We are so happy. We are free to have opinions and ideas,” says 16 year old Hassna, who likes science and art class. “I can express myself in class.”

Several other girls chime in with their opinions, all positive about the US and the changes in the schools. The girls are polite, meek and deferential to the teacher-the “Iraqi way”, Mrs. Aboud calls it.

Suddenly, from the back of the group, a girl suddenly shouts “This sucks!”

Everyone twitters. Mrs. Aboud laughs and calls the girl forward. Her name is Noor, 16.

“Where did you learn that word Noor? In the movies?”

“Oh yeah, in the American movies,” Noor says grinning. “We all watch Satellite TV. We loovvve movies.” Her friend laughs.

The conversation continues, but Noor disrupts. When I ask them if they know what they want to be when they leave high school. Noor jumps in again, the loudest.

“I know. I’m going to be a doctor,” she says confidently. Unlike the other girls, she doesn’t look the teacher in the eye. To me, she seems most like American students I have met.

Mrs. Aboud challenges her. “But, Noor, how are you going to be a doctor?”

Noor thinks for an answer, but doesn’t come up with anything. “Are you going to do work and get good grades?” Mrs. Aboud asks. “How will you be a doctor, Noor?”

Finally, Noor jokes, “To be, or not to be. This is the question” and runs off with her girlfriends.

Mrs. Aboud says, “Do you see her behavior? It is different now. Before the war you would never see that. That is not how Iraqi girls are. But now they watch TV and it affects the way they behave. Now they have freedom and they are very confused.”

I ask Mrs. Aboud if what she means by “different” is “American”. I think she is too polite to say so. She says, “I know the television is different from the people.”

America is changing Iraq, for the better and the worst, in the classroom and in the society.

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