Tread Lightly: Teaching Gender and Sexuality in Time of War
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Tread Lightly:
Teaching Gender and Sexuality in the Time of War

"You know, they will expect you to wear a hijab but you must already be used to that," a feminist colleague at a major Ivy League University remarked as she told me, back in 1999, about a possible job at an elite women's college in Saudi Arabia. As I walked away not knowing what to say, troubled by the statement, but angry at myself for not responding, a number of possible answers came to mind. I could have said that "neither my mother nor my grandmother have ever worn a hijab. I am really not used to it"; "actually, it is not called hijab in Saudi Arabia but abaya"; or "it is more complicated than that." Is there a good answer? Should I just let it be? I asked myself, "Is it really that important?"

Perhaps responding to this particular colleague was not all that important. But the incident, in fact, highlights the dilemmas we who come from Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern/Central Asian backgrounds confront as we attempt to teach, write, and practice our gender and sexual politics in the post–9/11 U.S. academy. At the very least, treading lightly became the first line of defense for those of us thought to be different from the dominant image of Americanness by virtue of a certain accent, an "unusual" name, facial features, or clothing that made it impossible to escape exclusion, guilt by association, and assumptions about our lives, experiences, minds, and hearts.

How lightly should we tread, though? By letting go and not saying anything to my colleague, was I accepting the gender inequality that structures our lives? To say that it is more complicated is guaranteed to provoke outrage by liberal feminists who may misconstrue our response, yet again, as an attempt to condone what they've chosen to label as the "gender apartheid" to which women in "those parts of the world" are subjected.

Alternatively, stating that "neither my mother nor my grandmother has ever worn a hijab" would feed into the argument of exceptionalism that permeates the U.S. academy. The argument runs along the following lines: educated and independent Arab women must be exceptional compared to the majority of women in "those parts of the world." Why they escaped their horrible reality, then, becomes an anomaly that must be explained. For example, not being Muslim is one of the main reasons used to explain why Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, who was born to a Christian family, made it despite "horrible conditions." As one of my New York [End Page 154] University students who majored in gender and sexuality said, "Everyone knows that Muslim women are much oppressed."

To state that neither my mother nor my grandmother ever wore a hijab might also feed into the argument made by some women and men from our parts of the world who desperately want to prove that Arab or Muslim women are not as oppressed, backward, docile, or submissive as the "gender apartheid" folks would have us think. Proponents of this view are eager to assert that we are, in fact, as progressive, modern, educated, and active in NGOs and have as flourishing a civil society as anyone else. Moving swiftly along a linear historical narrative of progress, putting distance between "us" and our "country folks," they seem to be saying, "We are nothing like those people, the indistinguishable hapless mass you saw on your post–9/11 TV screen and on the front pages of your daily paper: women clad in full length 'black tents' walking behind men in unshaved beards, looking mean, hard, and nasty." How then could I have responded to my colleague's advice, when any response could not help but be shaped by the ways in which Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern/Central Asian women are envisioned in the dominant "American" imaginary?

Given this imaginary, teaching about gender and sexuality presents even greater challenges. For example, what readings do we choose? The question is not a simple one, as Amal Amireh's discussion of Nawal Saadawi's work powerfully demonstrates.1 Saadawi's text was transformed...