by Alexandra Vinci ’11
Alani Mason-Calloway ’10 was walking down an aisle in the grocery store when a woman took one look at her, grabbed her daughter and ran away. Alani is 4′ 11″ and an AP student who made Summa Cum Laude; she does not usually come across as a scary person. “All I had to do to make you run away was put a scarf over my head,” Alani said.
Eight non-Muslim senior girls went into public wearing a hijab. A hijab is the veil that Muslim women choose to wear around their heads and necks to be conservative and show modesty. While learning a unit on the Middle East in Michael Pozniak’s Honors Global Studies class, the students began studying the hijab. As the class of seniors were in the midst of reading about this garment, Renata Malionek ’10 raised her hand and asked if they could get a first-hand experience by wearing a hijab to see what reactions they might receive. Immediately, the other girls showed enthusiasm about this prospective assignment. They were curious about the reactions they might get, and “if you were someone else how people treat you,” Renata Malionek ’10 said.
Mr. Pozniak began researching whether or not this project could be done respectfully. He got the opinion of both chemistry teacher Saiedeh Khalili and Gulrukhsor ‘Guli’ Nazirova, two Muslim women. (Guli attended McNamara with the class of ’07 for one year as a representative of her country, Tajikstan, through a program with the State Department.) Neither found the proposal inappropriate as long as the girls had an understanding of the culture. Even further, Mr. Pozniak contacted Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies with the same questions. He was again informed that it would not be considered disrespectful, once again, as long as they were being sensitive to the religion.
The class came up with suggestions to make sure the girls were responsive to the religion, such as keeping modesty in their entire dress. Once the girls were essentially “coached,” they had to get a permission slip signed and then were free to complete this activity for extra credit. They were required to write a short reflection on their experience and also give an informal presentation to their class about it.
“My philosophy about teaching is that if students really want to learn, my job is to provide that environment,” Mr. Pozniak said after commenting that the whole idea was student generated, and he was the “facilitator.”
Out of the two sections of the Honors Global Studies, eight of the girls participated in the project. The girls went out to ordinary places such as grocery stores, Walmart, gas stations, and the movies. A common reaction that they seemed to get was a lot of stares.
“It seemed like I was distracting to other people, except the little kids who were just staring,” Aley Villarreal ’10 said.
Lindy Ramsey ’10 was on her way to West Virginia over Thanksgiving break and took a pit stop at a familiar gas station when she went in wearing the hijab. She noted, “I’ve been there before and they’ve said ‘hi’ and everything but this time they didn’t say anything.”
As negative as some of thoseresponses were, some reactions were the opposite, being extremely courteous. “In terms of politeness, some people were overly polite, like if you were dressed in regular clothes they would not have been that polite,” said Aley, after her experience in Walmart. One man deliberately stepped out of Aley’s way in order to let her pass first.
Each girl that participated in the assignment came out with a better understanding of what Muslim women may go through. Alani commented on the lesson she got out of the experience and realized that, “no matter who you are, there are going to be prejudices.”
Mr. Pozniak reflected that collectively the students all had diverse settings and diverse experiences which led to diverse reactions. Either way, it was clear that people did react. Whether it was because of the hijab, a prejudice, or just because of curiosity is unknown. “Who knows whether it’s a level of fear or insecurity of those who are different from those who are mainstream,” Mr. Pozniak said.
All in all, this project was considered a great success, and Mr. Pozniak intends on continuing it in the years to come. He also expressed his ideas to build on the assignment as well by possibly having the students interview a Muslim woman about the hijab. Whatever may come in future years, it is obvious that this is due to a combined effort and a shared enthusiasm out of these seniors and their teacher.