Reflections on Teaching Mrs Dalloway in Iraqi Kurdistan: An Interview with Steven Barfield (Part 2)

6 December 2021

Alan Ali Saeed, Sulaimani University, and Steven Barfield, London South Bank University

In Part I of this interview, published in our October issue, Steven Barfield and Alan Ali Saeed discussed the students of Sulaimani University’s interactions with Mrs Dalloway and with modernism more broadly. In this second and final part of the interview, the pair discuss the wider contemporary resonances of identity in Mrs Dalloway with transcultural perspectives, and the pedagogical methods which inform this.

SAEED: You said that initially you did not understand your colleagues’ reservations about teaching Mrs Dalloway. Did you finally work them out?

BARFIELD: In fact, my colleagues’ mysterious reservations about Mrs Dalloway had nothing to do with modernist difficulty, as I had originally thought. They were about the anxiety that the text was not on the Baghdad Ministry of Higher Education’s approved list of modern novels to show British culture (which is how literature tends to be seen in an Iraqi English degree). There is a very strong legacy of authoritarianism and centralised bureaucracy in Iraqi education. Relations between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad are seldom easy. My colleagues rationalised my decision by the logic that I was British, and possibly knew the people in the Ministry in Baghdad.  However, I taught Mrs Dalloway quite selectively, looking at key passages and not the whole text. Though I expected the students to read the novels in its entirety. I also had some sixty hours to teach it over the course of twelve weeks. Compared to a two-hour seminar in a typical British university this was really luxurious. I could indulge myself and even experiment.

SAEED: It sounds a little like what you created with your excerpts from Mrs Dalloway was something like the concept of abridged graded readers in ELT (English Language Teaching). There is a new one from Penguin of Mrs Dalloway (late 2021). It must be a popular text for students learning English.

BARFIELD: I did not know that existed. Yes, I can see the point when looking at the publisher’s information. It is a ‘real book’ apparently but modified by experts. We often abridge classic books for children in the U.K. I just bought Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist for my eight-year-old nephew in an abridged form. I guess as a teacher I would like to make my own selection of excerpts. And I would still prefer students to read the whole of the original novel.  A bilingual edition of the novel, translated into Kurdish for Kurdish readers learning English would be very helpful. Hint!

SAEED: What I wonder did you find most difficult about teaching Mrs Dalloway?

BARFIELD: Well, as we discussed they found the language more difficult than I anticipated, so we were pushing the envelope a little there, but this was the final year of the degree. The main complexity in Woolf’s language is her use of features like multiple clauses, mixed conditionals and some rather complex passive forms and past modals. But to reiterate, we were selectively examining extracts. London was in fact a more interesting challenge. Clarissa Dalloway’s walk, through the streets and sights of London, is such a significant fulcrum for the novel. I always taught the novel in or near Regent Street as that was where the University of Westminster was located, and I frequently took students out to explore London to get them to see what it meant to Woolf. In London Studies they call this using ‘London as a Resource’. In I.K. however, I had to use video and pictures to try and give them a sense of London. Only one student had ever visited London as she had family there.

However, for the Kurds, London is not only an actual city but also a dream. Alan, as a Kurd brought up in the British Kurdish diaspora, you will understand this better than anyone. In the Kurdish imagination London stands for all kinds of possibilities of transformation and empowering positivity and is a place to which a Kurd imagines instinctively that they belong. Therefore, whatever you are trying to get students to understand about Clarissa Dalloway’s London in the early nineteen-twenties tends to disappear under this freight of students’ dreams and hopes. I don’t think there is a solution, as a trip to London that we take for granted in the U.K. (and I am a Londoner anyway) is an absolute impossibility for the majority of Kurds.

SAEED: How did you find your Kurdish students reacted to the feminist content in Mrs Dalloway? Were you surprised by how interested Kurdish students and staff are in gender issues?

