A few years after meeting Greta, I began teaching courses at a second university called Great Northern University, or GNU. To be more redundant, the locals called it GNU U. It’s kind of like referring to Automated Teller Machines as ATM Machines. But GNU was urban and so were its students. It was a satellite campus in a city that was 85 percent black. Once the white flight in the city began during the late 1960s, it seemed like it took no time at all for the city to collapse into a heap of urban decay. This was before other urban areas began their descent and “urban decay” became a common phrase. What used to be a bustling hub of shopping and commerce became something similar to a war zone in less than 10 years. The blacks didn’t want the whites there and the whites didn’t want to be there. Clothing stores fled, dime stores fled, pharmacies fled, even grocery stores fled. It’s hard to collect property taxes to pay for city services when there is no one on the property. Needless to say, it was a very sad situation.
But this campus was an anomaly. Ironically, it’s student body was 85 percent white, with minorities (which included Hispanics, Asians and blacks) making up the other 15 percent. The medical courses and programs were top notch and, with the proximity to Chicago, there were more opportunities for work than one would have thought for these young, urban students. But stereotypes do exists and it certainly didn’t help that the unofficial motto of the school was “When our graduates succeed, it’s GNUs to us.”
Having taught for years at CHU, a few of the office workers at GNU asked me why on earth I would come to GNU because CHU was a much better university. So much for the pride aspect, I guess. It was ironic in a way because GNU and CHU were the bitterest of rivals. If your parents went to one of them, when it was your turn to enter college you did not dare attend the other one. It was either the alma mater or somewhere else, but never the rival campus.
While I was teaching more advanced students at CHU, here at GNU I had two classes of what were basically remedial courses. They weren’t called that. They are listed in a different category, under the “education” department, but these people weren’t training to become educators. The official euphemism was “pre-college level” courses.
You could call them chimpanzees, but once you get past all the euphemisms, they were remedial courses
The students were admitted to college but not a degree program. They had to pass these classes first. If this were a game of Monopoly, these classes would be “Go”.
Many of those taking these classes were non-traditional students, a term used to describe people who were over the age of 25 who had been out in the work world for a few years and needed to supplement their education to advance in their jobs or they were women who had been home raising children and were now ready to focus on their career.
There were plenty of traditional students, those fresh out of high school. They were in college because “that’s what you were expected to do” but they were not college material. They had no idea what they wanted to do for a career because they truly had no idea. They just knew they had to go to college. So GNU offered courses in study skills, reading skills, research skills, writing skills. The very basics, but very necessary skills to have in the collegiate world. While they may have gotten out of high school with a D-, they had to achieve a minimum of a C+ to advance into the degree program at GNU and take their pre-requisite classes.
So, basically, they’re too stupid to be in college? No, no, no, I was told, it’s not that at all. They’re just not ready to navigate the rigors and pursue a degree program. Some just had problems with the preadmission testing, due to nerves or whatever. Whatever, indeed.
Is the university now a farm team for prospective students? Or is it an easy way to make money—the students get government grants to take classes, the university will offer them classes to take their grant money. I have no idea what the truth is. I just know I resented it. I was privileged enough to go to a top university and couldn’t get enough grant money to cover it—why were these people allowed to waste grant money on remedial classes that I didn’t need with money I couldn’t have?
Overall, the students weren’t that bad academically. Many had test anxiety and didn’t do well on the entrance exams which serve as placement tests for university programs. Some (the younger ones) just didn’t take it seriously because they have never taken anything seriously and have always done well. With all of the standardized testing they have completed throughout their 12 years of public education, what’s another test? None of them mean anything, why would this one?
I have found that I prefer the more non-traditional students because the older they are, the harder they will work. They realize they made a mistake by not completing college right out of high school and feel like they are out of the student mindset. They will do anything you ask them to—just please don’t hurt them.
