Blogging against racism a full week late. Forgive me.
Earlier this week my mentor teacher (MT) parodied the hippies of the 60s, which was easy because she was one, and stood in the hallways with her “Make Love, Not War” placard, two fingers held up in a peace sign, clad in Indian-print shirt and bandana. She resumed her position at the head of the classroom this week, teaching Transcendentalist literature to our college-bound 11th graders. In order to put the transcendentalists into some sort of frame that these kids understand, we have been drawing connections between those in the 1860s and those in the 1960s, painting them as ideological brethren. “My parting words to you,” I started last Friday as I wrapped up my tenure with their class. “It’s all John Lennon, baby, living for today.”
The students are only interested in the hippies’ drugs. Nonetheless, we tried to impart the importance of political action and public works that were so prevalent to these thinkers and assigned a fun experiment that MT modeled above: Commit a public act of nonconformity, step outside of your comfort zone, record your observations, share with the class on Monday.
Their projects have been interesting. Three girls walked out of class unannounced (and were so scared they ran right back into their seats after doing a lap around the cafeteria), and two girls came to school clad in a grab bag of political slogans ranging from the pro-Christian to the anti-war. Another girl, an uber-preppy straight-A student, came to school dressed in knee high leather boots, a short skirt, and white bandana, strutting the halls like a biker babe with the bad attitude to match and skipped classes all day to hang out with the most awesome student teacher ever.
The most radical experiement of them all took my breath away. Yesterday, a Muslim student, only one of two in the school, took off her hijab.
This student, who we will call “Muizza” for this post, transferred here from an urban private school this fall. She and her sister are the two very obvious Muslims enrolled in this high school, and although the other students have negatively referred to her as an immigrant, among other misguided epithets, she and her parents were born in the United States. A fantastic but quiet student, she’s had difficulty making friends. There is no doubt in my mind that racism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim sentiments are part of the reason she has felt so isolated. Only this week, her sister got in a fight in the cafeteria because another girl called her a raghead, a comment that was cheered on by far too many students to assuage my discomfort. Muizza was infuriated about the fight, disappointed that she wasn’t there to help her sister, and visibly depressed about being unable to defend herself in a way that had meaning.
She came to the classroom shortly before the first bell rang yesterday and we didn’t recognize her. “Can I help you?” MT asked. “OH MY GOD!”
I swiveled around in my chair and my jaw hit the floor. Muizza stood in the doorway, in the middle of asking a question about the day’s assignment, and we charged her. Her hair hung all the way down her back, a deep cocoa brown with blond highlights and a swoop of bangs, the kind of hair girls her age would kill for.
It never occurred to me how sensual hair can be, and in my sudden mania I fired a line of questions at her: “Your parents! What did they say? Has anyone said anything to you yet? What have your other teachers said? How do you feel? Are you scared?”
She felt weird, she said. Exposed and yet empowered. No one in the school recognized her. Her mother thought it was a cool idea, but her father was a little upset. I could see why. Muizza is in general a pretty girl, but her hair was so glamorous and luxurious she surpassed beautiful and hit the mark on rock star and don’t you forget it. Her demeanor had something else to it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was so astounded at her courage that I couldn’t think straight.
The teacher and I spent most of the day turning to one another, astounded. “Muizza. Wow.”
You have to understand that this school is profoundly racist. In a class where I have half Basic students and half ELL students, the ELL students do not have names, and are referred to as “The Mexicans.” I have issued detentions for flippant use of the word “nigger” in daily class discussions. Twice. The small-mindedness of the Git ‘er Done philosophy is holy among most of the student population, who aren’t intellectually up to the abstraction of its irony. You can count the staff and students of color, in a school of 2000+, on two hands. Despite challenging the worst students on their racist assumptions, I have hit a brick wall. They have no experience to disprove their preconceived notions about interracial interactions — they have no experience whatsoever.
Her motivation for taking off the headscarf was obvious seventh hour. She marched into the room with a smirk on her face and the other students, for the first time, crowded around her. “I can’t believe you got into a fight with that girl.” “Your hair! It’s so pretty!” “Why do you wear the scarf?” “I didn’t know you had highlights!” “Is it your choice?” “Do your parents make you wear it?” “It’s so cool you stood up to that girl.”
Fight? What? The bell rang and the teacher started class, calling attention to the various things others had done to complete the assigned experiment. She saved Muizza for last.
“I got into a fight at lunch,” Muizza said, “because some girl called my sister a ‘raghead’ yesterday.” Apparently Muizza took it upon herself to confront the girl who beat up her sister, actually exchanged blows despite her unwillingness to fistfight, and despite the zero-tolerance policy on fighting, the administration didn’t punish Muizza for standing up for herself, for her sister, or for her religion. I won’t deny that I shed a tear, or that my eyes well up to think what courage that must have taken considering the unbelievable amount of xenophobia I’ve seen exhibited by other students and teachers in the school.
She answered the other students’ questions patiently. Most of all, she emphasized one thing: Yes, she would don the hijab on Monday. Underlining this statement was that demeanor I couldn’t place before. I could look just like you, she seemed to say, but I don’t want to.
I can’t even comprehend the courage it must have taken to take off that scarf, or the courage it will take to put it back on. I am still completely blown away.
Although I am aware that many feminists question hijab and women’s choice to don the Muslim head scarf, and that I myself have been skeptical of the choice to adhere to religious law associated with the Taliban, consider that in America being “hijabed” may be a radical act, an assertion of identity, willful acceptance of life on the margins in a time of a seeming holy war. Consider wearing the hijab as a feminist act*, a performance of aggression against the hypersexualization of young women in America.
To some, she is making a radical statement about her violent political ideas.
To others, she is the symbol of absolute subjugation and is in dire need of rescue.
For them, having such women as part of the North American landscape is frightening.
She is “the veiled woman,” belonging in a foreign place, an actor on an exotic stage.
We are seen as poisoning this “free and democratic” culture with our “weak and submissive ways.”
… A woman who covers herself out of the love of Allah is not just stating something about what she accepts but she is also saying something about what she rejects.
Any woman who refuses to play the gender games that are so basic to all societies is going to be pushed out.
… I found the hostility difficult to understand. Just because my head was covered, people were unable to relate to me.
I got a valuable lesson from her today. Nothing, nothing, is ever as clear as it might seem. These cultural tangles prevail.
Two recommended posts from other stragglers here and here.