BARFIELD: This was my second year of teaching in I.K, so I had realised by then that Kurdish students were enthusiastic about feminism and gender studies. Of course, British modernist women’s writing was the subject of your PhD.  I chose Mrs Dalloway in part, because it is an accessible modernist text by a woman, and it serves to introduce debates about gender and women’s rights in a historical context. Kurds feel a strong affinity with the west, so it is perhaps unsurprising that everyone seems interested in feminism, even the government. (See figure 4: A photograph of my students celebrating International Women’s Day on the UHD campus.) On International Women’s Day, which seems a much bigger and more popular event in I.K. than in Britain, the students kindly arranged to read parts of Mrs Dalloway out at the entrance to the arts building.

International women's day DSC_0018
Figure 1: Some of my students on International Women’s Day, 2015, at the University of Human Development Iraqi Kurdistan. They are wearing traditional Kurdish dress. Photographer: unknown, 8/3/2015.

BARFIELD: In addition, there is a solid, but largely unknown (in the west), Kurdish tradition of women who challenged gender stereotypes and female disempowerment.  Sabat M. Islambouli (1867– 1941), from Syria, was a Kurdish-Jewish woman who trained as a doctor at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, USA in 1890 and went on to practice medicine, (see figure 5). Hapsa Khan (1892-1953) was a noted Kurdish feminist who founded the first school for girls in Sulaimani in 1926, (see figure 6).[1] It is always important, pedagogically speaking, to recognise indigenous feminist tradition where it is present.

Figure 2: Sabat M. Islambouli (1867– 1941) is on the far right. The picture from 1885, at a Dean’s reception, shows her with fellow students (later graduates), from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. From left to right: Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi (1865 –1887) (India) and middle, Kei Okami (1859 – 1941) (Japan). All are wearing national costume. Photographer unknown.
Hapsa Khan
Hapsa Khan (1892-1953). Photographer: Lotte Errell. Taken 1934. Detail from original photograph.

BARFIELD: I am Indo-Caribbean on my mother’s side, so I am familiar with traditions of powerful female figures in what seem otherwise patriarchal cultures. Of course, there are and have been for many years female peshmerga (though it is fair to say that this tradition is now stronger in Syria and Turkey than in IK). These are not token fighters and the Syrian women peshmerga fought, bled, suffered, and died in the war with Daesh, just like their male counterparts. Unusually for the middle east, the Kurds accept this as a norm. I was very privileged to be introduced to some of these formidable women at a training camp in the mountains, although I did wonder what a pacifist like Woolf would have thought of this kind of equality.

However, we need to avoid rose-tinted glasses. We both know that the situation in rural Kurdistan is very different from an enlightened urban centre like Sulaimani, where the liberal and educated predominate. Alesa Lightbourne’s novel The Kurdish Bike (2016) makes that horrendously clear. While the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) are committed to try to stamp out misogynist practices like honour killing and FGM, it is an arduous battle against ingrained cultural practices and patriarchal hegemony in villages. I should add that it is common to hear prominent figures in the Islamic middle east (and elsewhere), asserting that feminism and an attention to women’s rights are just a form of western neo-colonialism, but I never came across this attitude in IK.

SAEED: That sounds like you were mediating, through your teaching, a form of interaction between the feminist concerns of Mrs Dalloway and the students’ own Kurdish context for understanding feminism?

BARFIELD: To be candid, I don’t really think I thought it out that well. You make it sound far more cogent than it was.  Thank you! Nevertheless, Mrs Dalloway has several virtues in the Kurdish context in terms of the way it explores gender and society. First, it is historicised and together with other material such as documentaries and extracts from Woolf’s essays, it allowed the class to discuss the fact that gender equality did not happen overnight in Britain. Second and most importantly, it allows students to explore the often invisible, culturally-based discrimination against women in society.  Mrs Dalloway’s gender is important because she has not had the opportunities that a man would have had, and she has largely followed social expectations. This is of direct relevance to I. K., where it is easy to become complacent about tolerance and human rights, because everyone tells the Kurds they are doing so much better than most of the neighbouring countries. I arranged some class visits by Kurdish feminist activists from two local NGOs to discuss the situation and issues with my students. My students had to write some creative non-fiction about how their gender affected their own life choices and opportunities or, for the male students, those of their sisters and mother. They also did a piece about what Mrs Dalloway might have done with her life, if she had been a man and not a woman. I think many male students were surprised to be told by their female peers that Kurdish women aspired to much greater equality with men than they had at present. Several of the men had contentedly thought things were pretty good for Kurdish women. SAEED: What did the students make of the lesbian aspect of the novel? Did they notice?

