I am an Educator. Education is violence

I am torn between being

*someone whose entire life, training, & career are about Education;
*and being someone who loathes with a passion the physical & mental control/violence that educational institutions inflict upon people.

Leonid Afremov, “After School”

Do I really have to explain?

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve gone through school or college. Chances are, also, that you’ve experienced epiphanies of knowledge in classrooms or while studying for class. (Chances are, you could experience some of those epiphanies – not all – while reading on your own, or discussing your reading in a good book club.)

Chances are, you’ve had to deal with a teacher or professor who hates their job, or their boss, or their life, and you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’ve experienced a number of educational settings. I’ve also taught in a number of institutions. My child has experienced a few schools in her life. I value schools and colleges. I also hate them for what they do to the most vulnerable of people.

I believe in the power of learning. I also believe that mass education in neoliberal capitalist societies can be intellectually and emotionally destructive. You might learn some facts about how to do equations, but you might also internalize a sense of inferiority because your teacher doesn’t want to waste time with you. Or you might learn to hate learning because your teacher wants to be a dot com millionaire rather than teach classes of struggling students.

And don’t even get me started on body control in schools. There are apparently quotas of bathroom passes per month in schools. There are kids being turned away from lunch because there’s no space in the cafeteria. There are kids ashamed of their homes and their parents, fearful of hallways, terrified of their peers. The climate of most schools is, truthfully, unpleasant.

So yes, I am torn.

I the middle of the night, I sit here, worrying about a child’s school experience. I’ve seen cases where a staff member tries to sweat a child out of her class into an ‘easy’ one.

So I am wishing I could just scoop the child up, and hide her under my wings, and teach her myself.

But, well – having gone through a horrible math education experience myself, I cannot.

So I sit here and wonder why we are slaves to educational institutions, and why they are like this.


My Friday mosque

It’s jum’ah. I chose this mosque today.

The floor of this mosque is soft like the Prophet’s first mosque. The sound of Eternal Being ripples through this mosque.

Every day I come here it is different. كُلَّ يَوْمٍ هُوَ فِي شَأْنٍ

Some days the majesty of fierce waves attacks. Or the surface shimmers like a wet dupatta. Some days it stretches toward the horizon, transparent, barely moving.

Today, grey water is One with misty white-grey sky.

The congregants mutter on the side, preening their feathers.Nothing to say about my clothes or how I am standing, sitting, or kneeling.

Prayer without words rises up through me at Friday prayers

Cleansing off the toxic energies

People will tell you to flee negative energies, but most of us are not always able to choose. There are some people whose negative and profoundly toxic influence we are unable to escape.

I’ve often heard people say “Everybody is basically good” and “We are all the same.” I don’t believe this is the case. I have met enough people who are so profoundly psychologically damaged that they are unable to be anything but harmful in their impact. There are plenty of people, also, in the world who are not nasty because they just need to get ahead, but because they are stuck in a cycle of nastiness, and they are addicted to a diet of spite.

You cannot change them.

The best you can do is limit your exposure to them. You can’t completely avoid them, but you should not let their stench become part of your mental energy.

The second thing to do about such people is to not internalize their nastiness. It’s them, not you.

Vindictive people have a nose for damage: if they sense that a spiteful comment, or a judgmental remark will reduce you to grief or to anger, they will repeat it. Again and again. This includes workplace colleagues, by the way. Don’t struggle to defend yourself. If you know you are in the clear, do not take the ball from them. Drop it like a hot potato. This is about their internal damage and their twisted nature. It is not you.

Third, find a way to wash them off you.

Whenever I have to deal with toxic people, I resort to my ablutions: a) nature b) family and c) good friends.

I sit by Lake Michigan and let the beauty, power, and purity of the water wash over me, cleansing my heart of the immediate impact of damaged souls.

I turn to my family and ground myself in the fact that ultimately they are my focus, and anyone else, especially in the workplace, intersects on a temporary basis with my path.

