My student Aliah (not her real name) from Afghanistan doesn’t wear a hijab, but then neither did my other Afghani student, the brilliant science major, the one who said her parents were so proud of her for getting a degree in chemistry.
The science major talked about her family’s experiences as refugees in Germany: “Before 9/11, I used to have to draw a map and point to where Afghanistan was. The day after, I didn’t have to do that anymore.”
I should have listened harder, considered the gravity of her next remark, which she delivered off-handedly, resignedly, and with a laugh: “My father always told us to remember that we’re living in Germany, but we’re not Germans.”
The science major came to my office hour one day and asked me about New York, where I’m from. She wanted to visit. What sights would I recommend? Did I know of inexpensive hotels? I was just warming to my favorite topic, my paradisiacal city, when my student unexpectedly burst into tears.
Shocked, I blurted, “What’s the matter?”
Her tears came so unexpectedly I thought I’d said something that offended her.
“I really want to travel,” she sobbed, “But my family wants me to get married.”
Here was a young woman, an 18- or 20-year-old young woman who dressed like the other students, the majority of whom were Western European, mostly German students. She wore blue jeans, a T-shirt, a charm on a chain around her neck, running shoes.
What came out of my untrained mouth at that moment was, “Are you being threatened?”
She sat and shook her head, one hand tugging at the charm necklace. She looked down. “No,” she finally said. “But it would break my father’s heart if I didn’t get married.”
To my question, “But what do you want?” I got a bewildered stare. What she wanted?
What I didn’t know then, and still cannot understand, is that there had never really been a “she” in the sense that “my” and “me” are taken for granted among Western women.
“She” belonged to a large clan that had its own life, its own rituals, into which “she” fit like a cog.
What “she” wanted? Would I ask a door what it wanted? Would I ask the fish in my aquarium? My student might look like the Western students, she might speak like a Westerner, but she does not feel like one, and my idea that she might want something just for herself remains alien, undesirable.
Or as my other Afghani student, Aliah, says of her adoptive parents, “They want me to get married, move my husband in and live with them forever and ever.” She says this with a smile, but not a happy smile.
My student (the science major) wrote to me a few times, asking for reading lists. Months later, I saw her on the street in a neighborhood near the university. She was hugely pregnant and wearing a black burqa. I am not sure whether she saw me.
I’d failed her. The university had failed her. Germany had failed her. But there remains no support system to which I, her teacher, or she, can turn, without the willingness, on either of our sides, to act very independently and to some degree, outside custom and law.
Aliah is not yet married and does not wish to marry, but every time I see her I wonder whether she will find the strength to pull away from her family, and whether I am able to help her. I listen. I only found out she was from Afghanistan because she wanted to write an essay on her work in the refugee camp near our university where she volunteers.
Offhandedly — so often, the crucial information is delivered casually — she mentioned in class, “I just came from the refugee center, where a fight broke out last night, and it took forever to calm them down. We still don’t know what it was all about.”
She spoke of Afghani women whom she accompanied to doctor’s visits. Even on gynecological visits, the husband, the brothers, the uncles, all had to come along.
When the doctor asked what the problem was, the women answered, “Ask my husband,” or “I don’t know,” or “If my husband agrees.” The doctor was usually not allowed to examine her and so resorted to prescribing a painkiller for an unknown condition. Aliah herself was considered by the men a busybody and sometimes asked whether her father approved of her work.
I asked Aliah how she’d come to work at the refugee center. She was a translator.
In an office hour, I mentioned that she seemed to know a great deal about refugee work, that the topic was timely. I asked whether she’d rather stick to a paper on refugees in Germany.
“You know,” she said with a half-smile, “This is all rather close to home.”
She’d been orphaned in Afghanistan as a child and adopted by her aunt and uncle in the medium-sized German city where we live. She remembered me from the local elementary school, where years before I’d picked up my daughter.
“You knew my aunt,” she said. As she described her, the scene came back to me: a foreigner. I’m always more comfortable speaking German with non-Germans. The pleasant woman in the lavender burqa stood, like me, near the radiator of the school entrance on chilly winter days. She and I chatted about recipes, and she mentioned that she was from Afghanistan, where she had lost “much family.”
We talked until my first-grader appeared, and then her daughter, slightly older, and the only child in the school in a hijab.
In my office, I remembered this with Aliah. “Yeah, my sister doesn’t wear the hijab anymore outside,” she said. “Neither do I. There’s a lot my parents don’t know,” she sighed.
Her biological parents, slaughtered in Afghanistan when she was nine, had not been particularly religious, but her mother’s sister, her aunt, to whom she was then sent, was very traditional. Aliah had lost one set of parents and was loathe to lose another. But was she really going to get married just to stay with these people?
“Well, they’re getting older. I owe them.”
“Your life?” (Should I be saying this to a student?) “But do you want to get married?” I asked.
“No!” she looked horrified. “But I won’t leave without my sister.”
Aliah is different from my other student who is now married. Aliah’s real parents didn’t believe in women wearing hijabs. They were, she remembers, more Western. But they’re gone, and my impression is that Aliah saw them taken away, saw them murdered.
Aliah already ran away from home once. When she was about to finish high school, her aunt insisted it was time to marry. Aliah bolted in a panic, returning when she ran out of money, and now she feels guilty, remembering they were “heartbroken.” She also has a new deadline: as soon as she finishes her B.A.
When she comes to office hours, we start with the courses she is taking and the exams she needs to take. If she volunteers information about her home life, I ask leading questions, and I have given her links to German and international organizations that help women escape forced marriages. But Aliah’s courage wavers, and no wonder.
“Do you have any support system?” I asked one day. The university doesn’t. There’s a student complaints office, where students go to grouse about grades or bad teaching. There’s a psychologist, but apparently not one offering the help these girls need. The alternative, the office of the local Protestant church in the student center, isn’t where Aliah wants to go.
