Education of Elizabeth
by Emily W
The plane landed in Lahore early in the morning. When Elizabeth exited and staggered into the terminal along with all of the other weary passengers it was still dark outside. The terminal itself had very few people in it. A couple of airline personnel at the counter and a janitor who was busy vacuuming the floor. Otherwise the airport seemed deserted except for the passengers from Elizabeth’s flight. Most of them were businessmen who immediately made their way out of the terminal and into the central airport. Elizabeth headed that way and after collecting her luggage and passing through customs she arrived to the central hub of the airport.
Waiting for her there were two men, one holding a sign with her name on it. She approached them, “I’m Dr. Reynolds.”
“Hello Dr. Reynolds. I am Yahya, I am to take care of the arrangements for your visit. We have a car waiting outside” Elizabeth regarded Yahya, he was in his late twenties or early thirties. He was pleasant looking with a trimmed beard. After collecting her luggage they exited the airport and got into a white car in the parking lot.
“When will I get to meet with Mr. Khalil?”
Yahya half turned in his seat, “After we check you in at your hotel we can see him at the office.”
The office the young man referred to was the financial wing of the Islamic Renaissance Movement or IRM for short. They were a charity that had been making waves in Pakistan because of the number of schools they had opened to serve the children of poor families. The group was of interest to Elizabeth as she was a professor of Political Science in the United States and much of her work focused on political Islam and she had been watching the IRM for many years and finally had the opportunity to travel to the country in person. After contacting the media department for the IRM she had managed to arrange an interview with the group’s financial officer. Her hope was that through him she could meet the spiritual leader of the group, Maulana Sayeed.
As they drove through Lahore the sun began to steadily emerge and activity picked up along with the traffic. She looked out the window for most of the trip with absolute fascination. The city’s bustling population was busy going about their daily patterns, completely unaware of the American woman watching them as the white car she rode in past by. Most of the women she saw wore the shalwar kameez. However, a substantial number wore niqabs. There had been a significant Islamic revival going on in the country of which the IRM was a part.
After checking into the hotel she was taken to a large two story building. There she met a middle aged man with a neatly trimmed beard. After introductions were made Elizabeth began asking the man questions about the organization. He was able to provide her with an impressive set of statistics about their network of schools. She had to write quickly to keep track of all of the figures: number of students, charitable contributions, etc.
When they got to the topic of the schools’ philosophy the man was less certain. When Elizabeth asked him if the schools are Islamic in nature he nodded slightly then seemed uncertain. Eventually he said that the curriculum for the schools was designed by Maulana Sayeed and that he was better equipped to discuss such things. When Elizabeth asked if it would be possible to meet with Sayeed the man hesitated.
“Well, he lives in the compound of the main school in the countryside. I will have to contact the school and see if that is permissible. It may take a day or two. Would that be all right?”
“Yes, of course.”
Elizabeth had to wait a couple of days at the hotel. Finally one night she received a call that Maulana Sayeed had conditionally consented to a meeting. First, two representatives would come to the city to meet her. Khalil explained that Sayeed was cautious about strangers and that he didn’t expect the meeting to be a problem.
When she met the two representatives at Khalil’s office she discovered them to be the stereotypical image of a Central Asian Muslim. They had long beards and wore traditional clothing. Despite their stern appearance they were fairly polite. On Khalil’s advice Elizabeth had purchased a grey shalwar kameez so that her appearance would be more modest for the representatives. Their questions were asked in an even, calm tone.
“Are you Muslim?”
“Where are you from?”
“What sort of project is this?”
Elizabeth tried to give as complete answers as she could without mentioning unnecessary details. Her answers seemed to be satisfactory. After they were done speaking with her they spoke privately with Khalil who explained that she would be permitted to visit the school. One of the conditions though was that she would have to wear a burqa when speaking with Maulana Sayeed. Elizabeth asked if it was possible for her to just wear her grey shalwar kameez instead. Khalil explained that Sayeed would only see her if she was properly veiled, which meant the burqa. Elizabeth agreed to the terms, even though in her mind she had nothing but reservations.
