Sunday, January 16, 2005


A debate is raging over at Jenny D's blog, about a teacher who forced a female Muslim student to read first, after she explained that her religion required that a boy share first.

I posted a comment there, but I have a few more thoughts on the issue.

From a purely practical standpoint, I think Nancy is right:

I would have probably honored her request, only because it would not have been the proper forum to address whatever feelings I have about gender roles in her religion. Doing so would have made the girl feel humilated maybe, embarrassed, unaccepted, not to mention it would set a poor example for my other students.

This raises some side issues about coercion in schools. There are circumstances in which I have forced students to answer questions even when they did not want to, usually to make a point about paying attention and participating in class. It still doesn't feel good, and I know at times it has been at least a little humiliating for the student. I have never been in a situation like the one Jenny described; when my students don't want to participate, it is usually because they are unprepared. I know teachers who never call on a student who does not want to participate, and others who regularly do. In the end, does forcing someone to participate truly encourage them to engage in their education, or does it encourage them to look like they are engaged while harboring resentful feelings towards school and the teacher? Personally, I would like to make my lessons more engaging so that students naturally want to participate and I would like to provide multiple ways of participating so that students who aren't comfortable with one way of showing that they've learned can show it in another way.

What about the overarching ethical questions?

A caveat I try to remember in discussions of this sort is that people often seek a single rule or procedure that they can apply as broadly as possible. There's a value in seeking "universal rules," but it can also lead to simplification of the issues and neglect of the subtle ways in which situations are NOT the same. I don't have much experience in the rules of argument, but I have a nagging feeling that there is some logical sleight-of-hand going on in this discussion.

Here's one statement made in the comments:

The teacher should have explain that the constitution of the US does not allow the school to consider her religion and the teacher should have forced the girl to go first. Someday, those muslim boys are going to adult citizens of the US and they have to understand that they cannot treat women as second class citizens.

I'm not convinced that the constitution does not allow the school to consider her religion.

I think the constitution does not allow her to try to impose her religious beliefs on the rest of the community - just as it does not allow Christians to try to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the community. I would have a huge problem if she told the teacher that not only could she not read first, but neither could any other girl in the class. I would have a huge problem if a group of Muslim parents tried to convince the teachers always to call on boys first. But I have little problem with her choosing to allow boys to speak first as an individual choice, and asking her teacher to respect that decision.

Here's a related idea from another comment:

It's interesting that public schools have, on the one hand, expunged Christmas but would bend over backwards to allow a girl to be a secondclass citizen.

Again, these situations are NOT equivalent. An individual student should be free to perform a Christmas carol at a school talent show, but schools should not force students to perform carols if they do not practice Christianity. The difference lies in imposing one's religion upon others versus expressing it for oneself. The separation of church and state, as I understand it, forbids the first but protects the second.

I consider myself a feminist and a strong supporter of women's right to an education and equal rights under the law. I also strongly support respecting a person's right to freely practice his or her religion up to the point where it infringes upon other people's rights. The troublesome conflict in this situation is between preventing gender discrimination and preventing religious discrimination. That's why no answer feels completely right; I come down in favor of respecting her religious belief, but I deeply wish that her religion did not make her a secondclass citizen.

The girl is a high school student. She clearly and calmly articulated her own belief. I would be uncomfortable if her father or brother came in and told me never to call on her before a boy. I would be uncomfortable if she were in third grade rather than high school. At this point in her development, however, I think she is capable of making this choice; she has, surely, seen that other girls feel free to speak before boys, yet she still chooses to respect her religion's views on this issue. I can live with that, even if it's not the same choice that I would make for myself.

There's also the fact that if the teacher had asked a boy to speak first, he'd have been giving that boy the message that a boy's voice - any boy's voice - is, in some sense, more valuable than the girl's. He opted instead do defend the opposite view. Seems fine with me.

The teacher could prevent this by calling on another girl, then a boy, then the Muslim girl. Or by calling on a boy first in this case, but in other cases, calling on girls first.

In Turkey, the state - in the name of secularism - has gone so far as to ban women who choose to wear headscarves from entering college campuses. The result? Women who want to practice Islam and pursue a modern career end up having to make a choice. This means that there is a group of women who wanted to be DOCTORS who ended up getting kicked out of medical school for sticking to a religious rule that they consider important. I fail to see how this promotes meaningful equality for women.

Jenny writes in her own comments section,

If the girl had said, I cannot vote because my religion says so, America would say, yes, you can vote here regardless of your religion. You don't have to, but you cannot take that right away from yourself.

A person can choose not to exercise his or her right to vote for any reason - including a religious belief. So what is the difference, really, between choosing not to vote and taking that right away from yourself? We don't require people to justify their reason for not voting.


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