Wednesday, 21 October 2009


Acceptable attire for male teachers.

Imagine a culture in which it is the custom for male teachers to strip to their underpants and socks before entering a classroom. Nobody born into this society bats an eyelid at a near-naked man solemnly announcing the lesson aims, because they have been accustomed to the sight since infant school. Imagine that you are a teacher visiting this country on an exchange. How readily will you fall in with the local custom? Will you stay dressed and endure the impatience of your underpanted colleagues, and your students who wonder why you want to stand out and what you might have to hide, or will you just shuck down and get on with the lesson?

I’ve been thinking about this since the start of the present course three weeks ago. I have a number of veiled Saudi ladies in my group. I cannot see their facial expressions and so cannot easily tell if they are happy or sad, confused or confident, smiling or fuming. One wears jam-jar thick glasses, and communicating with her is rather like talking to a neighbour peering through the letter-box. They have to endure the muggy classroom, heavy colds and hard work in a foreign language whilst draped in yards of ugly steel-grey or mud-brown cloth. The Saudi men of course have no such discomfort or disfigurement to endure. They wear smart casual, they take off their jackets and shoes if it gets hot, laugh and joke, and generally enjoy a sense of smug masculine entitlement.

Yesterday for a little bit of a lark we played noughts and crosses for vocabulary revision. The teacher draws a noughts and crosses grid on the board with a number in each square. The class is divided into two teams, Os, and Xs. The first team to play chooses a square, and is given a definition for which they must provide the right word to get their O or X in the square. This goes on until one team gets a line, or until deadlock. Inevitably the teams were men against women, and unfortunately the men won and congratulated themselves most heartily on a victory they saw as a foregone conclusion. This was just a trivial little divertissement in a long lesson, but their expectation of the inevitable superiority of male performance keeps on cropping up as the year progresses, in presentations, essay writing, study skills, the whole shoot.

It is exasperating to teach a class that will not integrate. Despite repeated attempts on our part to encourage mixing and elicit more contributions from the women, nothing will induce them to work with the men, so it is rather like having two classes in the one room. The women’s reaction to our attempts to get them to interact with males - they simply freeze - is what got me onto the fantasy of a culture where blokes teach in their jockey shorts. I know I’d resist the practice to the hilt, for it would go against every idea I hold of appropriate behaviour for the cirumstances. This is why I have stopped trying to integrate the two halves of the room, imagining that the women feel in my class much as I would in the scenario with the underwear. I just hope that with time they may begin to meld naturally. Such a change is not unprecedented. I had a Saudi lady last year who refused to play the modest maid with eyes downcast, and she shot down every opinion she disagreed with and called out every bloke who patronised the women. With time the men grew to respect her. I’m not holding my breath, however, as Abra was a one-off.

Here are a few quotes from a muslim website as a taste of the ideas that have formed these students:

  •  Beware of mingling with women.
  •  Women should not speak with men, except with a mahram (relative)
  •  A woman is an object of concealment, thus when she emerges, Satan surreptitiously pursues her.
  •  Every eye is a fornicator.
  •  Allah curses the one who looks (at females) and the one to whom the look was directed.
  •  No man is alone with a woman but the Shaytaan will be the third one present.

There. Lust is everywhere, ready to destroy you the second you give it way. 


Like so many religious prohibitions, these beliefs are like bars, bolts and padlocks securing an empty room. Just let them go, and nothing will happen. Religious rules remind me of a cartoon strip reproduced in Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought. A little space alien visiting earth is walking along a street when he comes to a STOP sign. So he stops. For several frames we see him standing obediently at the sign, as the sky gets darker and night falls. Eventually the little alien’s earthling friend finds him:

‘Oh, there you are… Come on, let’s go!’

‘What do you take me for?’ says the alien. ‘Some sort of rebel?’


A propos of very little, nutcase article here.


Fionnchú said...

Wish I could vote funny and not interesting, but that's not quite true here. I'm saddened by this. I recall that the nuns in my grade school shucked off their habits (derived from the dress of 3rd c. Egyptian ladies) for supposed late 60's liberation. What happened was few women bother now to join the sisterhood, once it ceased to strive against the sartorial and thus symbolic status quo. Now, as as unexpected turn later in the century and now, hundreds of millions of women yearn for what they justify (as well as their menfolk) as protection from the male gaze, defended by many Western feminists as justifiable. Educated white European women are among the most prevalent class of converts to hardcore Islam.

