Week in a Burkha

April 23, 2008 at 9:01 pm 4 comments

This is another long post, but I think it’s a pretty interesting story.

DR does a “semester novel project” each term with her accelerated classes. In the spring, the students choose and read three books, find a common theme (usually they choose books based on that theme) conduct research, and do some sort of combined written/presentation project. Many of these projects incorporate primary source research using surveys, experimentation, or tests. It is a fairly significant endeavor and makes up much of their second semester grade.

One of my students, a girl who recently moved to the US from Indonesia, is building her project around The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and one other book that currently escapes my mind. As part of her project she is researching the sociological effects related to the treatment of women in Middle Eastern countries; as part of that research she is chronicling her experiences this week, which she is spending in a burkha.

It is somewhat extraordinary to have a burkha-clad student in my white-bread American classroom. For one thing, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. When she indicated that she would like to do this, I was envisioning a garment along these lines:

black burqa

Instead, she arrived in something more like this:

blue burqa

It’s a beautiful color of blue with ornate stitching (if you click that photo you can see it) and it falls to her knees when she stands. Unlike the black burkhas, which seem to have openings for the eyes, her eyes are hidden behind a dyed-to-match fabric mesh. In indirect light her face vanishes entirely. This is apparently the Afghan variety of burkha, called a chadri; the bulkier black variety is more common in Yemen.

Although I hadn’t consciously decided to do so, I find myself mentally evaluating my experience of her week as well. The situation wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I was expecting, for one thing. My kids, being sophomores, were remarkably accepting of the situation; I’m not sure if word had gotten around beforehand, but they really took it in stride.

The first day of the experiment was project presentation day, and my student (let’s call her Lisa) had spoken to me before about her options. She had chosen to memorize and perform a monologue from the play, but didn’t feel that it would be very effectively shared from underneath a sheet of fabric. The problem was that she was planning to do this Right, and couldn’t remove her burkha with males in the room. I thought about it, and realized that it might be a powerful experience for the other people in the class if the room were temporarily segregated.

When it came her turn to present, I asked all of the boys to stand up. (There are only eight in that class.) I then asked them to follow me into the hall, offering no explanation; when we were there, I told them that they couldn’t be in the room with the women right now and that I needed them to take a seat along the walls and be quiet until I came back to them. As you can imagine, they were pretty curious as to what was going on. I shut the door, covered the window, and acknowledged Lisa.

Lisa stood and struggled with the folds of fabric. As she emerged I realized that something unusual had happened. Lisa is a pretty girl, but as her face was revealed she looked somehow different – prettier, rarer. Kind of like absence making the heart grow fonder, y’know? Only here, absence (of seeing her face, even for only half an hour) made the face grow sweeter. Maybe it was all in my head, but I was so stricken by the impact it had on me that I forgot to listen to the first part of her monologue.

The following day Lisa arrived, a faceless turquoise pillar, and took her usual seat in the front center of the classroom. As I teach I get a half-conscious sense of empty desks, which I use to piece together my attendance when there’s a lull (I know, not very good practice, but there’s so much to do!) About halfway through the period I had a second to begin thinking about who wasn’t there, and my numbers weren’t adding up. Suddenly I realized that I had mentally marked Lisa absent – and that I’d literally been looking right through her all hour. I made myself look right at her and literally felt my eyes slide off of her. For the second time in as many days I was completely flummoxed by my unexpected reflexive reactions to Lisa’s garments.

Today I asked Lisa if I could take her picture while she worked on her test, and discovered a third interesting aspect of the situation. On a normal day Lisa is a quiet girl, but over the course of the past three days I’d heard her voice exactly once – when she took off the burkha for the monologue. Now that I had to ask her a direct question, I found it difficult to phrase my question and even harder to make out her response. I’m a very visual learner, and (if this makes sense) a visual listener; I find it hard to follow conversations when I can’t see the speaker’s face. Speaking to a mesh of blue fabric was exceptionally uncomfortable.

After I passed out the test, I asked myself what was making me uncomfortable other than simply not seeing Lisa’s face. That’s when I realized that something else was going on in my brain. Maybe it was the religious feeling of the garment, or just the girl’s courage, but I was treating Lisa with an entirely new level of respect and deference.

The sociological impact of a burkha is not, apparently, limited to its native lands. It’s a hardwired response – the cause and effect are not where I thought they were. I couldn’t resist my reaction to Lisa if I’d tried.

It’s gotten me to thinking. The burkha protects the modesty of women in a culture that (traditionally) views women as valuable commodities, a fiercely patriarchal society. And if you believe your woman to be precious, and if you believe your woman to be your property and only yours, then you put her in a burkha so that you are the only man who can ever see her. It’s like Smeagol and his ring – hide the treasure away, and when you do see it, it seems so much more beautiful than it would if it were “common.” In a society where women are inferior in status to men, you put women in a burkha so that they become invisible, so that the eye slides off of them and onto men. You hide their faces so that eye contact is impossible. And as anyone who has ever pulled the covers over their head knows, when you’re under there you are in a different place. You become quiet, inward-looking. You listen to things going on around you, but you don’t interact. So in a culture like this, you put the women away in their separate fabric “room,” and they slowly, inevitably withdraw. They are not a part of the man’s world. They observe, but they do not partake.

I’m fascinated to hear what Lisa shares when she presents her findings. I know that she has already been challenged by a principal (he wanted to know “is there some alternative way that she could have this experience? it is challenging for other students when one student wears non-policy-following clothing”; I would like to know if he has any suggestions for alternatives, and whether he has studied educational law in the last twenty years). I know that a student called her a terrorist on Tuesday. I wonder how her other teachers are reacting – whether they are talking to her, whether they are finding that she has become invisible in their classes as well, whether it affects them like it does me.

In the meantime, I have two photos to share: the Midsummer Night’s Dream test, in action.

lisa1 lisa2


Entry filed under: MISCELLANEOUS, TALES FROM SCHOOL. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

Slaying Dragons I am never assigning essays again.

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. eyeingtenure  |  April 24, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    I just submitted a blog about this post to our school newspaper’s Web site. (I still do some writing for ’em.)

    For me, this is the passage that jumped out:

    That’s when I realized that something else was going on in my brain. Maybe it was the religious feeling of the garment, or just the girl’s courage, but I was treating Lisa with an entirely new level of respect and deference.

    The sociological impact of a burkha is not, apparently, limited to its native lands. It’s a hardwired response – the cause and effect are not where I thought they were. I couldn’t resist my reaction to Lisa if I’d tried.

    Sure, it’s out of context. But what if this excerpt weren’t?

  • 2. Samantha  |  April 29, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Wow just wow~ I agree with the previous commenter…

  • 3. Samantha  |  April 29, 2008 at 12:43 am

    by the way it is me….from Xanga…

  • 4. Her Midwest Burqa « On the Tenure Track  |  June 5, 2008 at 9:45 am

    […] Ms. Bees’ anecdote was so interesting. To fulfill a broad prompt for an English class, one of Ms. Bees’ students […]


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The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

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