Peace in Aloneness: Muslim Women in the Ivory Tower

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…