Friday, July 17, 2009

A Simple Dream or Maybe Just Wishful Thinking

This past week I traveled across Bangladesh to seven remote villages in order to interview some of the incoming students of the Access Academy of the Asian University for Women in Chittagong. I got a chance to go and see some of these bright young women in their homes which was quite an experience and a very rare opportunity. During my trip I stopped by a few high schools just to get a feel of how they function in small villages.

In one of these high schools, many students gathered around us as soon as they realized a foreigner is visiting their school. At first I was very nervous and did not know what to really say or do. Then I saw a few teachers coming our way and I just stood still in the middle of the school yard and thought they are going to scold us or something. To my surprise, the teachers had come to simply greet me and to welcome me to their school. They showed me around, introduced some of the students to me and allowed me to explore some of the different classrooms.

The English teacher insisted to take me to the Islamic History class. The teachers took me to a classroom where an obviously highly religious teacher was at the blackboard, pointing to some things that he had scribbled on the board that were probably about Islam. As soon as the students saw us they all began to giggle and make noises. I really did not want to interrupt the class and kept asking the English teacher and others that I do not want to interrupt. But the Islamic History teacher came forward and welcomed me to his class. They told him that I am an Iranian-American researcher or something like that.All I could gather from the Bangla that they were speaking was “Irani”, “America” and “Musalman or something like that”…..He said, “Salam Wa Alaikom” to me and asked me to go to the podium and talk about my knowledge of the foundations of Islamic History and the importance of Islamic principles. I got very nervous and tense. I really just wanted to escape at that point. Looking at the teachers and the students, I felt there was no way out of this situation.

Eventually I nervously walked up to the podium and only said my name, thanked them for having let me to their school and having been very hospitable and wished them all best of luck. The students clapped and so did the teachers; although I believe that the Islamic History teacher and the English teacher were not all that content for I did not say anything about the foundations of Islam.I mean what did I really have to say?They already know more than I do!

Very soon after I stepped on the podium I observed something that it was very unique and commendable for me. Having grown up in Iran, I carry a big baggage of judgment and presumptions about things and people who look strictly Muslim or fond of Islamic principles. I have tried to change this about me. But, I believe, the fear, suspicion and the distrust that many of us lived with as children in Iran make it hard for us to free our minds of tensions of this nature. This means, I still feel vulnerable and nervous when I am put in settings that require me to “pretend” the level of my commitment to my own religion and my own god. Immediately, my defense mechanism begins to escalate and I begin to censor myself, my smiles, my thoughts and my words… I stop looking at those around me in the eye as I am afraid that the more religious Muslim men would get offended if I make eye contact with them or that the women would judge me for my liberal ways of socializing. These are all the souvenirs of the life that we lived in my country.

Despite my fear and presumptions, when I stepped on that podium of that humble school of a village in Bangladesh, I saw the snapshot of my dream for Iran in front of my eyes. I saw a snapshot of many girls and boys sitting on their benches and staring at me. Girls were sitting next to boys on one bench. Some girls had covered their hair and face, some others had covered only their hair and some did not have a veil.This, to me, is a dream for Iran. I am not saying that what I saw was perfect. No, poverty rules millions of people’s lives in Bangladesh and also I am sure there is still much work to be done in removing some of the very conservative taboos that exist in this country. However, despite all these imperfections, what I saw in front of my eyes was what I have always dreamed for Iran…the simple idea of having the permission to at least decide whether or not you want to cover your hair or not and to respectfully coexist with others even if they are different from you.Who has ordered us all to be the same, to wear the same things and to have identical beliefs?

The reason I did not have much to say on that podium was not because I was too nervous to talk or to express myself.I was too occupied observing the students as it seemed like a dream that had found a way to crawl into the reality. It was not what they were wearing that seemed like a dream to me. It was the idea that even if you dress differently you could still sit in a classroom with others to learn and to become friends with them.

Here is a photo that I took of what I faced as I was looking at the students on the podium.


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