Peace in Aloneness: Muslim Women in the Ivory Tower

Peace in Aloneness: Muslim Women in the Ivory Tower December 8, 2014

For the last month, I have been looking into the literature on discrimination in academia, reading books with titles such as Making Our Voices Heard: Women of Color in Academia and Overcoming Adversity in Academia: Stories from Generation X Faculty. At the same time, I have been attending a course intended to teach academic teachers how to teach in higher education.

The experience has left me thinking over my situation, as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the ivory tower. For a long time I have thought of myself as a student and as a researcher. But something of a transition is required, now that I am thinking of myself as an “academic teacher.” Amidst a group of other academics in various fields — from doctors to physicists and geographers — I found myself really thinking about what led me here, and whether this was where I really wanted to be. I was beset by the doubts that I suppose most new teachers face. Could I really make it as a teacher when the stereotype of the socially awkward academic would be all too true in my case?

As a hijab-wearing Muslim, I found myself thinking about what preconceptions I would be facing, how students would react, and whether what I wear could be seen as affecting academic neutrality, always a central theme. 

I was the only hijab-wearing woman in the group attending this course. When I have told people in the past that I am a PhD candidate, they tend to jump in with two predictable choices. Something to do with medicine, they say. Dentistry? Pharmacy? Or it’s Middle East Studies. Translation? Arabic? Urdu? Persian? One of those “Islamic” languages?

Well, it’s a language. But not one of those that involves “deciphering crabbed oriental scrolls” like St. John in Jane Eyre. There’s a clue there. Because I am a hijab-wearing woman who has been studying English literature at university level for a decade, more or less — although I am predictable in that I choose to study novels about and from the Middle East.

I love literature. Spending some time talking to people who are fascinated by string theory or mathematical equations or working in labs with tea bags and batteries has only deepened my conviction that this is what I want to do with my life. Do what you love, as they say, and that for me there is nothing better than reading and writing and storytelling. Most of the time I feel like I’m being dishonest, because I like what I do way too much for it to be real work. Heaven for me really would be an endless supply of novels and a sofa. It’s something of a dream that I could potentially make a career out of reading stories.

But (of course there was a but coming) most of the decade I have spent studying and researching English literature has been very lonely, being a hijabi Muslim woman in a field where, let’s be honest, there are not that many hijabi Muslim women.That’s a common theme in the books I examined. The loneliness of women of colour in academia, and the loneliness of women in general in some academic fields. I’ve been looking for resources that deal specifically with Muslim women in academia. I have found some books on undergraduate Muslim women such as Shabana Mir’s Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity (2014), but I haven’t found much on teaching in higher education so far (please share if you have suggestions/recommendations!)

One book that has been making waves, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, was reviewed earlier this year in the feministwire by Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde:

“Women of color in academia are at a crucial crossroad. Within the inherently biased and unwelcoming academic culture, compounded by massive budgetary cuts and trends towards corporatization in universities nationwide, underrepresented groups increasingly find themselves targets of bullying, harassment, and dismissal. Sadly, the vast majority continue to endure the violent onslaught feelinghelpless and isolated – unable and sometimes unwilling to seek assistance or simply unaware of how to begin to advocate for themselves.”

Valverde writes that the book “critically examine(s) how the inherent contradictions that exist in academia – blindly perceived as bastions of fairness, truth, free-expression, and meritocracy, are anything but for women of color.

While my own experience has been overwhelmingly positive, with a great deal of encouragement from people who really didn’t have to take the time to give me that support, as I read more of the experiences of women of colour in academia, I feel that I can relate to much of what is being said.

I have just finished reading another book on academic teaching, where I came across a word that made me laugh. That word was “Meta-aware.” I hate the over-use of the word meta, and in this case, the author should very much have stuck with the word that followed in brackets and quotation marks (“self-aware”). But there is something to the message for me now, finding my way as an academic, a woman of color, a woman of (visible) faith, of the capacity for introspection, having a clear-eyed perception of your strengths and weaknesses, motivations and emotions. I cannot do anything about the actions of other people, but I can work on my own self through, as Epictetus says, “Self-scrutiny applied with kindness.” Or, as Ra’biya Al Adwaiya puts it, “my peace is in my aloneness.”

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