I connect with good friends whom I know to have clear hearts, finding comfort in the fact that I am nestled in a multitude of positive spiritual energies. The few that are negative, toxic, harmful, and destructive need not be dwelt upon.

Don’t stare into the abyss of these hearts. These people are like flies at a picnic: swat them away, and continue with the barbecue. Find your ablutions and cleanse them off yourself.

Reclaim your life. Push the rubbish into a corner and shut the door on it.

A celebration of the parents who let me go

It was rare for young Pakistani women of my generation to move away from home for work or for higher education. I remember my ex-brother-in-law expressing shock and disapproval when I moved from Lahore to Islamabad to teach at the Islamic University and live at a women’s hostel. The people of my family did not do such things. Young single women did not move to different cities. That was a disreputable act. And there was no need! We were financially very comfortable. Why was this happening? ‘She’ll be fine,’ my mother insisted.

My parents supported me and encouraged me in my work. My mother never went to college; my dad supported himself through med school. Both were conservative Pakistanis and fiercely determined to support my career and growth.

Then three years later, I left the country for a degree at Cambridge University.I already had a career but they wanted me to pursue my dream, do what I wanted. When my scholarship fell into uncertainty and my job was threatened- because of dirty politics at the IIU when I wouldn’t kowtow to the authorities – my dad said he would finance the whole thing. Until the money came through, he did. ‘But it’s so much money,’ I wailed. ‘We will support your shauq, your passion,’ my mother said. I hated doing this to them, but they were my rock.

As much as they wanted me to settle down and get married and be near them, they were the wind under my wings. Yet they missed me. They wept with their faces turned away from me every time at the airport. I still hate airports. My heart breaks a million times. I have wept for ages on plane rides.

I left them before I turned 30, and then I only visited when I could, sometimes for just 10 days a year, sometimes after two or three or four years. They didn’t get to see me become mature (?) in my 30s and 40s. We got only celebrations and visits and phone calls. They got snapshots of me, and they still treasured it all.

But it was interrupted and disrupted. It was like a TV show with terrible transmission. Why was I now like this when I used to be like that? What was happening? Who was I now? What was my day like in America? What was Indiana like? What was Washington, DC like? Why was Stillwater so hard? How did I manage the mornings, the evenings? How did I parent on a routine basis? They were shut out of my growth and my routine for half my life, and I regret that.

You know how they say, if you love something, let it go? My parents really did this.

This is to celebrate them, their magnificent love and their unending support. I love you, ammi and abbu. Everything I am, everything I’ve done, is because of you.

Coffee shop serenity now

It’s Convention of the Loud Talkers in my cafe.

The usual Loud Talker has moved in defeat to the end of the table. A New Contender is filling the space with enormous small talk. Previous Champ is mere background bass right now. An additional minor player is talking *over* the other two.

I commented on the situation to the forced upbeat friendliness of the barista.

His quick but deeply felt storm-below-the-surface YEAH told me volumes.

Spotlight: Indonesian Muslim women preachers and Qur’an reciters

Having been a niqabi Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami girl, who read Maudoodi’s Purdah, for a good few years of my youth, when I first met Indonesian Muslim women at the International Islamic University, my mind was blown. Was it really possible to be a Muslim woman like these? It was the beginning of me breaking the singular mold of Muslim womanhood as I’d learned of it.

This is not to generalize about Indonesian women, but really, all the young women at the IIU were professionally active, diligent, tidy, humble, put-together, graceful, all had trained singing voices, and all recited Qur’an beautifully. All were devout (the ones who chose to attend the university) yet none of them ranted. None of them were religiously irritable. Again, not to say they are all like that.

So I am excited to watch and share this wonderful film by Syarafina Vidyadhana about Mamah Dedeh, the Badass Preaching Mom of Indonesia.

