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MU Human Library aims to overcome stereotypes with stories

Friday, March 8, 2013 | 6:48 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — MU sophomore Farah El-Jayyousi identifies as a Palestinian, a white Muslim, a feminist and an incurable bookworm.

El-Jayyousi shared her multiple identities at the MU Human Library event at the Memorial Union on Friday. She was one of 14 MU students and faculty who shared their stories by representing themselves as "living books"; her title was "Life as a Third Culture Kid: Navigating Multiple Identities."

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The event aimed to overcome stereotypes and prejudices with stories about women from multiple cultures. Most of the presenters focused on feminism, globalization and cultural and language differences.

“We wanted to encourage the community — faculty, students and the larger community — to come out and talk to people they normally wouldn’t talk to,” said Nadège Uwase, executive assistant of the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative, the event's sponsor.

The Human Library project was first held at MU in November 2012. Occurring on International Women’s Day, the event was incorporated into Women’s History Month. Juanqui Pane, a Paraguayan Fulbright student, was the only male presenter.

Uwase said she has received some positive responses and hopes to expand the program.

“We’re figuring out a way to have these books presented each semester, but obviously it depends on readers’ response, (Chancellor's Diversity Initiative) resources and personnel to plan the event."

In her presentation, El-Jayyousi put forth her idea of feminism: to champion the human rights of all groups, not just women and Muslims. She also related her experiences with prejudice.

“I think that a lot of time prejudice is implicit rather than explicit," El-Jayyousi said. "For example, people might avoid talking to you in the classroom or on the bus because of ignorance or misconceptions."

She finds it amusing and surprising that Muslim women are misrepresented as submissive and uneducated, which she attributes to biased media reports.

“I’ve lived in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, and I saw women who were highly educated and just as vocal in supporting causes like education and healthcare," El-Jayyousi said. 

She added: “It’s people who have power and influence that use religion to oppress women.” 

Although El-Jayyousi has found that some of her peers don’t take her seriously, she continues to serve as the President of the Muslim Students Organization, a role she took this spring.

The idea of being a white Muslim also rubs many people the wrong way, El-Jayyousi said, because they expect Muslims to have brown rather than white skin.

El-Jayyousi, an aspiring creative writer, hopes her life experiences can help eliminate xenophobia and other forms of discrimination.

“I’d like to change the world but obviously that’s not realistic, so if I can change one person’s perspective, then that would make me very happy,” El-Jayyousi said.


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