Thursday, October 14, 2010

Learning from the Hijab

I went back to teaching high school—after a two year hiatus—at the beginning of September. Returning has been difficult for many reasons, but one is the atmosphere I teach in. I work at tiny private school of 100 students where 20% of the school's population is international. Two-thirds of those students are Chinese while the other one-third are Saudi Arabian. It quickly became apparent that, though my schedule was English I and Performing Arts, I was to take charge of teaching the Saudi nationals English, which was minimal, at best. Just today, while working on their vocabulary, one student asked, "What does malice mean?" I said, "What does the definition say?" He read, "a desire to do harm to another person, to hurt them." I said, "What do you think that means?" He stared blankly at me. I tried again, "What words do you understand in that sentence?" His reply, "person."

Besides dealing with their non-existent English skills, I also have the challenge of dealing with young Saudi girls being out of Saudi Arabia, for what I am guessing, is the first time ever. All the young ladies wear the traditional hijab head wrap, and cover all their skin except for their faces and hands. I am amazed at how beautiful their headscarves are. Everyday they come into class with a different color: gray with metallic stripes, saffron, hot pink to match their hot pink shoes, pastel floral prints wrapped around their olive faces. Sometimes one or two of them will wear mascara and eyeliner, on special occasions one wears turquoise liner just on her bottom lid making her almond eyes shine. They are beautiful.

When school started it was the middle of Ramadan so many of them didn't start trickling in until 1, 2, 3 weeks in. One girl came in a week and a half into the term. She sat quietly, her eyes darting from one over-stimulating sight to another, and looked as if she would shatter into pieces if someone, anyone, looked her in the eyes. She was in my Performing Arts class and I tried to inform her, as gently as I could, that everyone in Performing Arts was required to perform (I probably should had thought this out, but I had never been in this position before). She instantly burst into tears. She took the piece of her scarf that ran along her hairline and pulled it down over her face. I tried to comfort her, pad her on the back (though I worried that kind of touch wasn't acceptable), tell her we would figure it out, but she only grabbed the end frays of her scarf, as if a blanket, and dragged it across her face. At one point I picked up her eye contact, if only for a second, to say, "it will be alright," but then I saw her, I saw me trying to speak to her, saw how impossible the situation was, and my heart sunk. I can't even imagine.

After 3 weeks of shuffling and settling, I finally had a set class mixed of Saudi nationals, Chinese nationals, and U.S. students. And once the shock wore off from all of us, something magnificent started to happen.

Last week I was reading the story "The Beginning of Something" by Sue Ellen Bridges where a fourteen-year-old girl has to deal with her first death and her first kiss at the same time. It’s a “rite of passage” story. As a discussion question I asked the students, "What are the traditions of your culture when someone dies?" And suddenly students were excited to share Saudi rituals, Chinese rituals, American rituals, and I thought, How cool is this? I shared with them the Mexican-Catholic tradition of a novena, where loved ones pray the rosary for nine days after the death to help the soul reach heaven. They like to hear about my culture too. They all wanted to share, all wanted to speak, to teach. That’s when I realized the unique strength of this class to be teachers as well as students together.

This week we read "Brothers are the Same,” by Beryl Markham where a Masai boy has to prove his manhood by killing a lion. For class discussion we brainstormed different kinds of rites of passage and came up with a list: earning a driver's license, first kiss, cooking for your family for the first time, getting a job. For homework that night they were to write a paragraph about a rite of passage they experienced in their own life. The girl who was about to shatter just two or three weeks before wrote a very beautiful paragraph that described her experience moving to the U.S. and how in Saudi Arabia a girl must wear a hijab when she becomes 14 (a sign of growth), but wearing it here, she is looked at as if she is from the moon. I think that says something about her, about her strength. A few weeks before she was ready to dissolve into her desk, and now she was beginning to express her experience.

With legislation in Spain and France focused on outlawing the hijab, I think of this young girl and my other students. I think about how beautiful they each are and how unique. I think about their strength and their ability to teach one another about the world, about themselves. I can’t help it. That day we talked about different funeral traditions I thought something I don't often think as a liberal-border-line feminist-Chicana, We are so lucky.

Two Parisian women protest France's Hijab ban by covering their faces and baring their legs.

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