Indonesian Muslim women have a special place in my heart because of this beautiful tradition of female religious leadership as well as for the long-standing tradition of women Qur’an reciters like Maria Ulfah (Juz ‘amma is here) covered by scholars like Anna Gade and Anne Rasmussen.

So when we teach and learn about gender and Islam, I hope we break the mold and get out of the box and look toward Southeast Asia sometimes.


This is mine. Today.

I am the #1 Best Most Excellent Mother. I am an A-1 teacher and employee.

I clean up other people’s messes and take care of business. I don’t just take care of my own job. I fix the rubbish job that other people do.

I am there when needed. Whatever the state I’m in, whatever my health or energy, or other stuff on my plate, I get the job done.

I am the pinch hitter. When others screw up, I fight and scramble and fix the job. IEPs, here I come. Constant engagement and interface with the teaching staff and the medical industry. Product research. Services. Event organizing and public speaking, I’m here.

I research stuff that needs to be done for hours, I save everyone money and time. I kick ass. Allah akbar. I am the superhero fighting mediocrity, inefficiency, ignorance, and laziness. Over and over.

I get the job done, – and THEN I have to fight to push it through because there are forces in the world that do not like to see jobs completed.

I am many, not one. No wonder I am sometimes tired. I know there are many of you who are just like me.

Give yourself a trophy. Not this one. This is mine.

Professors: for your course readings

Buy the book in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, or audiobook 

Getting ready for a podcast interview about this book this morning.

Muslim American Women on Campus – the only book on Muslim American college students, an award-winning ethnographic research study, a twice-award winning book – is widely used in graduate and undergraduate courses. 

It is described as readable, accessible, fun, incisive, informative, and it generates great student discussions. I wrote the dissertation for the usual purposes that we write dissertations. But I wrote this book to make it useful and fun for a very wide readership – and for a wide variety of students and academics in various disciplines. Colleagues in Education, Higher Education, Anthropology, Sociology, Research Methods, Islamic Studies, Gender & Women’s Studies, and American Studies have used this as required reading, and I have had excellent reports on how it went.

Consider Muslim American Women on Campus for your 2019-2020 courses. I may be able to arrange a virtual Q&A with your students, and I promise not to be boring.

And if you want a preview of the book, and you’re busy, try the audiobook during your commute! Not many academic books are available as audiobooks, but this one is.

Just Cancer

In the urban institutional expanse of the hospital where I see an oncologist, I am taking a moment to recoup my emotional energy. I just saw my breast cancer specialist. She spent 3 minutes walking her fingertips over my breast and armpit area. I am full of gratitude. She is spending time on my damaged body. She is examining it for traps and hidden venom, pitfalls, lumps, tumors, ways that my body can betray me, silently and surreptitiously.

It is nothing. Just scar tissue. This time.

I am overwhelmed for some reason. Why? This is a journey I have made innumerable times now. It is June 12, 2019. My abbu’s birthday, by the way, as far as we know. The first birthday we will not celebrate, because he died in September.

It is also the tenth anniversary, plus one month, of my discovery of breast cancer the first time. May 2009, when I was completing my first year on the tenure track, and preparing to enjoy the summer and the time to enjoy health insurance checkups like ‘free’ mammograms. Hurrah.

“There’s something,” my kind, young Indian doctor back in Oklahoma had said, “but it’s probably nothing. Come back and we’ll check.” It was something. Come back, and we’ll do a biopsy. Oh, wait. That’s something. And then the phone call. I had been alone at home, and there were the words: aggressive; so sorry; surgery.

Most of this journey, despite my little family, I undertook alone. The American workplace was relatively kind to my husband, allowing him a few hours a few days here and there, but most of my journeys were alone.

Burned into my memory, that first drowsy drive back to Stillwater from Oklahoma City, alone, from a Surprise We have Chemo For You, Sooner the Better. And a kid’s birthday party in the evening, where I couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to socialize, and I emerged to vomit all over the parking space. Then the mercifully short drives to and from chemotherapy in town. The helpful offers to pick and drop my 3 year old from preschool; the helpful offers drying up, turning into an occasional impatient snide comment – rarely, but oh it hurt, how it hurt, how it still hurts, because of how alone I was.

