Dear Students: A Letter from Your Muslim American Teacher
All the things I should've told my students about being a Muslim and a woman and an American.
A Muslim woman walks in Queens on August 29, 2016, in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
You don't look Muslim. You hardly even look Arab. You pass for nearly everything and anything else. People ask if you're Italian or Spanish or Greek. Israeli. Sometimes Mexican, occasionally Argentine.
For four years, you taught a class in the Midwest, in a swing state. You loved and respected your students, and they loved and respected you—they worked hard for you and for one another, they valued your feedback, they hugged you before Thanksgiving and Christmas, they came to you after breakups and family deaths and roommate quarrels. On the third to last class each semester—far enough in so they couldn't drop, but still two classes away from course evaluations—you'd tell them that you're Muslim. Many of them were surprised. You don't look Muslim. What does a Muslim look like? you'd ask. They weren't exactly sure, they'd say, but not like you. They'd admit that when they first saw your name in the course directory, they weren't sure what to expect. They thought you'd have an indecipherable accent (they imply that they're happy you don't). They thought you'd be wearing a headscarf. You'd smile, you'd laugh a little. You wouldn't mention that while you may not look like a Muslim, you are one. You carry your Qur'an from city to city, for years you fasted during Ramadan, you love your religion, you're heartbroken over the way its been hijacked by extremists. You travel to predominately Muslim countries once or twice a year to see your family. You wouldn't mention these things. Instead you'd ask if they had ever met another Muslim. We had one in our town, an earnest, young, male student offered.
You think about that earnest, young, male student, in the days after the election. Could he both respect you and vote for him, for a man who called for measures that would blanketedly and blindly ban all Muslims from coming here, a man who's now considering forcing Muslims to register as such? Did your student choose him? Does your student know that the man's stance threatens that part of your identity, even though you are the good kind of Muslim, you are a friendly Muslim, you are different than the Muslims on TV? You wonder if you should've spent more time on your lecture against stereotypes.
You are a woman, and you look like one. You've watched men hire and promote less qualified men over you and your female friends, you've watched them maintain all male staffs. You've heard your boss say that he thought a former female co-worker was physically unattractive. He's spoken to you about his wife's reproductive issues, as though that information wasn't fiercely private to her. You think about how, interestingly, these men voted for her, claim to be #wither and against him, these men live in New York, where you now live, these men are so dissociated from their own biases, so ingrained and endemic is the misogyny. You wonder if that's the worst part of all this. You know that it isn't.
You think about your students again, you keep coming back to them. How could they simultaneously respect you, and choose him? You recall another young male student, one who laughed and pointed at the screen when you showed a news clip featuring a female commentator, called her a dyke. It was your first year teaching, you were still a rookie then, you yelled at him in front of the class. Don't use that word in here again, you said, and you watched him momentarily shrink. You wonder if you should've done it differently, if you should've taken him aside and asked him to explain why he thought the way he did instead of shutting him down, maybe you should've tried to understand, to teach him something different. Would that have helped us now?
You watch the candidate brag about sexual assault. You watch the first lady shake as she speaks about his words. "It hurts," she says, and yes, it does. You watch him laugh it off as locker room talk, you watch woman after woman come forward against him.
You hear him insult a Muslim family that lost a son in combat, a son they sacrificed to protect this country. You hear him promise to preserve "traditional family values," to overturn Supreme Court decisions. You panic. You watch him win the election, in spite of all this.
You feel more alone than ever. You feel defeated. You've been negated.
How could they simultaneously respect you, and choose him?
Again you think about those students. You think about the Iraq war vet, who said drones are not controversial; they may kill civilians, but they're the right kind of civilians. You were a more experienced teacher that time, you took him aside after class and asked him why he thought that, why he said that. You watched him color, and you came to understand that's what he'd been taught. But you have a different lesson for him. When he emails you one Friday night a few weeks later, asking you to come to the Saturday football game and watch him carry the flag across the field, you feel moved. You feel that he's including you, it's your flag too, you belong here, too. You wonder if that moment stuck with him as it stuck with you.
You think about a writing prompt you used to give in class. "I am both..." You were excited to teach about cultural duality, about overlapping identities. You designed a whole class around it, your syllabus was admirably diverse, and yet at the time you didn't know how high the stakes were. "I am both American and Muslim," you wrote to yourself, as you participated alongside them. "I am an American and a woman. I am Muslim and I am a woman and I am American. I am all of these things."
You realize now that the prompt should not have been internally driven, it should have been outwardly focused. It should not have been "I am," it should've been "you are." You should have had them look at one another, look at you, "Don't look away, don't disassociate," you should've said. "Look at me and say: You are Muslim and you are a woman and you are American."
Maybe you should've taken the prompt even further. Maybe you should've had them qualify what they saw, what they felt. "You are Muslim, and we love and respect you. You are a woman, and we love and respect you. You are Muslim and you are a woman and you are American, and we love and respect you."
You realize now you should've had them hold it all in their heads at once. You should've had them say it out loud. You realize it's not too late to say.
Zaina Arafat is a Brooklyn-based writer and is currently working on a book. Follow her on Twitter.