For the past five years, students enrolled in Middle Eastern, Afghani & Pakistani Literature (known as “Middle Eastern Lit”) have participated in Taliban Day where they attempt to recreate the experience of living under the rules of the Taliban regime.
This year, in the face of mounting concerns from members of faculty, the course’s teacher Peggy Elhadj and High School Principal Jack Phillips initially decided to postpone the activity before finally canceling it on December 4, citing the current global climate surrounding Islamic extremism as one of the most compelling reasons behind their decision. “The level of anxiety in our community, after the attacks in Paris, is higher than normal,” Elhadj wrote in an email on December 9. “Therefore the reaction of people in our school and those of the broader community to Taliban Day is unpredictable at this time and we need to be sensitive to that.”
In the class, students read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Taliban Day is an attempt to understand the experiences of the characters in the novel who live under the Taliban regime. “The lesson [for] the students in the class is primarily one of empathy and greater understanding of the Afghani people living under Taliban rule,” Elhadj explained.
During Taliban Day, students are expected to follow the rules of the Taliban regime, which include wearing a headscarf for girls and boys escorting girls at all times. Also, girls cannot make direct eye contact with those around them. The following day is usually reverse Taliban Day, where girls would take on the boy’s role and vice versa.
In the six years that Elhadj has taught this course, she believes she has been successful in her goal of shaping empathy and understanding. “The girls find it striking how a simple piece of cloth on their head can affect the way they behave and think about themselves and their role in school,” Elhadj remarked. “The boys find it surprising that being responsible for someone else for an entire day impinges so deeply on their own autonomy.”
This year, however, there were some concerns regarding the day’s message, mostly from faculty. Arabic Teacher Ruth McDonough views this goal of empathy for people under Taliban rule as ineffective and condescending. She believes it’s indicative of the West’s tendency to look down upon less developed nations. “I think that it relates to the way that Western powers and governments feel a paternalistic need to fix things in places that they may not fully understand,” she said. “It seems to me reminiscent to say ‘we’re going to try on your experience so we can be thankful we’re not you,’ but in that process, ‘we’ll also pity you’.”
In fact, McDonough points out that some of the rules enforced by the Taliban are practiced in varying degrees around the world and are not considered oppressive. “There are cultures where it is not appropriate to laugh in public, or make eye contact with the opposite gender,” she said. “Those are not necessarily always oppressive acts. We all experience and exert oppression in different ways,” she said. It is too easy, she believes, for Westerners to call these acts oppressive because they are not part of Western culture.
Furthermore, Grade 9 Dean Rodney Yeoh thinks that the activity can never really achieve its goal of empathy and that the issue can be easily misconstrued and made light of. “Can you really ever capture the feeling of an oppressed person [in] a one-day activity? I mean, you can attempt to, but can we really do that?” Yeoh said. “Or are we caricaturing the issue?”
He points to other situations that would be considered caricaturization of important topics. “When we read the Diary of Anne Frank or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, do we dress up to recreate the Holocaust experience? Do we paint black faces and have white folks as the slave owners? Should we do that?” he said.
However, Elhadj strongly believes that her students understand the gravity of the situation and that the activity, whilst not an entirely accurate representation, will be a step forward. She shared one student’s written reflection after Taliban Day that she believes encapsulates this. “Yes, we may not be able to fully experience what it is like to live under the Taliban, and yes, we probably won’t ever have to lead a life even close to the lives of some of these individuals,” Oliver Chene (’16) wrote. “Even so, by not doing anything, how can we even take the first step at simply trying to understand?”
“Understanding” may not be as straightforward for students outside of this class, though. Yeoh believes that there is a risk that students would not take the activity seriously. He believes that the behavior dictated by the Taliban regime may have been laughed at by students outside of the class, and that male Middle Eastern Lit students may not take their responsibility to chaperon female counterparts seriously. “It can be seen as a joke,” Yeoh said. “In some ways, if it fails, it can fail very badly for a group of kids that want to attempt to learn something very serious.”
Maya Matejcek (’17), who was in one of the Middle Eastern Lit classes this fall, is offended by concerns like Yeoh’s. “By saying that boys [thought] it would be fun and cool to boss around a girl is undermining the boys in our class,” she said. “I think our class is full of such intelligent people who care about this topic and that our class has been underestimated by the faculty as a whole.”
Rules of Taliban Regime
As written in A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseni:
Our watan is now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These are the laws that we will enforce and you will obey:
All citizens must pray five times a day. If it is prayer time and you are caught doing something other, you will be beaten.
All boys will wear turbans. Boys in grade one through six, will wear black turbans, higher grades will wear white. All boys will wear Islamic clothes. Shirt collars will be buttoned.
Singing and dancing is forbidden.
Writing books, watching films and painting pictures are forbidden.
You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.
You will not, under any circumstance, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.
Cosmetics and jewelry are forbidden.
You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.
Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.
Listen. Listen well. Obey. Allah-u-akbar.
Another concern is the use of the headscarf in the activity. Social Studies Teacher Sana Shafqat believes the use of the headscarf sends an unintended message. “My worry is that the takeaway as a physical symbol is that the headscarf is oppression. In that [Taliban] context, yes, it is seen as oppression, but it’s not oppression for millions more,” she said. “Taliban Day is saying that the anomaly is equated with something that is the norm.”
These concerns hit home for Shafqat, who is Pakistani. “My fear as a teacher who’s Pakistani, is that my students might equate the [headscarf] with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban, and think that it’s my reality and [the only reality],” Shafqat said. “When we give monolithic definitions to a group, a culture [or] a country, we run into that risk.”
Rowan Yearley (’16), also in the course, believes that this concern is unnecessary. He believes that any misunderstandings could have been cleared up with a High School assembly and advisory discussion. “We could have explained [the activity] better beforehand to make it more obvious that the Taliban is oppressive, but Islam is not. People are too quick to associate what we are doing with Islam,” Yearley said.
However, Phillips thinks that an advisory and one-off assembly would not be able to completely address all of the concerns. He believes that, even with an advisory-wide explanation from class members, others who disagree with the activity may not feel comfortable voicing their concerns. He also isn’t sure that advisors would feel prepared to help out the conversation.
Phillips also points to a missing aspect of the High School assembly solution. What would a Middle Schooler or Lower Schooler – who would not be at the assembly – think if they saw students walking around dressed as if they were ruled under the Taliban regime? What about someone who is visiting the school?
“We don’t know how other people are thinking about this,” he said. “What if someone who is not engaged thoughtfully [in the discussion] sees somebody covered, and associates anyone who wears the headscarf with oppressive regimes, extremist beliefs [and] a patriarchal society? I think that is the last thing we would want happen,” he said.
Matejcek feels like members of the community are unwilling to have difficult discussions within the High School. “I don’t think we need to have all this fear about discussing [Islamic extremism],” Matejcek said. “It feels like people are even scared to talk about being Muslim…which shows we need to talk about this as a community.”
Phillips, however, emphasizes that the discussion isn’t over. “The challenge I have given to everyone is, how could we do this the right way?” Phillips said. “How could we talk about it, rather than having just a one-off activity? How could we really thoughtfully engage in this?”
He hopes that student groups like the Middle East Club along with other motivated students and faculty can facilitate conversation about Islam and the religion’s role in the world today. Among other things, he would like to see the school delve into how we empathize and how we can understand religious extremism while still recognizing the diversity of the Muslim world.