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Educating Minds, Strengthening Bodies: Physical Education at AUW

Chittagong, Bangladesh, October 1, 2012: It is four o'clock on a weekday afternoon in Chittagong. The young women who filter down AUW Lane range in attire: some cover themselves with hijabs and long, loose clothing; others are clad in sports pants; still others wear shorts and T-shirts. Students from Nepal, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan chatter as they leave campus for the nearby basketball court. This group makes for an astonishing sight: what would be normal in Europe and North America--young women in athletic wear, shouldering sports equipment and heading to the field--is worth a second glance here.

In CDA field, a grassy expanse with basic sports facilities a short distance from M.M. Ali Road, a leafy canopy offers shade and quiet from the glaring sun and blaring traffic. Under the towering dome of the neighborhood mosque, the AUW students form a line on the court. Diana, an Access Academy teacher who advises the Basketball Club, positions herself between students and the net. A handful of students dodge her defenses and dribble to the basket with practiced ease. Inevitably, a throng of male spectators rings the edge of the field, drawn to the sight of local and foreign women running and leaping through the air.

In its quest to graduate the next generation of leaders in Asia, the Asian University for Women seeks to promote independence of thought, creative problem solving, ethical leadership, and above all else, a strong sense of self. These qualities are carefully cultivated in the classroom, in workshops and through extra-curricular clubs. The University is placing a greater emphasis on the role of physical education in nurturing these qualities by expanding its sports offerings and making athletics a requirement. While karate and aerobics have always been mandated in the Access Academy, undergraduate students are now required to take three to four semesters of athletics. It is the clearest sign yet that AUW views athletics as central to the development of strong and effective female leaders.

By promoting athletics, and making physical education obligatory, AUW finds itself at odds with regional attitudes. Many students arrive at AUW with minimal athletics experience. Those who played organized sports in their childhoods often did not play as adolescents. Others struggled to balance sports with their daily responsibilities. The message that physical activity is unacceptable for girls past a certain age reinforces the notion that women belong indoors--that their only acceptable domain is the private sphere. AUW was founded on a wholehearted rejection of this belief. By putting students in the public sphere, and by communicating that confidence and agility are just as valuable as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, the University underscores its commitment to creating an entirely new generation of strong Asian female leaders.

Sreymom, with a round face and a quick smile, is from rural Cambodia. An avid consumer of Chinese fight movies, Sreymom grew up longing to learn the martial arts moves she studied on screen. But her days were booked with school, homework, and household chores, and she was discouraged from making time for anything else.

"Karate is what I dreamed about when I was home," she confesses. "The first time I heard that there was karate in my place, in my town, I said, 'I want to go, I want to learn,' but no one supported me. 'Karate's just for boys. Karate is going and fighting; girls should not do that,' [they said]."

Sreymom arrived at AUW as an Access Academy student, and was thrilled to learn that the University mandated karate for all its Access Academy students. She recalls her reaction in a rushed jumble of words: "Oh my gosh, it's great, oh my God, I'm so excited, oh my God, I have to do this karate."

Learning karate proved more challenging than Sreymom could have imagined, however. The adjustment to an active lifestyle was torturous, and her muscles were in constant pain. But the "movement was beautiful" and she persisted.

Upon completing the Access Academy, Sreymom enrolled in a karate club in Chittagong to continue her training. She went on to take part in a number competitions--winning the gold medal as a green belt in her first competition against six women--before qualifying for her black belt. She also mastered kata karate, a series of performed steps that mirror the defensive positions one would adopt against an attacker.

"By knowing karate I feel more confidence," she says. "Karate is about learning strength from inside...I'm not afraid of doing things...They say a girl is weak, she will get hurt easily. At least I can defend myself, and I can go out freely," she says. To her classmates, she counsels: "Everything is possible if you just want to do it...If you want to do it, there are so many ways."

The physical education instructors at AUW must balance the expectations of a serious physical education program with the realities of engaging students in sports in Chittagong. "I just want to show [AUW students] that there is a fun way of doing physical activities through games, or simplified versions of sports that everyone can participate in... At least half of them have not had physical education classes," says Akos Bender, a physical education instructor at AUW and basketball enthusiast.

Maria Chakraborty, the first physical education and karate instructor at AUW, completed her bachelor's degree in physical education in Bangladesh. "In Bangladesh, at the school level, they have no proper physical education. If you join sports then you enjoy some critical thinking [and] use body power," she says.

Aniqua, who is Muslim and grew up in Dhaka, has mixed feelings about the physical education requirement. "Elders of our community do not like women to play. As a Muslim-majority country we also have some religious [and cultural] restrictions to play in the fields in front of boys," she notes. Still, her parents and teachers encouragedher to be athletic, and she is quick to note that Bangladesh has female sports players. She stopped playing sports after 12th grade, yielding to religious and social restrictions; AUW's physical education classes have led her to contemplate those restrictions and begin to form her own opinions on them. Despite her internal debate, she enjoys participating in athletics at AUW and believesin the importance of the physical education requirement.

The ambiguities of the sports program reflect the multilayered approach of the Asian University for Women, which, as a young institution, still wrestles with the best way of executing its ambitious mission. But AUW's students stand to gain more than just muscle tone. Indeed, AUW believes that the experience will embolden its students and equip them with a greater sense of self. The scenes unfolding in the AUW gym and on the CDA field represent a startling deviation from the norm in Asia.

It is two hours later and the basketball club is immersed in a raucous game on the court. More experienced players dominate the play, wrestling the ball away from their opponents and barreling towards the basket. There is something remarkable about the sight, as sweat gathers on the students' brows and they grow steadily more aggressive under the late afternoon sun. Onlookers continue to pass by the field and a group of young men start a soccer game nearby. The AUW students, confident in their game, pay them little regard.