Huda was eighteen, married, and pregnant. She had to sit sideways at her desk in order to accommodate her rapidly developing body as we worked on a basic Social Studies lesson about Australian economics. It wasn’t unusual for her and other members of my all-female class to suggest that I change my faith in order to get a man. They seemed bemused by my choice to be a teacher and not be married by my mid-twenties. For them, while practicing their English skills by doing oral reports about their future careers as lawyers, doctors, and interior designers, there appeared no contradiction whatsoever between their plans for future studies and their expectations of giving birth to two children before the age of twenty and living with their husband’s large extended family.
What would an Anglo-Australian girl like me know about life anyway? I could hardly get through the first ten names of Allah that we were being taught, slowly, at every Thursday staff meeting. (Our high teacher-turnover meant that we would have to start over every month or so to make sure everyone was on the same page. I myself would leave the Islamic College in Perth, Western Australia, after two years remembering only a handful of them.) My students had unshakable faith in the Qur’an, in their parents’ taste in suitors for their daughters, and in the reality that one either got busy settling down as a Good Muslim Woman or was gossiped about as an embarrassment to her numerous cousins on the playground that they shared with primary-school students.
It was this playground that had filled up with local boys playing basketball one summer holiday break when I came in to photocopy some lesson plans in preparation for the start of the school year. Workmen were fixing a roof on one of the classrooms, and they had told the local boys that they could use the courts while they worked. The women in the main office of my school had locked their doors in fear of these invading young strangers. I had to knock several times on windows and peek through the mail-slot in order for them to buzz me in. Fearfully, they asked if I could phone the police to convince them to hurry and escort the unwelcome interlopers off the courts. When I went out to tell the boys that they were in fact on private property and the workmen had no right to allow them to use the playground without the permission of the school, they laughed at my mandatory work uniform hijab and told me in no uncertain terms what they thought of Muslims.
They used the same words that would be sprayed in paint on the buildings and car park of the school, curses that would be yelled at the school buses that travelled through the suburbs to take our students to one of two branches of the school. After 2001, the name of the school was taken off the sides of the buses due to concerns that aggression would escalate.
But this was before September 11, 2001. I was teaching basic English skills to a teenage class that would fluctuate in numbers, depending on who dropped out in order to have children or moved to another city (usually due to their parents finding work elsewhere in the country but occasionally because of racist attitudes among the locals). This was a private school, one that prided itself on providing a place for new immigrants and had some state funding; often the children were refugees and had serious baggage of their own to add to the usual problems of fitting in and finding friends. Many of these young people had experienced war and poverty firsthand. It led me to question whether I should continue attending an introduction-to-Catholicism course I was taking at the local parish after being urged by friends to consider getting in touch with my “spiritual side.” It was becoming difficult to see evidence for a god when a student drew images of death and destruction she herself had witnessed.
My class not only comprised young Muslim women; there were Bosnians, Somalians, Iranians—all striving to be mainstream Australians as best they could. They seized on copies of Vogue and Rolling Stone every time we visited the local library, shrieking loudly when reading gossip magazines that featured pictures of their favorite television show, JAG—a favorite because occasionally a character (usually the villain of the episode) would speak in Arabic. But they would only take out books from the children’s section—anything with colorful pictures and basic English that they could read to the younger members of their family while practicing their language skills.
Working our way slowly through the syllabus with Australian books such as Fat Chance meant even more cultural puzzles and questions as to why the main character Lisa would aspire to be a model, want to be judged on her appearance, suffer an eating disorder, and or even want to get a boyfriend when that was clearly the business of her father, not her. As you can imagine, it became rather difficult to explain what was so great about young Australian womanhood with occasional questionable examples like Lisa’s.
My being an Australian of non-Muslim background was less of a big deal to the other staff members. But attending an end-of-year dinner meant dealing with office areas segregated by sex for prayers, and we had to wait until all the men were served before getting plates of our own. Quite a few of the staff had spouses who also worked at the school, and they would then enroll their own children, leading to an odd incestuous situation where everyone knew everything about everyone—and made strangers an amusing addition to years of shared school history. Would I ever consider becoming Muslim in order to possibly advance to head of a department? Perhaps I should enroll in the Diploma of Religious Studies program at the local university in order to better understand all faiths. (My Catholic classes were becoming so unappealing.) But I couldn’t question any fathers who visited the school, and I should let the male staff members sort out any issues with course content, as it really wasn’t my place to ask questions.
But I did keep having questions about what was involved in being a Muslim, particularly after I came across brochures stating how the Qur’an supported developments in science via various oddly strained interpretations of hadiths. I wondered why fights would erupt on the playground between members of different racial groups, despite their all being of the same faith. Students could be lured to join gangs in some of the outer suburbs, we were warned, and it was difficult to explain why groupthink and peer pressure was a bad thing, when our students watched music videos that glamorized rap groups and were criticized for not integrating themselves into Australian society.
Eventually Huda left the school, never to return to her education, while her sisters would get extra books from the library to take home for the new child in the family. Soon they would be showing me their new engagement rings, then wedding rings, then be sitting sideways at their desks in class as they urged me to let them set me up on a date with their third cousin who had just arrived from Saudi Arabia or to learn more than just the first few names for Allah in the Asma al-Husna . . . just because it was what a good Muslim girl should do.
Over the years, the girls in my class worked on their grammar, peeked at the pictures in the gossip magazines, and hid their Walkmans containing tapes of their brothers’ rap music albums under their robes. Then they boarded the school bus that would take them home, to help raise the younger members of their family—and they would cry during the holidays because they could not do something new or see their world changing to become anything different. While my life was in no way perfect by comparison, I knew that becoming a Muslim wasn’t for me.