For most of my students, this was the first time they encountered and were in close proximity to people of a color not their own. This goes for white as well as black. This is the biggest and most important lesson they learned and it didn’t come from a book. College really opens your mind, no matter how tightly your parents and family may have closed it. People are people, no matter the color. My classes were about a third white, a third black, and a third of non-white/non-black students. It was during my first class that I encountered one of the “others”—headscarf and all.
Fanta was the first real encounter I had had with a student from the Middle East. There was that one guy whose family came from Egypt, I think he said he was born there, but it wasn’t obvious. He didn’t “look” Egyptian or “act” Egyptian—not that I really know what that entails. Let’s just say it didn’t affect his outer persona.
As a nation, we were just a few years post-9/11, the 2001 terrorist attacks. Any one from the Middle East still faced scrutiny and for females they weren’t hard to find due to their wardrobe. This area of the nation—the Middle West--can truly be called a melting pot: there are whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and every combination thereof. With all the Hispanics, Middle Easterners had the same skin color and, unless you were paying very close attention (none of us were because, well, we’re ignorant. There was white, black, and non-white), you really couldn’t tell the difference between Hispanics and Middle Easterners. But there were the attitudes that the young people had. Middle Easterners were more modest, polite and studious. Their eyes were larger, a deeper black than Hispanics, and their hair seemed more luxuriant. Subtle differences, but differences to be sure. The females didn’t wear dresses, although we Westerners assume they do (that’s the Indians and the saris, another topic altogether. And yes, I did have an Indian student, but we never stayed in touch). These Middle Eastern females usually wore vests and loose slacks, almost like pajama bottoms, as opposed to jeans. Those are called shalwar. They are very loose and baggy at the waste and top of the legs and are narrow at the ankle (note to American clothing manufacturers—we need more of this for plus size people!). Their shirts are called kameez. They are longer shirts, usually without collars, that go below the hips (again, plus-size clothiers—we need these!) but those tops do have slits in the side, usually beginning at the waist down to the hem, to facilitate freedom of movement. (Again—clothiers—it’s called “hip space!” Trust me on this!)
But with Fanta, she was dressed like a “typical” Middle Easterner. She was covered from head to toe in the brightly colored, almost garish, outfits with the matching (or contrasting, depending on her mood) headscarf. Her head, and very specifically, her hair, was covered in a hijab. She had a lovely face. She wore no makeup, nor did she need it. She had the big brown eyes and rich olive complexion, a deep shade of brown that wasn’t dark brown. Her skin tone was close to that of Anita—a luxurious shade of brown you would associate in a stereotypical way with someone from the Middle East. And she had the unmistakable sing-song accent that you would associate with those from India. She was actually from Pakistan. Close enough.
She was the most attentive and alert student I think I’ve ever had. She sat in the front row, directly in front of me. She watched every move, listened to every word. She truly was there to learn and to study. She didn’t really associate with her classmates. Part of it could have been the maturity level; more than likely it was a cultural issue.
Fanta seemed to favor orange. Her outfits looked very tropical, a stark contrast to the gray, November days that are familiar in the winter. The clothing material is so thin, I could never understand how she kept warm. Apparently, they wear layers. They’re just not visible to others.
The only annoying thing about Fanta was the constant readjusting of the hijab. Why not just pin the damn thing into your hair to keep it covered? She had been in class nearly eight weeks before I saw a glimpse of her hair and discovered it was black. And that glimpse was only because we were talking after class and were alone in the classroom. I’m sure if a male student was there this would not have happened.
Her clothing was baggy, as I described early, which I assumed was deliberately to protect modesty. Fanta did explain that was true. The hijab is designed to cover the head, the neck, and even the breasts. The clothing should be loose enough so that the shape of a woman’s body is not visible by others. Not all Muslims agree, but generally the face, hands, and feet are allowed to be uncovered. She always wore flat slippers, with the thong to separate the big toe, over a pair of thick and usually very colorful socks. While the hijab matched the shalwar and kameez, the socks clashed violently. But it was an interesting color combination.
Oh, to be young and confident again. Again? I never was!