That night in summer 2009 when I was putting away food and the post-chemo meds hit me, and I wilted over the stove in the kitchen, and my 3-year old found me there. She took one look at me, asked me, Mama, are you okay? And then took my hand, and told me firmly, “Let’s go to bed, Mama” and led me to my room, and snuggled down with me. She shouldn’t have to be my parent, but how alone I was. In those hot, baking summers, miles and miles from family and friends, relying only on a man.

We hadn’t been married long – eight years seems like a lot, but we were still working out the rough edges of the relationship. We were living out in Oklahoma – no family, no friends, and an astoundingly toxic workplace. I was still bald when I got the letter that said I wasn’t going to be reappointed because of teaching issues (student evaluations: the score was skewed by one student in a class of five. See how I feel like I have to explain?) Exhausted in body and mind, I was plunged into a world of legal discussions, diversity officers who didn’t do anything, an incestuous world of faculty and administrators who ended up being a united front against the brown Muslim interloper who had the audacity of opinions, who kept publishing stuff and didn’t just hand out A’s. Most of the women in my program, including the White feminist scholar and the immigrant woman of color, shook their heads in saintly compassion at my disease and then stabbed me in the back with relish. The provost overruled their decision and I was reappointed, but they were going to hound me out, he implied; “you don’t really want to stay with a department like this, do you?” I knew I was alone.

At that time, in 2012, I was courted by the small private college, Millikin University. The mentor gave me a hefty course teaching schedule that started at 8am, with a one hour commute. Could we please start a bit later? I didn’t want to use the c word. I am a survivor, but I just started here so I can’t tell them my sob stories. The mentor snapped at me: “First do your time, then ask for accommodations.” I did my time. A year later, the Dean, a poet, in a turf war with my hiring department, handed me my termination. No reason. Cutting costs. Nobody came to my aid. People withdrew into the safety of their offices and said not a word.

There were those few months when I had one boob, and wore a prosthetic. My boob was alone. It was a relief to get the full mastectomy and not be asymmetrical. There was the time when I was still vomiting and drowsy after a partial mastectomy. Around midnight, the hospital resident told us we had to leave. Not allowed to stay overnight, he said. But I’m nauseated, I said. They handed me a paper bag, put me in a wheelchair, and carted me out to the car. An endless hour-long journey from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, in and out of consciousness, fresh from surgery. Oops, the Oklahoma University Medicine folks said afterward, too bad.

But let’s return to today. Let’s check one more checkup off the list. Symptoms, I say, the same and more. Side effects of the hormonal therapy. See the eye bags? Insomnia.

Last week, I came in for an ultrasound. I’ve been feeling what might be lumps for months now, embarrassed to tell the doctors, embarrassed for a Gah It’s Nothing visit that costs me $100. Include the day it takes me to get to the downtown parking garage, and the writing I could be doing instead of this. The lump today was nothing. Cancer is a bloody waste of time. it is a research project. It is a running around from office to office. And then the potential employer says, “Wait, you didn’t publish anything that year? Oh, cancer. But that’s too bad.”

The lump today was nothing. Until the bulging black and white images on the screen, it was Something. This could be another. This could take up the entire summer, like the summer of 2009, of 2016. Or it could be the end of summers. There’s always that possibility. You have to live with a trajectory mapped out in your head. Cancer messes up your trajectory, because your satellites have to be ready to create a new navigational path at any time. It’s tiring to be ready. All the time. And you have to be ready alone, because nobody has the bloody time or energy to do this readiness with you. It is not time-limited. The readiness is open-ended and endless. And the readiness is all. You are a vacuum, a lack of plans, an openness, in sweat pants, ratty sneakers, and eye-bags surrounded by a whole lot of planning in tailored suits and coffee cups striding to the train station.