We're facing a difficult situation as tolerant Westerners. Just as once Catholic nuns and priests were derided for their skirts and cowls, wimples and cinctures, so now we have another contigent in our midst, defying the norm for their interpretation of God's will. We who peer at them cannot grasp in either case their devotion.

That letterbox analogy's spot on. There's a divide that's erected and perpetuated that democracy and secularism will succumb to, ignore, explain away, or, as with Catholic tradition, put up with until of its own accord it fades away. Yet, there's no Vatican II brewing in the ummah. Who speaks out in Islam against such suppression of half of their people by the other half? At least, who can do so safely?

vilges suola said...

Some of the muslim women have requested single sex classes, because they feel that they cannot learn in the presence of men who constantly intimidate and patronise them. The men are often quite unaware that they do this. The university has so far refused to go that route, although some institutions in the same city have. I suppose we keep on hoping that the Saudis will adapt - some hope.

Yes, very few critical voices in Islam, and such critics as we have are all living in the west. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan and Irshad Manji risk their lives by voicing criticism, and the venom they get back from Muslims, male and female, demonstrates the point that the three of them make, that Muslims will not, dare not, acknowledge that they treat women abominably.

Mediterranean kiwi said...

i cant believe these people have asked for singel sex classes in a foreign country where they have chosen to study - this is not their country!

have you ever had a case (i've had two so far) of women coming in without a veil, and halfway thru the course hey come in with a veil? of course, i didnt realise who they were at first, but when i did, i really thought they were nuts! (neither one of them passed onto the second year of the course)

vilges suola said...

The Saudis expect everything to revolve around their religious obligations, or at least they pretend that their obligations are more pressing than they really are where they involve goofing off. They have successfully lobbied to have the timetable changed to accommodate Friday prayers. They even wanted an entire 5 week course to be rescheduled because it coincided with ramadan, but were told politely that they could stuff that one.

I haven't seen women adopt the veil in the middle of a course, at least not yet. Nor has the opposite happened. What really amazes me is the sheer number of layers these women wear, even in 30 degree heat: jumpers, winter coats, veils, abayahs, thick socks and trainers. The men wear T-shirts, summer trousers and sandals, so it isn't a question of finding England cold.

Fionnchú said...

I sent my wife the "Nutcase" piece and she thought it was in jest. I suggested it as a gift message for our son who turned 17 yesterday. I had to tell his mother it was indeed to be taken Very Seriously. Why did Allah plant such tempting nerves in our frail foolish flesh?

Reminds me of fundamentalists who claimed to my son at school that God planted dinosaur bones in the earth solely to mislead potential sinners who'd doubt His 6-Day, 7k BC creation

vilges suola said...

The dire masturbation warning is in earnest, God help us, and not the only such piece to be found on the net. It could have been written in the 19th century as part of the instruction manual for some hideous spiky device to prevent self-pleasuring in boys, but it dates from about 2003. I like the bit about the penis drawing bloood from the brain, and thus causing amnesia. (Ven der Putz shtayt..!!!)

So it was God that planted the dinosaur bones, huh? I'd heard they were created by Satan to throw us off the scent. I was in error, and repent.

Uncutplus said...

What if, and this is a BIG if, one of your classes included comments on discrimination. Then for a writing assignment, the Saudi students would answer the question, "Does Allah discriminate?" For the assignment, you should tell the male students to write from the female perspective of being required to coverup and vice-versa for the female students. Explain to them that their papers will remain confidential and not shared with any of the other students, and will be graded on the thoughtful insight they give to rationalizing any discrimination.

Afterall, Universities' purposes are to make students think for themselves and learn to ask questions that they have suppressed for whatever reason.

Didn't one of the European countries (? France) refuse to allow Muslim women to wear Birkas for security reasons?

Vilges Suola said...

Very big if! The students are duty bound to defend Islam, so even if I did try such an experiment I'd still get essays defending the burka and the role of men, plus a barrage of complaints that I am trying to undermine the One True Religion by requiring them to question it.

The burka will be banned in France early next year if the law is passed.


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