I remember as a child when they came out with “Garanimals” for children—easy to match pieces of clothing so they never clashed. Just match the animals and your wardrobe was perfect! I had always wished they had Garanimals for adults. Some days I feel as if I need to use a disclaimer when I meet people and they look at my outfit. So in my best, child-like voice, I beam and say, “I dressed myself today!”
By early November, I assigned their final project for the semester, a research paper on a famous person. I gave them the freedom to choose any person they liked. My theory is that if you like the topic, you’ll do the work. Especially with a research paper—you’re doing a lot of work and spending several weeks with this puppy, so therefore you really want to like your topic. After giving them a few days to think of their subject, I went around the classroom and asked each student who they were writing about. This way, if they had no clue for a topic, their hand was forced. They couldn’t waste research time thinking of a topic—they needed to be doing actual research on their topic. While her classmates chose rock stars and movie stars, Fanta felt uncomfortable.
“I want to write about Prophet Muhammad,” she admitted sheepishly.
I glanced around the classroom. This was another thing they don’t teach you in college—what do you do when something like this happens? I gave a slight shrug. “Why not? He was a person, wasn’t he?”
Her eyes lit up, while her classmates eyes just widened. “Oh, yes, he was!”
“If you don’t mind writing it, I don’t mind reading it.”
I’m always interested in learning new things, I’m just too lazy to do the actual research. When grading research papers, it’s pretty easy to tell what has been plagiarized and what are their own thoughts. (The writing is so markedly improved, as is the vocabulary.) As much as I like learning new things, I like refreshing my memory on old things. I know a lot about a lot of things. Kind of a Jack-of-all-Trades-Master-of-None mentality. But, hey, it seems to work.
Fanta explained that Muslims believed in Moses and Jesus and the others. They believe that Jesus thought he was the son of God. They just think Muhammad is right.
Sounds reasonable to me.
Part of the assignment was that the last week of class they had to present their paper orally—read it or just summarize it, but I didn’t want all that work of research to go to waste. That’s been my motto ever since I began teaching. It gives students the opportunity, in a safe environment, to practice public speaking (as well as good listening skills, since I told them if they were disruptive or disrespectful toward the presenter, they would lose points on their assignment. Works like a charm.) Also, that last week of class I was pretty well shot and this was a way to get out of actual teaching.
All of the presentations were awkward—people are terrified of speaking in public to begin with. Some students chose to read their entire paper. Some did very well. When it was Fanta’s turn, the awkwardness was at its zenith. The subject alone had people nervous, especially Fanta. She knows what Americans’ attitudes are toward Muslims as well as toward Muhammad. And her speaking voice, while loud and clear, had the sing-song accent common in Indians and Pakistanis. I could understand her for the most part, but many of her classmates couldn’t process what she was saying. Maybe it was just as well.
But I found it fascinating.
And the only thing I can assume is that this non-judgmental attitude of mine toward Fanta made her comfortable enough to talk to me about her family. Fanta seemed to enjoy our after-class chats. I was fascinated because … how often do you get to talk to someone like this? And she worshipped me, being an educator, so it was a win-win for my ego.
Around family and the males in the family, Pakistani women were a little more relaxed. They didn’t wear the hijab and might wear more form-fitting clothing. But she preferred to retain her modesty and honor her parents by living by the Koran. That meant not dressing as a man, or as someone who doesn’t believe in God, not with torn or ripped clothing.
Fanta was very proud of her heritage and loved her parents deeply. She knew that part of her job as the only daughter was to be almost in a state of perpetual modesty—and that included her behavior, her manners, and speech as well as her dress. Whereas Muslim women were to keep their heads bowed, this is where Fanta rebelled—she sat in the front row, directly in front of me, head up, eyes wide open, ready to learn.
I wish I could bottle her for other students.
Fanta was promised in marriage before her family left Pakistan and emigrated to the United States. She really didn’t have a problem with that—she said it’s what was prescribed in the Koran. Her parents would choose an appropriate mate for her when the time comes and then she would devote herself to the raising of her children.
“So why are you in college?” I asked.