And there’s always something. A lump. A tenderness. A twinge. Fatigue. They just throw up their hands and say Sigh. There is no clarity. Just Cancer.

My Eid prayers; or, Why men and women need to pray in the same prayer area, or No More Balconies

This is what I saw during the prayer.

We went for Eid prayers to this masjid.

The people were nice. I should be specific: some were nice to my gora husband, and then to me. But as soon as I arrived, in the space of a few seconds, at least two people insistently told us “You have to go upstairs. That’s the women’s area. THIS is the men’s area over there. You have to go upstairs.”

Calm down. I’m not trying to check out your men. I’m all set.  

My husband introduced me to a man he’d met during taraweeh. We exchanged a few courtesies in the lobby. An officious lady started saying “Salah is starting, let’s go” and grabbed my arm and steered me toward the musalla. Maybe the sister was offended by my husband, myself, and a brother speaking politely with each other.

MIXING!! Who knows what’s going to happen next, right here in the lobby! 

People: as we say to our toddlers: “Use your words, not your hands!” I told her thank you, grabbed her hand and removed it physically from my arm as a (hopefully) clear signal. Yes, dear sister: I am going to the musalla. I am here at the masjid at the time of Eid prayer precisely because I’m going to the musalla. I am not here for the suffocating heat and the crush of people in the staircase. 

We settled in our places – my husband downstairs in the men’s musalla, and my daughter and I upstairs in the balcony. The dream of a family mosque remains in the future. Or elsewhere.

It’s ok, I told myself. Nice mosque. Nice community. Pray the prayer. Be a good example for your daughter. Roll with the punches.

Once the prayer started, the confusion began.

It’s important to know what the imam is doing. For Eid prayers, most of us do not rehearse Eid prayers during the year. Those of us who aren’t really diligent and meticulous forget the 7-takbeers in each rak’ah issue. Eid prayers, as you know, brings together a diverse congregation, many of whom do not normally attend congregational prayer. 

You could see that the balcony was longer than it was wide, so only the first row of women could see the imam and the congregation. I’m sure this was not deliberate. That is not the point. We should learn from the results of these architectural and structural decisions. Mosque after mosque is constructed and structured in such a way that women are left out in the cold.

Even I, who have been praying Eid prayers for decades, forget the 7 takbeers sometimes. Having others to follow and learn from is the whole point of congregational prayer and congregational practice.

But the imam was for men. We could not see him.

In the second rak’ah, the Allah Akbars started racking up, and there was disarray all over the ranks in the women’s musalla. Some are already in prostration. Some are in ruku’. Some are standing and doing takbeers like they ought to. My daughter next to me is down in sujud. I touch her arm to signal her to stand. As I do so, I realize that the standing-takbeers are over, and in the confusion, I too lost track of the count.

Over the bodies of a few prostrating women in the row before me, I can now – for the first time – see a glimpse of the congregation downstairs, and they are in prostration.

So I quickly go down. I’m annoyed and rattled.

Instead of praying, I’m shouting in my head, this is why we should pray in one prayer area.

It’s okay, folks, nothing will happen with men and women in the same area. We will all learn, in fact, from existing in the same and behaving in a moral fashion. And if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and this is the world Allah created with sexual instincts and biology, and we are navigating that by Allah’s will. 

Once the prayer ends, I try to calm myself, and remind my daughter to listen to the Eid sermon silently.

But the khateeb is mumbling. The only thing worse than a shouting khateeb is a mumbling khateeb.

The mike is ineffective. We cannot hear him. We hear snatches of And Allah says in the Quran [Arabic Arabic Arabic] [English English English mumble mumble].

It is pointless. I give up and take selfies with my daughter. I help out the young mom who is struggling to keep her toddler from escaping. It is a better use of time than trying to be silent for the imam.

Officious Lady is standing in the back glowering her disapproval.

And the Eid prayer is over.