That night she was back at her hotel room. The two representatives would come by to pick her up and drive her to the school the next morning. Once she was there she would be given a burqa to wear. The prospect was not appealing. While Elizabeth respected other people’s cultural traditions, for her the burqa was a symbol of oppression. She was pragmatic enough to wear it to advance her research. Still, her sleep was uneasy that night.
When the morning came Elizabeth slipped out of bed and opened the windows of her room. The city was already beginning its busy bustle. She saw some beautiful lime colored parrots fly by window and the exotic surroundings kept her mind off the day’s tasks for a few moments.
After getting dressed she went down to the hotel’s cafe. She recognized the piano music playing in the cafe. A tape of the music was played on an endless loop. After a breakfast of curry chicpeas and potatoes she waited outside and before long a vehicle pulled up. The same two men who interviewed her got out and helped put her bags into the vehicle. With a bit of hesitation Elizabeth stepped into the back seat of the vehicle. The two men sat up front.
The drive through the city was completed in silence. Elizabeth felt too cautious to say anything and the men seemed almost shy with her present. It was not until they were out of the city and driving down the famed Grand Trunk Road, flanked by grazing oxen and rice paddies deep into farm country that one of the men escorting her began to speak.
As it turned out his name was Ahmed and despite his traditional appearance he had a Master’s degree in engineering. Rather than engaging in the Western custom of asking questions, Ahmed simply continued to talk about himself. He had studied engineering because he thought it would do the most good for the Muslim world. “Our work on the Internet is very far behind the Non-Believer’s advancement in the information technology field.”
Elizabeth would occasionally make a vague comment to acknowledge Ahmed’s comments without expressing an opinion. Eventually he shifted from engineering and computers to religion.
“I came to Islam intellectually. I read a lot and I realized the truth about the Islamic way of life. It is the best way of life.”
Half an hour of driving went by before their vehicle turned off the main highway. Several more minutes elapsed as they passed small farms, cotton fields and a brick factory. Finally they arrived at the school. What amazed Elizabeth was the amount of construction going on. The original school was discernible because all of the additional buildings were so new. When they arrive a the school a burqa clad figure is waiting for her. Ahmed introduced her as Nakia and explained that she would help Elizabeth prepare for her meeting. Nakia softly whispered a welcome to which Elizabeth politely replied.
Elizabeth was taken to what looked like an office. A large box is laying on the desk. Her burqa wearing guide goes over to the box and pulls out what is clearly another blue burqa.
“This is yours to wear while you are here.”
Elizabeth regarded the blue fabric in front of her with a mixture of fascination and foreboding. She would of course put it on. It was the only way she would be able to meet with Maulana Sayeed. On that level wearing it was purely practical on her part. She needed the interview to further her research. There was something beyond the practical need to wear it though. By putting it on she would be simulating the experience of the women who were and still are forced to wear such things. For a brief time Elizabeth Reynolds would disappear and all that would remain would be another blue ghost.
She held it out towards Elizabeth. With hands that are almost trembling she takes it from Nakia and holds it in her hands. She has to concede that the embroidery on it is beautiful. However, that makes it no less intimidating. This was something far beyond the shalwar kameez she was wearing. That could be quite stylish in its own way and certainly in Lahore she had seen many women whose shalwar kameez were quite fashionable. The blue fabric in her hands was meant to do the opposite of being fashionable, it was meant to avoid attracting attention to its wearer.
“Do you wish to put it one now.”
“I don’t think I have a choice, if I want to see Maulana Sayeed that is.”
With her guide’s help Elizabeth put on the burqa. She felt like she was being submerged into a sea of blue fabric. She could see through the grille but only just. Standing there with another burqa clad woman she wondered how she must look. No doubt anyone who looked at her would assume she was just another local woman.
