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Liberal Arts and Leadership Education for Women in Asia: East-West-Global

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On 10 January 2021, the first South Asian-African-American female Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, was inaugurated. In November 2015, another highly significant political event also occurred when Justin Trudeau introduced the members of his government cabinet to the Canadian people. The whole world sat up and noticed a remarkable achievement. Half of Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet was female, thus proving it was possible to have representatives of half your population take on leadership positions in government. When asked why he thought it was so important to include so many women, Mr Trudeau answered, “Because it’s 2015.”


Yet, barely three years earlier, on the afternoon of 9 October 2012, a young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, was shot and nearly killed for having the audacity to believe that all girls should get an education. It is a great tribute to Malala that, after her life-threatening ordeal, she continues to be one of the world’s strongest advocates for female education. And in July 2020, she graduated with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University.


The contrast between continents could not be starker. We should thus ensure that Asian women are not “left behind”, nor excluded from shaping the positive growth and developments in their region.



We know that the solution lies in education and cultural and political movements that will transform society so that the inequalities that have been and are still faced by women in Asia can be overcome. To do this we need to have more young women in Asia equipped with the skills that will empower them to lead and change their societies. The following is a discussion of how an all-women’s university in Asia focused on nurturing women’s leadership skills can be structured.



Higher education should not just be an escalator for personal success for the individual woman. It should increase her capacity to transform the wider society. As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We should educate Asian women to change their world.


There are existing universities in Asia with female students. Unfortunately, most of them focus on educating students to become professionals, not necessarily to become leaders with the social conscience to make positive changes. Moreover, in these co-educational universities, the opportunities available for female students to take up leadership positions are limited. A study that was conducted at a public university in an Asian country showed that 24 of the presidents of 25 student organisations were male, even though more than 60% of the students in the university were female!


In all-women’s universities, all student organisation leaders are women. In their own women-only space, women can more easily and consciously engage in discourse to overcome gender conditioning and develop self-confidence to make their own decisions.

Mira Rai, Nepal

Born into poverty in the remote Himalayan foothills of Bhojpar in Nepal, Mira was a child soldier who grew up to be an ultramarathon legend. In 2017, she was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. She runs an “Exchange and Empower” programme, which gives young female athletes access to athletic training, education and professional development. Source: Mira Rai, Facebook / Prishank Photography


What kind of education should we explore to achieve the goal of increasing the Asian Woman’s capacity to transform her wider society? One way is via a liberal arts and sciences education.


This mode of education is a critical component to empowering women in building a strong society because it emphasises the development of students’ capacity for critical thinking, rather than simply introducing students to different forms of knowledge. This is the most effective way to educate students to act responsibly and effectively when challenging authority and convention in order to bring about change.


The liberal arts and sciences curriculum exposes students to a broad education in the types of knowledge, thinking and tools of major disciplines in social sciences, humanities and natural sciences.

Mai Khôi, Vietnam

A Vietnamese musician, artist and political activist, Khôi began as an award-winning pop singer before becoming known for her outspoken criticism against censorship and lack of democracy in Vietnam. She also advocates for better women’s and LGBT rights in her country. In 2018, Amnesty International named Khôi one of the “12 inspiring human rights activists to follow” for that year. Source:

The university should aim to improve the lives of students as well as create a cadre of women leaders who can advance social, political and economic development in the region.

With this broad education, graduates will become informed, flexible thinkers and lifelong learners, with a strong foundation of knowledge, skills and experiences that will enable them to reason and make ethical choices, to recognise the importance of the past and work towards a better future.


We should seek to educate, train and cultivate the next generation of Asian women in a university that blends the best of a liberal arts education with regionally relevant and substantive leadership courses. The university should aim to improve the lives of students as well as create a cadre of women leaders who can advance social, political and economic development in the region. An all- women’s institution would create opportunities for its students to reach their fullest potential. Such a university can produce empowered graduates who use their knowledge, self-esteem and leadership skills to advance women’s empowerment and contribute to social progress.