“My brother wants me to become a doctor, but … ehhh … I don’t want to,” she explained in that melodic, sing-song voice.
“So why do it?” I asked. As an American, I question authority, especially when it comes from a male.
Although she was promised in marriage, it wasn’t by her parents. It was done by an uncle, shortly after her birth. This was a custom in the Punjab province, but that was not where they were from. A marriage of a child was done to resolve feuds between different clans. The uncle was entrusted, through another uncle who was from Punjab, to resolve this feud. It went back decades, and when poor Fanta arrived on the scene he thought his problems were solved.
Fanta’s uncle, her father’s brother, had moved to the United States and became successful. He found a good-paying job and encouraged his brother and his family to join him. Arranging to pay the Deet, or money that would annul the contract, and wanting to protect their only daughter, they emigrated.
Fanta’s brother, who was college-aged as well, returned to Pakistan to attend school and to habit the family property. He met a girl, which bothered his family. Not that he met a girl, but her clan believed in Watta Satta—if you want to marry off your son, you had better have a daughter to marry off in return. Once again, Fanta was in the middle.
“Do you have to? I mean, you’re an adult now. You no longer even live there. Why would you have to marry an in-law?” I wondered.
“I don’t, because the marriage must be consensual. My parents are against this family because they are not wealthy and they want their daughter to marry my brother so all of them would be taken care of. They’ve already moved into our home there.”
“How can they do that?”
“In reality they can’t, but my brother won’t stand up to them. They are forcing the marriage. My parents begged him to wait at least until they could arrive in December to be present, but her family wants it to happen next week.”
This was mid-November. Thanksgiving break wasn’t for another two weeks. Not that they were Americans or would celebrate as Americans do … but Fanta said it’s a 24-hour flight there … and I assume another 24 back … yeah, logistically this may not work to fly to Pakistan over the four-day Thanksgiving break.
While Pakistan is not known for women’s rights or education, women do actually work. They are in the labor force. Now, does this mean they are working in offices as professionals? No, it doesn’t. The majority of female labor can be found in rural areas, connected to agricultural production, raising livestock, and such. Fanta’s family had high expectations for her and her two brothers.
As is the custom in Pakistan, when the time came for her parents to arrange Fanta’s marriage, they kept it close, as in bethrothing her to a cousin. About a third of all marriages are to blood relatives, with preferences to first cousins.
Ewwww, I thought, imagining my first cousins. I’d abstain first. Oh, wait, I already am.
Fanta was privileged enough to have spent her high school years in what I understood to be a religious almost university of sorts where they studied the Koran. That was one of her dreams—to continue that education in a formal religious school. Becoming educated in the faith was prescribed by Muhammad. Islam encourages equality between the sexes as well as equality in education. This is different from the Pakistani view of women. Islamic women are encouraged to attend lectures and study sessions at mosques or wherever they may be held. Many even continue their education and earn graduate degrees. This practice started long before Americans really started to see the value of a college education for anyone, even men. In the mid-20th century, college was a way out of the draft during Vietnam. You didn’t really need a higher education for most jobs at the time.
Shouldn’t every religion encourage study of the basic tenants to which they allegedly espouse? Shouldn’t every nation? This is probably why I laugh every time a study comes out that shows Americans are behind in some subject. The ’Muricans get all worked up about it, but in reality—we‘re into instant gratification. What do you mean I have to, like, actually memorize something and write it down by hand? Can’t I do it at home on my computer? Why do we need to learn math? I can’t use my calculator? That’s not fair! And can I turn it in tomorrow? I know it’s due today, but I didn’t finish it. And why haven’t you finished grading it? I gave it to you yesterday.
Fanta wanted to be a ulama.
“A llama?” I asked. A split second after saying that, her eyes blinked and I realized I said that out loud. “Do you mean like The Daily—I mean. Dalai Lama?”