Elizabeth left the office and parted ways with her guide who remained behind while Zahir and the others led her down a long hallway and out a door. She could see, but her vision was still somewhat inhibited. Eventually they reached a living room in the main building. He Instructed her to sit on one of two long green sofas facing each other from across low table. She wished that she could see herself at this moment, wearing her blue burqa and quietly being seated on the sofa.
Eventually the door opened and several men entered. A few of them stood behind the couch opposite hers. Two more of them helped a much older man with a long white beard into the room and to the couch. He walked with a cane but was obviously weak and needing assistance to move any distance.
Once he was seated he spoke through an interpreter. “Dr. Reynolds. Emir Maulana Sayeed welcomes you as a guest to the school. He hopes that he can help you with your research and help you to learn more about Islam.”
“Please tell the Emir that I thank him very much for his hospitality and his agreeing to see me.” A thought occurred to Elizabeth that the literal meaning of what she said was not technically true, the Emir had not agreed to see her, otherwise she would not be wearing a burqa at the moment.
With the pleasantries finished they proceeded with the interview. First Elizabeth stated several of the facts that she had accumulated about the school such as the number of students it took in a year, the large amounts of money it received from foreign donors, etc. As her words were translated the Emir nodded in agreement. Finally Elizabeth asked her first question, “What is you goal for this school?“
“Our mission is to bring Islam to the whole world. We of course do not have enough schools and teachers to do this yet. This number who graduate from this school a year are four hundred. Many more thousands graduate from the other schools we have built throughout the country. As we generate more funds we hope to increase this with each year. We have even begun taking in poor students from other countries in the world, but since there are so many poor Pakistanis most of our students are still from this country.”
“You said that you mission is to bring Islam to the whole world. How is that accomplished exactly?”
“We teach out students everything they need to know about Islam. In Pakistan our goal is to help people get a better understanding of Islam. Even though Pakistan is a Muslim country there are many who barely know anything about Islam. There are still too many people in our country who cannot read. How can one truly study the Quran if they cannot read it? We teach every student to read, and we teach them Arabic so that they can truly read the Quran and not just a translation.
“Is the Quran and Islam the only thing you teach here?”
“No, but it is the only thing a student will learn for their first several years. Understand, Islam is not just a religion. It regulates every aspect of life. It is the most important thing out students can learn.”
After a while the Emir reversed the flow of conversation and began asking Elizabeth questions. They mostly concerned her work and the nature of her research project. When Elizabeth mentioned that her academic interest was Islam the Emir asked if she had ever been a practicing Muslim. She responded in the negative.
“How can you know about Islam if you have never practiced it.”
Elizabeth tried to explain about her academic credentials and background but her answer felt weak. The conversation continued on for a while but throughout the remainder of it she had trouble getting her mind off the Emir’s question. Finally he made a proposition to her. She could come to live at the school and learn about Islam from the perspective of someone who practiced the faith. While she was here she would have access to the Emir to ask as many questions about her research as she wished.
The offer came out of nowhere and took Elizabeth by surprised. She asked if she could have some time to think about it. The Emir answered in the affirmative and then excused himself as prayers would be beginning soon. After he left Nakia entered the room and asked if Elizabeth would like to observe the prays.
“Yes.” Of course, Elizabeth was at a loss for what else to do while prayers were happening.
Nakia escorted her to a vast room obviously designed to host over a thousand people. Most of the people at the school were male but there were women too. A partition separated the two genders so that the women could pray without being seen by the men. Behind the partition in the room the women took off their burqas and put on simple hijabs. To Elizabeth’s surprise one of them was white.
Elizabeth watched as they repeatedly bowed and kneeled. She knew what every part of the prayers meant and had watched them performed before. As she watched it occurred to her that while intellectually she knew about them…spiritually they still were a bit of a mystery. Maybe finding some first hand insights might be useful…..