The curriculum for such an institution should help ensure that students receive an education that dramatically expands opportunities for international exposure, encourages students to identify and strengthen their academic and personal talents, and challenges them to envision their own role in leading positive change in the world. In addition to formal courses in the classroom, students should also learn from living in residential housing as well as from off-campus experiential learning opportunities.


The siting of the university in Asia means that across different fields of study, the curriculum should incorporate relevant Asian histories, societies, cultures, politics, economies and their contributions. Many courses will offer comparisons both between different parts of Asia and between Asian and Western countries. Students will discuss and debate these similarities and dissimilarities as well as the complex and varied phenomena of modern Asia.


The university will be a living and learning community of common endeavour. Although pursuing different special interests, students and faculty will be involved in the same project of learning for the purpose of informing one’s activism in contributing to the evolution of society, the betterment of life opportunities for others, and the advancement of knowledge.



The design of the curriculum will be as clear and simple as possible, so that students understand the overall structure of their education as well as the place of smaller components within it. The first two years of the programme will give students broad exposure to multiple disciplines as an educational foundation on which to build and contextualise the more specialised work of the third and fourth years. Students will pursue a Major, which will allow them to explore one discipline in depth, and to engage in more sophisticated learning and research. Students will engage in independent research and writing, which will take different forms in different fields. Research work, where students demonstrate independent thinking, will continue throughout the four-year programme, at increasingly challenging levels, culminating in a senior capstone project.

Lynn Nanticha Ocharoenchai, Thailand

As the organiser of Climate Strike Thailand in 2019, Ocharoenchai is taking center stage in demanding action for climate change. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, Ocharoenchai has taken to writing about environmental conservation and social activism. She also emphasises the importance of working alongside grassroots communities and using creative ventures to engage people. Photo: Andre Malerba / ZUMA Wire / Alamy Live News

Wai Wai Nu, Myanmar

A lawyer, former political prisoner and human rights advocate, Wai Wai founded the Women’s Peace Network in 2013 with the objectives to build peace and mutual understanding between Myanmar’s ethnic communities and to empower marginalised women throughout Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine State. She also founded the Yangon Youth Center to engage youth in the peacebuilding process. She was named one of TIME magazine’s Next Generation Leaders in 2017. Source: Wai Wai Nu, Facebook

Courses will incorporate intensive writing components that demand significant written work, and include detailed, personal feedback. Students will take leadership courses to develop a broad range of skills which include financial literacy, negotiation, team-building, public speaking, computer literacy, organisational management and social entrepreneurship, among others.


Students will participate in experiential learning involving internship programmes in the community or with companies — regionally or globally — to build on the academic, social and leadership skills gained, to provide opportunities for student employment as well as enhance the university’s reputation for educational excellence.


The university’s pedagogy will be as important as its curriculum. The university will provide an opportunity to develop new modes of instruction and learning, for example, with the use of case studies, service-learning and innovative lab exercises. Students must take much responsibility for learning. They will be expected, with advice and within parameters, to find areas for enquiry and research within each course, as well as to choose appropriate electives. They will also be encouraged to reflect upon, critically evaluate, make connections between and build from what they have learnt.

If we want the world to be a more peaceful one where our women are leaders in their countries, then the university has to be a multicultural, multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-religious institution where students live and learn from each other.

The role of the professor will be to stimulate interest, and to guide and facilitate students’ learning. Professors will be expected to elicit both oral and written work from students, and to comment constructively, critically and in detail on it. They will be available to students for consultation outside the class and will join in informal discussion with them round the campus. Faculty will be involved in research, some of which will include the collaborative involvement of students.


To cultivate the intellectual and moral qualities required of future civic leaders, most, if not all, of the teaching needs to be in small seminar-like classes, where students are encouraged, indeed expected, to discuss and debate, and interact with professors and classmates in a collegial but critical way. Students’ active participation will be encouraged in an atmosphere of mutual learning and trust.


