A key subject of discussion during the exchange was the role of veils in a religious society and whether wearing them subjugates women. Artwork by Erin Currier

This article by Dr. Nathalia Jaramillo, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Coordinator of Latin American and Latinx Studies at Kennesaw State University, is sponsored by Kennesaw State University’s Division of Global Affairs.

The Spring session of a Women’s Leadership Virtual Exchange program between Kennesaw State University (KSU) and a partner university in Morocco fostered transnational consciousness among students about feminism, women’s leadership, diversity and inclusion. 

This two-year virtual exchange is scheduled to run two more semesters, but with support from the greater Atlanta business community, it could potentially be extended beyond 2022 and truly inspire meaningful cultural understanding between the United States and Arab nations more broadly. 

The program provides a platform for undergraduate students at KSU and Hassan II University of Casablanca (H2UC) to engage in conversations about the differences and similarities in women’s leadership in Morocco and the U.S. 

Funded by a grant from the Stevens Initiative, the virtual exchange aims, ultimately, to develop intercultural competence. It challenges students to think outside of the constructs of Western feminism and consider women’s activism and leadership on a transnational scale. It helps students develop a deeper understanding of others and, specifically, about women’s lives in other places. And it encourages them to think more deeply about different models of feminism to challenge their own assumptions and perspectives.

One common misconception we discussed this semester was the notion that Moroccan women were subjugated by wearing veils. Through challenging discussions, the students dispelled some myths about what the veil represents, what it means to live within a religious society, and how certain cultural practices do not undermine women’s leadership. 

Prior to the program, my students did not know much about Morocco but were very curious about the intersection of the Muslim religion and feminism there. The Moroccan students, too, were curious about American culture, especially about issues surrounding our recent presidential elections. They were very aware of U.S. political dynamics and current events. 

Through the exchange, both sides learned about women’s roles in their respective societies and how life experiences shape activism and notions of social justice. They learned to think of diversity as not just about race and ethnicity but also incorporating gender, class and sexuality in historical and spatial contexts.

The participating students began to bridge cultural differences and form friendships that, though virtual, could turn into lasting relationships. 

After seeing such success over the first two semesters of this program, we know that communities in both countries would greatly benefit for years to come through increased understanding and friendship between these students. 

The Atlanta business community could be a wonderful source of support and inspiration. 

Our guest speakers this semester included Professor of Anthropology, Hayat Zerrari, who spoke extensively about the history of women’s leadership in Morocco; Professor Khalid Lahlou, who shared his work on culture and diversity in Morocco; and Gary Green, Executive Director of KSU’s Center for Sustainable Journalism.

We welcome Atlanta leaders to be guest speakers and share their relevant experiences with our exchange students during the next two semesters.

KSU Professor of Middle East Politics Maia Hallward led the Morocco virtual exchange in Fall 2020 through her “Politics of the Middle East and North Africa” course. My course, “Transnational Feminisms,” was the host of the virtual exchange this Spring semester. 

In the Fall, Associate Professor of English Laura Davis, who teaches “Gender and the U.S. South,” will be the leading teaching faculty for the program. In Spring 2022, the program will continue through a Women’s Leadership in Technology course taught by KSU Associate Professor of Information Systems Pamila Dembla.

We are inviting students from KSU and other universities, as well as nontraditional students, to participate in the program through enrolling in these courses. 

The virtual exchange program was designed by four professors in Kennesaw and four in Morocco, who collaborated on curricula and activities. This semester, we held four synchronous virtual sessions and four asynchronous sessions, during which we heard from guest speakers and shared readings and lessons. 

The best part of the program was when KSU students interviewed their Moroccan partners about their lives and their views on gender roles and feminism. The Moroccan students posted the interviews on a private digital platform to share with KSU partners. 

The project coordinator in Morocco, H2UC Department of English Studies Chair Samira Rguibi, noted the enthusiasm that the students showed for the program, even though they faced some challenges with translation and with producing the video interviews. 

“The H2UC and KSU students have shown an utmost interest in, and a tremendous concern with, the subjects dealt with, both synchronously and asynchronously. The panoply of talks delivered and the variety of questions asked surprisingly reflected our students’ involvement in that intercultural and academic exchange process,” Dr. Rguibi said.

She pointed out, however, that Moroccan students had difficulty translating their interviews from their native Moroccan Arabic, Standard Arabic or French into English

Dr. Rguibi suggested future exchanges could address this issue by creating a training session to familiarize Moroccan students with the material prior to the interviews.

She also noted that working with a professional videographer during the COVID-19 pandemic was both time-consuming and expensive, so she proposed adding YouTube video training to the curriculum of future exchange programs so students can create the videos themselves. 

These challenges and others might be remedied with assistance from the Atlanta business community or other organizations interested in contributing training or resources. It would be wonderful to get Georgia business and leadership communities involved to expand this project beyond 2022.

Overall, the KSU students have loved the Morocco exchange project, and they remain friends with their Moroccan counterparts, chatting on virtual platforms and social media. One student in the program this semester had visited Morocco previously; following the exchange, all want to go there. The program really opened their vision and understanding and furthered their curiosity.  

The virtual exchange has truly been one of the highlights of my career. The KSU faculty and our Moroccan colleagues have developed mutual care and respect for each other over these years of collaboration. The partnership between the universities began in 2005. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we haven’t been able to travel, but hopefully next year the KSU organizers can visit Morocco and vice versa to better plan the exchanges and to continue developing the relationships forged between the communities. 

The current virtual exchange program focuses on women’s leadership, but future exchanges could explore other topics that would contribute to increased understanding between Morocco and the U.S.

Especially as tensions in the Middle East challenge international relations, finding common ground through these types of virtual exchanges between young people provides hope for a more peaceful future.

To learn more, or to participate as a guest speaker, student, or resource provider for the virtual exchange program, contact Dan ParackaProfessor of Education in KSU’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at dparacka@kennesaw.edu

Contact me, Nathalia Jaramillo, at njaramil@kennesaw.edu about the Morocco exchange program or about the Latin American and Latinx Program at KSU.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...