A slight sense of unease accompanied me to my recent teaching experience at a Muslim school in a large city in Australia. I’m not sure why. I had initially felt privileged when the school invited me to talk to staff and students about youth mental health and I try not to have any biases or prejudices (other than my unconscious ones), so my caution concerned me. It was all for nothing, of course, because I can assure you I had nothing to fear! It was a large school and over 200 staff attended the training. The first thing that struck me when I arrived was that all the women wore head coverings, even though many of them, including the main organiser, were not in fact Muslim. It was amazing to hear her talk about the verbal abuse she has endured in her own community by people who make the assumption that she is a Muslim. I asked her why she wears the head covering, indeed why all the women, Muslim and non-Muslim, wear head coverings, and she said it was a school policy designed out of respect for those at the school who are Muslims and are required to cover their heads. Fair enough, I thought. It certainly didn’t seem to worry any of the women I spoke to. The hall I was presenting in quickly filled about 10 minutes prior to the presentation and the next thing I noticed was that the women and men sat on different sides of the room. I’m no expert in gender segregation and Islam, but it seems that the only time it comes to our attention is when women are asked to sit at the back of the room, as has happened at public events in the past. So I should just point out that the men and women in this presentation sat on different sides of the room, the women were not at the back. Just sayin….. Where the learning curve for me became very steep, however, was once I started talking. I quickly learned three interesting things:
- Muslims have a great sense of humour! As I was preparing my presentation I wondered if many of the amusing comments I typically make in a presentation might not go down so well. In the end, however, I thought, “What the heck, why would these people not have a sense of humour?” And they sure did! They knew how to laugh, and how to laugh hard. It was so refreshing. I couldn’t help but compare this to some of the conservative Christian audiences I’ve spoken to where several of my ever so slightly risqué comments and jokes went down like lead balloons.
- By no means were these women oppressed. They might cover their heads and sit on a different side of the room to the men, but in no way at all were they oppressed. They were feisty. They were opinionated. They were not afraid to challenge what I said and they were not afraid to challenge their male colleagues. In fact, the women were far more vocal and opinionated than the men, so this idea that Muslim women are oppressed and cannot stand up for themselves or have strong opinions was completely untrue in the situation I observed.
- All the men I spoke to were gentle, sweet, caring, delightful men. In the breaks it wasn’t the women who came running up to me to serve me tea, coffee or food, it was the men. One man, before the presentation even started, walked up to me and handed me a coffee that he had gone to purchase for me and I kid you not, he almost bowed in humility as he placed it in my hand. What surprised me, too, was the number of men who were openly affectionate towards me, shaking my hand with one hand and grasping the top of my arm firmly with the other or patting me on the back in what I interpreted as genuine signs of appreciation for the presentation.