Learning in this university will take place outside as well as inside the classroom. Professors will take their students on field visits, meet with them in their offices, engage in conversations around the campus and over dinner, and host meetings and talks with visiting experts. Annual convocations will provide another avenue for ungraded learning beyond the formal curriculum.


Courses will include the experiences, contributions and relevance of women and Asian peoples to the development of history, politics, science, art, literature and other fields. Excellence, leadership and service will be the key themes because they are at the centre of this university’s education. Examples of such courses might include the following:


  • The Past and Present: Asia and the Rest of the World Since the 18th Century
  • The World Today: Examining Contemporary Issues
  • Women and Society — Local, Regional, Global
  • Exploring Great Literature of Asia and the World


Other courses in Philosophy, Religion, Psychology, Sociology or Multicultural Studies may also provide experiences which allow students to encounter new and thought-provoking aspects of the world and to see them from a variety of perspectives. In addition, courses in Fine Arts, Social Sciences and Laboratory Sciences can help students understand how the methodologies of different disciplines provide ways to process and organise information about the world.


Seminars on leadership can be taught by faculty, visiting executives or industry leaders, to link the academic work with practical knowledge and skills and training. Students will learn about contemporary events and the movers and shakers in various fields as well as receive training, coaching and mentoring experience.



Students will learn in a diverse residential community. Residential life promotes multicultural understanding and tolerance, after-class exploration of course materials, and experiences that create lifelong friendships and social networks. Students will have access to a wide variety of on-campus cultural, political and intellectual events. Emphasis will be placed on Community Service, Sports and Physical Education, and Student Clubs and Organisations.

Asian University for Women (AUW)

The Asian University for Women (AUW) is an independent, regional institution dedicated to women’s education and leadership development in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The university is committed to graduating generations of women leaders who will tackle their countries' social, economic, and political issues while collaborating across cultural, ethnic and religious lines. AUW has more than 850 students enrolled from 19 countries across Asia and the Middle East. Photo: Moheen Reeyad/ CC BY-SA 4.0


Beyond the formal curriculum, such an institution should also reflect the diversity of the world. They will need more than just academic content and leadership opportunities. My experience at the Asian University for Women (AUW) that was started in Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2008 has confirmed for me that the ability to understand and work with others who are different forms an important part of the experience. If we want the world to be a more peaceful one where our women are leaders in their countries, then the university has to be a multicultural, multinational, multi- ethnic, multi-religious institution where students live and learn from each other.


In 2008 our AUW students who came from eight nations shared diverse and at times “clashing” cultural practices. We had a talented Bharatanatyam dancer from India who performed for the community even though many of her classmates from more conservative backgrounds were not allowed to dance in public. We convinced our students, a majority of whom had never learnt to swim and who had to be conservatively clothed, that we would teach them basic water survival skills. A local hotel with a swimming pool kindly reserved it one afternoon just for our use. I recall an Afghan student who wanted to jump into the deep end of the pool straight away as she was so excited. Our swimming instructor managed to convince her to do so at the shallow end first. This amazing student who was so eager to embrace new experiences went on to graduate from Stanford University. Last year she graduated from Cambridge University with a Ph.D. in Literature and published her first book of poems.

Student organisations

The Speak Up Club at AUW hosted the first annual Women’s March through Chittagong to advocate for women’s rights. Source: AUW website

We intentionally placed students of different religious backgrounds in the same rooms. They learnt tos respect and accommodate each other’s religious practices. A Muslim student told us that she was fine with her Hindu roommate having a picture of Ganesh on their bedroom wall but she needed a place to say her prayers. We had anticipated this and prepared an empty room which anyone could use for prayers or quiet contemplation. Any objects brought into the room would have to be removed by the students when they left.


