By Zainab Khan
When I decided to move back home from college, the thing I feared the most was that I would not fit in with the local Muslim community. The first Muslim community I knew intimately and loved deeply was not the one I grew up with, so returning home was like coming to a new community altogether.
On my first day as a Sunday school teacher at our local mosque, I met a young volunteer (a senior in high school), Nora, who would be assisting the head teacher in kindergarten. Nora noticed that her name was not on the list of teaching assistants outside of the kindergarten classroom, so another teacher suggested she remove the list so that we could print a new one with her name included.
As we were preparing the new TAs list, a parent-volunteer walked into my classroom.
“Which one of you removed the sign from outside the kindergarten classroom?” he asked in an angry and accusatory tone of voice.
Nora replied, “Oh, I did.”
“What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that? Don’t do things you aren’t supposed to.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” she replied timidly. The parent-volunteer walked away angry, but with a satisfied smirk on his face.
I was shocked, the poor girl – remember, she’s only 17 – didn’t even try to explain why she had taken the sign down. I remember thinking, “Wow, if I stopped by the masjid on an off chance in high school and someone treated me like that, I probably never would have come back.”
It Gets Worse
A few weeks later, the same parent-volunteer approached me and asked me to make use of a set of DVDs in class he had recently purchased as he didn’t want to see them go to waste. I asked one of my TAs, Fatima (a 14-year-old high school freshman), to grab a DVD about zakat (charity), since zakat was the theme of that Sunday’s class.
A few minutes after Fatima returned with the DVD, the same parent-volunteer walked straight into my classroom and shouted, “Who was it that took the DVD?”
Fatima responded, “It was me.”
He shouted angrily, “You brought the DVD without bringing over the TV? Really? YOU HAVE TO THINK. How are you going to watch the DVD without a TV?”
At this point, I interrupted him so as to distract away the attention from Fatima. “I’m sorry Brother, but I asked her not to bring over the TV right now because it distracts the kids from my lesson plan, they’re only in pre-k.”
Shifting his body to address me, he shouted, “Let me finish.” And then back again at Fatima: “Next time you better think.” Just like the first incident, he stormed back to the office with the same satisfied smirk on his face.
This was the second time the parent-volunteer acted like this within two weeks, which led me to believe this was a pattern of behavior rather than a few isolated incidents.
The next week, I spoke to another teacher about the issue and asked her if the parent-volunteer was always like this. Unsurprisingly, it took her all of ten seconds to figure out the volunteer I was speaking of. “Oh my god, he’s the worst! But I swear he’s gotten so much better. We [another teacher and the one I was speaking to] had such a bad time with him last year. His daughter was in our class and he would come into our class and straight-up yell at as for minutes on end.”
“Have you guys complained to the administration?” I asked. “I mean, the girls he’s bullying are literally children.”
“We tried talking to the administration a few times and they were just like, ‘Just ignore him.’ Apparently he’s like some super-volunteer and helps out with tons of things, so they don’t really do anything about him.”
“Wow,” I replied.
In both cases, the young girls didn’t bother to fight back, even though they were being yelled at for complete non-issues (taking a sign down for ten minutes? Not bringing over a TV?). The punishment – the public shaming – was so far removed from the non-infractions. It boggles my mind that any person thinks he can treat another person like this.
I’ve been mulling over this series of events for a few weeks now, and what worries me more than this man’s behavior is the defeated response I saw from his victims. All I can think is, “What are we teaching our daughters?” And the best answer I can come up with is, “We are teaching our daughters defeat.”
How Do You Teach Defeat?
You teach defeat by purposely shaming a 14-year-old girl in front of another teaching assistant, two parents and an entire 21-student class. To my four-year-old students, Ms. Fatima is an authority figure. I watched as their mouths literally dropped open as the parent-volunteer was shouting at her.
You teach defeat when gender discrimination is being impressed upon our 4-year-old daughters and sons. I cannot be teaching my students about manners in Islam one moment if the next they see that ignorance rules the mosque.
You teach defeat by allowing someone who helps out a few hours a week to singlehandedly ruin the mosque experience for dozens of young women. You teach defeat when you repeatedly tell complainants to just “ignore it” and “deal with it.” Why are we so afraid to call people out on their behavior in the very place where our character should be at its strongest?
You know you have taught defeat when the ones who stand up for themselves are the ones who were raised outside of the mosque. Funnily enough, both Nora and Fatima graduated from the same Sunday school they are now TAs at. How can we expect anything other than defeat from young women, who grew up seeing unnecessarily brutal behavior in their mosques since childhood?
In situations like these, instead of appreciating and praying for the future and well-being of the youth who are coming to the mosque, we are teaching them that it is better that their voices are never heard, and that they never will be heard. How is that an acceptable lesson to learn at the mosque?
Zainab Khan is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University. Her interests include the South Asian and Middle Eastern diaspora networks, transnational youth movements, and more broadly, fashion and how it operates as a global discourse. You can follow her on Twitter @zaynman