BARFIELD: I must confess that I was somewhat circumspect about drawing their attention to the implications of possible lesbian love and desire in the text between Clarissa and Sally. I was, after all, teaching at a university that was founded and funded by a deeply religious Muslim benefactor. However, the students introduced the topic themselves when we were discussing specific passages of Mrs Dalloway’s memories. (It is also an important aspect of The Hours, the 2002 film version of which we watched in class.) I did wonder if this was because the students knew I was British and therefore likely to be liberal. However, when I spoke to one of my Kurdish colleagues, he dismissed the suggestion and said homosexuality and the oppression of LGBTQ people in Iraqi Kurdistan was a very important issue. Since then, I have come across Kurdish students doing MA dissertations on texts like the Iraqi Canadian, Hasan Namir’s God in Pink (2016), which is set in Baghdad during the Gulf war, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991). I have seen PhD students at Kurdish universities on issues of sexuality. It is terrific to have your assumptions prove incorrect.

SAEED: People here often spoke about your teaching strategies. Many staff found them surprising, yet I gather the students were very enthusiastic. Could you say something about how you taught Mrs Dalloway?

BARFIELD: Well, I think we are all supposed to be ‘facilitating student learning nowadays’ and not teaching per se. (Laughing.) However, I know what you mean.

First, it is very kind of you to say the students were enthusiastic. ‘Surprising’: that is funny. I think they are referring to the fact I asked the students to go on a walk around Sulaimani and make notes about what they saw and heard and then to write it up. I also used excerpts from Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting’. I referred to this exercise as ‘fieldwork’ as I thought it would sound more academic to my colleagues. My pedagogic approach probably seemed new to most of them, but Kurdish students are very adaptable and keen to try novel things. Kurds are certainly enthusiastic. In my previous year of teaching at Cihan university, I had been surprised by my students’ polite request to dance in the classroom during the break! I really had no idea what to expect, but I can guarantee no British students have ever asked me that question. Teaching is always a kind of unexpected journey, isn’t it?

I was very keen for learning to be as student-centred and active as possible. First, the students were non-native speakers learning English, so any spoken or written language practice was beneficial. Second, modernism lends itself to active reading thus it makes sense to emphasise activities. Many of the activities were based around ‘close reading’ of passages, though done in small groups to help them see the connection between the language of the text and the text itself. I managed to convince the university authorities for the students’ final exam to have a pre-seen extract from Mrs Dalloway to analyse, instead of the normal essay.

SAEED: What did you yourself learn from teaching Mrs Dalloway in I.K.?

BARFIELD: Many things. I think I learnt mainly that Mrs Dalloway was a far more universal text, in terms of speaking across cultures, than I had originally thought it was. I had a renewed sense of why we should read Woolf’s novel. It may not always seem to be quite the same text across cultures, because of the nature of reception by differing reading communities, but I do not think that matters.

SAEED: Thank you so much for doing this interview, Steve. It has really made me think. We would all love you to come back for a visit when COVID is over.

BARFIELD: My pleasure, Alan. It was a real delight and a distinct privilege to teach in Sulaimani and I have so many good memories of my Kurdish students. I would love to return.


[1] Lawen Karim, ‘Women of Kurdistan Hepse Xanî Neqîb’, Medya Magazine, n.d.,n.p. <> [accessed  25/8/2021]

Figure 2: Melissa Callaghan, ‘Asian Graduates from WMCP: Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania’, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, (July 15, 2016), n.p. <> [accessed 25/8/2021]

Figure 3: Susan Meiseilas, Kurdistan in the Shadow of History (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 170.

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