A Place of Her Own

At the end of a semester filled with meetings, I was hustling off to yet another one. Reorganizing a university's academic structure is a great way to chew up Friday afternoons. If traffic went my way, I might make it to our Grand Rapids campus almost on time, I thought, as I approached the parking lot.

Just then a young Asian woman walking from the lot caught my attention. She looked as if she wanted to ask me for some sort of help - perhaps directions. When we were within speaking distance, she asked, "Don't you remember me?"

I've been at my university long enough that many of my students' faces are beginning to blur. But there are so few Asian students on our largely white campus that I felt guilty for not remembering her. Had I been so wrapped up in intracampus politics that even atypical students no longer registered?

I peered at her face, knowing it was familiar but unable to place it. When she said her name -Fareeha - my confusion cleared up in a flash. Even with the diamond nose stud, her face had been familiar. It was her dark hair that had confused me - hair I'd never seen before.

(I have changed the student's name and nationality. Fareeha is a Muslim name that means "student.") Without her head scarf, or hijab, Fareeha looked like any other contemporary American college student, from the jeans and boots to the nose ornament.

We have few international students on our campus, and I can count on a single hand (with fingers to spare) the number of Muslim women I've seen wearing head scarves. Though our university is a welcoming place, such students are more likely to attend the research universities in Michigan, those with programs whose reputations extend far and wide, even to Fareeha's Indonesia. Many simply find life more comfortable in Ann Arbor or East Lansing, gathering places for bright young people from a host of distant lands.

How Fareeha got to Grand Valley is something we never discussed. What is more important to me, and to my university, is the fact that she stayed.

On September 12, 2001, I had walked into my literature class, dreading the first few minutes and unsure of what to say. I've never been big on the intimate-professor pose, the "let-me-tell-you-about-my-life" approach that too often passes for effective college teaching in the humanities. Yes, discussing literature invites one's inner self - what Whitman calls the "me myself" - to enter the classroom, usually unannounced, but I try to maintain at least a zone of privacy for myself and my students, one that keeps our reading in the foreground more than the reader.

But that day I knew a different method was needed, that I had to draw upon usually untapped resources. We could not just continue talking about Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing!, acting as though we hadn't all just been violently thrust into a new world.

So I spoke for a few moments about being from New York, about having family still there, about hearing my youngest brother on the phone describe the smoke he saw downtown from way up in the Bronx. I also explained that I had been a college student at New York University, and that from Washington Square I had seen the towers looming in the near distance, every day, unnoticed and unremarkable.

Then I noticed that Fareeha was not in the room. Only 24 hours after the towers had fallen, after a barrage of media coverage about the new war we now faced, after early reports of Muslims and Sikhs in America being harassed, it occurred to me that she might not return. I quickly repressed that thought and made some inadequate statement about needing to attend to our responsibilities, particularly in a time of national crisis. In other words, it was time to get back to the Odets play.

Later that warm afternoon, an hour before attending a campuswide gathering around the clock tower, I was walking back to my office when Fareeha hesitantly approached. I had known her for only two weeks; she was one student of a hundred that term, and we had not yet had a real conversation. She first apologized for missing class, but immediately explained that her parents thought she should leave school and return to Indonesia.

The first weeks on campus had been hard on her, she said, not only because she was so far from home, but because her head scarf had attracted attention. One night a drunken male had seen her doing laundry and had mimed a kerchief around his head. Doltish mockery through a laundry room window now seemed far more threatening to her. She was especially disappointed because after her initial weeks of insecurity, she gradually had become more comfortable. But now she was afraid, and was even thinking about not wearing her scarf. What did I think of that idea, she asked?

I've dealt with enough troubled students over the years to pull the counseling-center card when I needed to, perhaps too readily. But these were deeper waters. So we stood there in the bright September sunlight and talked for nearly an hour. I described not only my own ties to the events in New York, but also my sense, as a Jew, of feeling like an outsider in Christian West Michigan. It's when we feel ourselves to be outsiders, I counseled, that it's all the more important for us to declare our place on American ground.

I urged her to attend the gathering that afternoon. And I hoped she would not let fear cause her to remove the scarf.

After an awkward silence, we embraced, breaking all sorts of contemporary taboos - male professor and female student, American and "foreigner," Jew and Muslim.

Later I saw her in the crowd that had gathered, still wearing her scarf. "I remember you as one of the people who cared," she now said to me. She hoped to graduate with a degree in psychology by the end of the year. I admitted that the absence of her scarf caused me to not recognize her. She simply nodded and smiled in response, offering no explanation.

I urged her to attend the gathering that afternoon. And I
hoped she would not let fear cause her to remove the scarf.

WomanAs I resumed my rush to the parking lot, I realized that the abandoned head scarf was only the most obvious reason why I had not recalled Fareeha. More telling was the happiness in her face, which had replaced the fear. I'd like to know why she no longer wears the head covering but am content to let the confidence in her face provide its own answer.

I thought of Fareeha again recently when I read news accounts of efforts in France to ban the wearing of religious clothing and emblems in public schools. Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, and "excessively large" crucifixes would no longer be permitted. In its report, the French presidential panel said Jewish students wearing yarmulkes on the playground were "commonly insulted as dirty Jew" and went on to quote a high school student that "any Jew who wore a skullcap would be 'lynched.'" Rising anti-Semitism in France has been cited as one reason for this recommendation, yet most commentators agree that the proposed regulation is finally directed at France's growing Muslim population.

Radical secularism in France reminds me why so many students from so many cultures, so many Fareehas, seek out American higher education. They can choose to embrace our society or to keep it at arm's length. Holding fast to their own cultures in postmodern America may be difficult for some students - many may say impossible - but their individual choices will largely be honored. Whether wearing her head scarf or letting her dark hair blow in the brisk winds of an early Michigan winter, Fareeha, however she chooses to present herself, has a place on our campus. And knowing this makes all those academic meetings a little easier to bear.

Reprinted with permission by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Franciosi is a professor of English at Grand Valley.

Page last modified March 17, 2014