“Well, no. I mean, my friends all say what’s the big deal. They’re just getting married because their parents want them to.”
Her friends have reason to conform. The price to pay for peace is marriage. Yes, they could say no and be beaten. Or say no and be cut with an axe. Or say no and be locked in a room. Or say no, and, like Aliah, not be allowed to leave the house.
Last week, she didn’t come to office hours when she’d asked to see me. I sent an email and she did write back, indicating that male cousins from Afghanistan were visiting, that they were a “bit overbearing,” she wrote, adding that she had difficulty leaving the house without a hijab.
I’ve seen students far more conservative than Aliah, who come to class in hijabs and clothing that covers all but the eyes and feet. At one point, I had many — my husband’s theory was that these women did not want to run the risk of having to follow German custom by shaking hands with a male teacher. They don’t want to be alone in the office of a male teacher during his office hour. My husband once entered a university elevator and the other occupants — two women in burqas — glanced at each other and left the elevator.
On the first day of my seminar on Philip Roth, I passed out excerpts. As a student read aloud from one of Portnoy’s masturbatory scenes, I noticed, for the first time, a woman in a hijab with a stricken look. She lurched to her feet and left the room. So much for safety from a woman teacher, I suppose she was thinking.
Some family friends invited my husband and me to dinner one night, and it turned out their daughter was attending the same academic girl’s high school that Aliah had attended. Aliah’s sister currently attends the same school.
“I wish I could help these girls,” I fumed at dinner. Knowing her sister is about to be told that she, too, must marry, Aliah wants to shield her from her own experiences.
“Let her enjoy for a while—think about fun and boys.” She was afraid her sister would also ruin a whole semester’s worth of grades, as she had, when she ran.
With the help of our host’s daughter, I arranged a meeting which Aliah attended with the principal of the school, a nun deeply engaged with child welfare. But like me, the nun could offer little practical help.
Germany is very regulated. By law, she cannot provide housing for students in dire straits. She has to contact a social worker, who offers temporary housing in a nearby city.
The alternatives — my family’s guest room for a few weeks, the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation’s escape help — are pathways Aliah is deeply conflicted about following.
Until German schools and universities become more aware of women like Aliah and their isolation — and their inability to articulate the depth of the problem — the marriage plot will thicken, as it already has.
Many refugees, fearing the West as a den of iniquity, force girls to marry at 16, effectually ending all chances at education and independence.
So, what am I going to do? I’m going to teach a course about American women and religion. Officially, the course will cover the Puritans and their influence; the appearance of new faiths imported by the slave trade as well as immigration; notions of identity in America, including the idea that identity, like death, remains a choice; cults, conversions, politics and gender.
But actually, I’ll be imposing my own narrative on the course material, whose readings will include Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s provocatively titled book Nomad: From Islam to America as well as G. Willow Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque, a tale of conversion from ethnic W.A.S.P to Islam.
My narrative goes like this: Women should make choices that suit themselves, not their families. Women should marry when they pick out partners whom they love. Women should not sit passively while religious forces move them around ideological chess boards.
That those ideas — marriage for love, marriage as personal choice, of choice in general — remain largely products of Western democracy is both a problem and a solution. I hope my course will incite my Muslim and non-Muslim students alike to ask questions about problems and about solutions, and to want them to find their own answers.
My own story has more similarity to Aliah’s than I wish. At 14, I was sent, following local custom on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, to a psychoanalyst. This ritual of puberty, so widely accepted that I never questioned it, dictated that the psychoanalyst’s word was law. Enforced secrecy enabled this practice: I was warned by the analyst never to divulge anything the two of us discussed privately in his office. To repeat his words or my replies, no matter how seemingly unimportant, would impair, if not ruin, my analysis with grave consequences for my future.
Like a sacrificial maiden offered to a demanding Yahweh, I strove for decades to do and to be what this man demanded, pushing aside my own needs and wishes as unimportant or worse — “neurotic,” “psychotic,” “narcissistic,” said the analyst. Though he didn’t actually beat me, he often went into rages, spending the session yelling at me for my insolence.
I often wonder if I’d have challenged his authority if I’d been older, but I’d been schooled to believe he knew more. My parents went to analysts. Going to the analyst was more than our time-honored family tradition: it was our religion. The analyst was a man with grey hair and an authoritarian air that was easy to mistake for confidence. Following his instructions, which never led to fulfilling my own ambitions, I lost the most important years of my life.
No matter what anyone said, I knew he was right. In the face of shocked friends, who didn’t laugh when I joked about “the goat-prod method of psychoanalysis,” in the face of second-wave feminism, in the face of whatever shreds of common sense I had, my feeling that I would lose everything overwhelmed all of the above.
It is this same feeling of imminent loss that that paralyzes my young students. How many 16- to 22-year olds can leave behind the family that raised them and now demands so much? How many believe they are able to live independently or even will be far better off on their own?
I have yet to meet one.
I would like to be able to prevent other young women from making mistakes with far more painful consequences. It was difficult enough for me to escape my tyrant, who insisted he was the only one in the world who could help me. He made it clear I was in dire need of his help.
Like Aliah’s family, he wanted me to stay with him forever and ever, doing all in his considerable power to try to prevent me from leaving him and marrying my husband.
A bit of luck — the psychoanalyst’s age-related decline, my husband’s home in a country far away — removed me from a world in which I’d been taught to think of myself as nobody and the analyst as God.
These patterns are familiar in too many cultures, and mine offers me some understanding of Aliah’s. If I could help her, I could feel my young years were not entirely wasted — at least I’d have learned how to help some other woman from losing herself to an authority who has no interest in allowing her to choose what she wants from life.