We had Sri Lankan students from the two major religious and ethnic groups that were the main antagonists of a long civil war in their home country. When they arrived at AUW in 2018, for some of them it was the first time they were interacting with fellow Sri Lankans of a different ethnicity. After some initial hesitation, due to their preconceptions of each other as enemies, they soon bonded as they discovered that they shared so many things in common — food, music, clothes — and became fast friends.


A year later, in 2009, the Tamil Tigers surrendered. Among our Sri Lankan students, the Sinhalese were happy and excited that their country would be at peace, while the Tamils were sad and disappointed.


Relations among our Sri Lankan students became strained. Our university psychologist and student counsellor, herself a Sri Lankan Christian, brought them all together and ran workshops that got them to share the reasons for their opposing reactions.


Through their honest mutual sharing, the Sri Lankan students, whether Sinhalese or Tamil, spoke about personal losses that each of them had suffered. One had lost her father before she was born while others had lost other loved ones to the conflict. They all realised that they could not continue to be angry and suspicious of each other and discussed how they could share this with their fellow AUW students. Together, they wrote a drama about the Sri Lankan conflict revealing the suffering on both sides. The Sinhalese students took on the Tamil roles and vice-versa. This was performed in front of the whole AUW community and there was not a single dry eye in the audience after that. Many of the other AUW students were not strangers to war and conflict. The Bangladeshis had fought a war of independence in 1971. Many students came from strife-ridden areas of Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and Palestine.


The Sri Lankan students ended their presentation with a pledge to go back to their homeland and set up reconciliation groups. They managed to raise sufficient funds to do so during the vacation. In Sri Lanka, they met with intellectuals, activists and others in the community in a bid to try and understand each other’s pain and how to reconcile in tangible ways. They then lived, worked and learnt from the people from a Sinhala as well as a Tamil village who had been affected by the war. At the end of their project, one of the women paraphrased Margaret Mead by saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed young women can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


The Sri Lankan students’ project was named “Moving Beyond the Conflict”, a project which developed organically. It followed the experiences and emerging needs of students whose inner worlds were confounded by the brutality of war, but whose enormous courage propelled them to seek to go beyond their own pain, understand another’s pain and, together, find a way of creating meaning out of the chaos of war.


It was a testament to a system of education that went beyond the classroom to target both the intellectual and the psychosocial needs of students faced with the multiple dilemmas of responding to and one day becoming leaders skilled in navigating war and reconciliation.



The year 2020 will forever be remembered as the pandemic year. A virus reminded the world that we are all interconnected. Any meaningful university curriculum should be one where our students are constantly reminded of this. An all-women’s tertiary institution that focuses exclusively on educating women for leadership and empowering them for change will be important in Asia. A model for this was started in Bangladesh in 2008 as the AUW. Much of what I have written here remains aspirational but some aspects that I have shared from my personal experiences at AUW are reflective of what can be accomplished with the right vision, planning, policy, governance and financial support. Most important of all, the success of such an institution will require capable leaders, faculty, staff and students who share the same vision.

Academic programmes

At AUW, students gain both breadth and depth of knowledge in a relevant, interdisciplinary field of choice. Through an American-style liberal arts and sciences curriculum, they learn to think critically, communicate effectively and work intelligently to address the most pressing issues of the day with innovative and bold solutions. Source: AUW website


Khoo Hoon Eng is Associate Professor of Life Sciences at Yale-NUS College, National University of Singapore (NUS). Earlier in her career, she spent more than three decades teaching at the Faculties of Medicine in both the National University of Malaysia and NUS (now Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine). During a leave of absence from NUS, she served for three years as the Provost and Acting Vice-Chancellor of a new liberal arts institution, namely the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Assoc Prof Khoo received her BA in Biochemistry at Smith College, Ph.D. at St Mary’s Medical School, London and a Postgraduate Diploma in Medical Education at University of Dundee.

JUNE 2021 | ISSUE 8

At The Crossroads of East and West


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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