Good one, Jane. Open mouth, insert foot. Did I just call the Dalai Lama “The Daily”? Damn that John Hughes, I thought, silently (at least I hope it was silent) cursing my CHU co-worker. He taught World History and the occasional Sociology class and loved reading international news stories. An avowed atheist, he especially loved stories about religious leaders like the pope and the Dalai Lama. He began referring to the Tibetan monk as “The Daily,” because at this particular time there were nearly daily stories about his travels. That nickname stuck in my mind … and had just waltzed out of my mouth.
No, Fanta explained. A ulama is part of the religious elite of scholars at the top of the sectarian hierarchy.
I nodded very slowly. I understood but I did not understand what I understood. My mind went back to Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye wanted to be one of the learned men reading seven hours every day. If he were a rich man …
Of course, my first thought is Are they hiring? What does one do with that … job? Is it a job?
It can be, she explained. Why does my mind go into slow motion whenever I talk to her? Maybe it’s to better understand her words through her accent? I feel like I go into a trance, with that sing-song voice, and the room is quiet …
The ulama are thoroughly versed in the Muslim sciences (whatever that means), but from them come the religious teachers of the Islamic community. There is no priesthood in Islam, but the theologians, canon lawyers, judges and others come through these ranks. Or maybe they’re trained by these ranks. But the point is they’re mostly men.
“So how can you … ? What do your parents think—“
She waved a hand as if shooing a fly. “Awwwn, it’s not always all men. My parents are so worried about my brother right now, this gives them comfort. Did I tell you what his bride’s family did …”
I listened, again, to her story (yes, she had told me what the family was doing—it was like my own personal soap opera here. “Stay tuned for another episode of ….”) But I didn’t understand. Maybe it was my narrow-mindedness brought about by a Midwestern upbringing, but weren’t women second-class citizens? Weren’t they treated and considered property? Weren’t they treated brutally without any rights?
“Sometimes,” Fanta admitted. “But Muhammad was for equality. Women are equal in the Koran.”
Have your fellow countrymen read that part? Really? Muhammad was for Women’s Lib?
Women’s Lib? Why yes, I did grow up in the 1970s, thank you for noticing.
Not all of the tribes treat women poorly, Fanta explained. In some cases, the women are even more emancipated that what we considered emancipated today by Western standards. Women do have and can have positions of power and authority. Her family belonged to such a tribe.
“But not my brother’s future in-laws …,” she started again.
When Islam began, women were treated poorly. Women had no rights. Everything the man had went to his sons after his death, not his wife. Muhammad instituted rights of property ownership, inheritance, education, and even divorce. This gave women certain basic safeguards. Muhammad made things better for women. “And this was back in the 7th century—when did the west give women such rights?” she asked, actually more demanded, in a proud sort of way. Muhammad wasn’t the monster people think he was.
Fanta was a darling young woman and I was honored that she was entrusting me with her sorrows. I found it fascinating—Muslims are as screwed up as everyone else! The father was apoplectic, the mother was having heart palpitations, the uncle was spending late nights on the telephone (due to the time difference) trying to talk sense into the bride’s family as well as his nephew.
They have the same problems with family, teenagers, in-laws—just like everyone in the west! I was learning a lot about the cultures (and some very specific differences between Indians and Pakistanis), but after a few heart-to-heart chats, it dawned on me.
I am giving advice to a person about marriage. Not her marriage, oh, no. Her brother’s marriage, who is on a different continent. A marriage based on expectations from a family that I don’t even know. A marriage based on customs I do not even know, proclaimed by a prophet considered holy by several million people in the world. WWJD? What would Jesus do? Turn the other cheek? Wait—wrong parable.
What am I doing? Why am I doing it? How did I get into this situation? Why does this keep happening?
Because you are in a position of trust, you moron! My Mind screams at me. But was My Mind doing this at the time I was talking with Fanta? Heck, no! Why? Because My Mouth was speaking. My Mouth and My Mind are not connected. Never have been.
But isn’t that dangerous? That they’re not connected or that I’m giving advice?
Maybe it is dangerous, but … why not? I don’t take my advice, why would I expect anyone else to?
Little did I know this was setting the theme for the next six months of my life.