Arrangements were made and Elizabeth began her stay at the school. She was given her own room in the women’s quarters that she did not have to share, this was in recognition that she was not a student, but more of a guest. Nakia was tasked with helping Elizabeth become familiar with the school. She showed Elizabeth the full routine for prayer. They also had to spend a couple of hours working in the kitchen together as everyone at the school had to help with the school’s maintenance. Afterward Nakia would spend a couple of hours with Elizabeth discussing the Quran and Islam in general. Afterwards they would attend classes that were also about the Quran and Islam as well as Arabic lessons. And of course all of this was done in a burqa.
Part of the requirement for Elizabeth to stay at the school was that she had to live as a Muslim sister. This meant wearing a burqa like all of the other Muslim women present. Elizabeth found the experience unpleasant. It was hot wearing it and it felt very confining. Seeing through the mesh screen took real effort. Except for her room she was only able to take it off in the private women’s area during prayers so that her forehead could touch the ground when bowing. Elizabeth wondered whether she would be able to put up with it while she was here.
Elizabeth yawned as she got out of bed. She had been trying to adjust her sleep cycle so that she could get up early for the first prayers of the day. After putting on her scarf and washing the required parts of her body she pulled out the prayer rug she was given. She recited the words and made the movements. She did not feel anything spiritual in the process. It was just words and kneeling and bowing.
After the prayers she got the burqa out. She held the blue clothing in her hands. Each time she put it on she felt like she ceased to be Elizabeth Reynolds and would become one of a multitude of women hidden from the sight of men. Taking a deep breath she put on the burqa and adjusted it. She strained to see through the mesh grille. Again, she wondered how all the women and girls at the school managed to move around in such a thing.
After helping Nakia in the kitchen they returned to Elizabeth’s room and removing their burqa’s they took out their respective copies of the Quran and read a couple of parts.
“And whoever does righteous good deeds, male or female, and is a believer, such will enter Paradise and not the least injustice, even to the size of a Naqira, will be done to them.”
“You see Elizabeth. In the eyes of Allah men and women are spiritual equals. There is no distinction between the two as they both have a soul. They each have duties and obligations they must fulfill. Whenever the Quran mentions beings entering the Gardens of Bliss it mentions men and women together.”
“Yes Nakia, but what about the inequality in this life?”
“What specifically do you refer to?”
“Women inherit half of what a man inherits.”
“Of course, it would be unfair for a woman to have more than a man in the inheritance.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow in confusion. “Wait. we just established that the woman receives half of the man. Why did you bring up her receiving more?”
“In Islam, a woman is not obligated to use her money to maintain others. A man on the other hand is obligated to use his money to support others. A man may receive twice as much as a woman, but he is not able to use all of it on himself. The amount that the man and woman have to spend on themselves is the same. If a woman received more it would be taking away from those that the man is obligated to support.”
“But where I am from, woman work as well.”
“The woman takes care of the home and works too?”
“That sounds like it would be unfair to the woman.”
“What do you mean?”
“The woman has to take care of the home AND provide money for the household. This sounds like the man is able to avoid his obligation.”
Elizabeth tried to respond. She knew that Nakia did not understand. However, she had trouble formulating a convincing response.
In the Quran classes Elizabeth would listen quietly while the blue ghost in front of the class explained Islamic concepts. She was familiar with them from an academic perspective, but the goal of the class was to stress the spiritual significance of it.
Elizabeth considered some of the things the woman said. She didn’t actually think that Muhammed had received any divine revelations or that there was an entity that created the universe. However, the other people in the room did and so it was important to understand their beliefs.
After the class the students left the room. The hallway quickly became flooded with a river of blue as the burqa clad women went to their respective destinations. Elizabeth wondered what some looking at her would think. They would likely see just another burqa wearing woman.
“Excuse me, you are the infidel yes?”
Elizabeth turned and saw the vague form of a blue ghost next to her. She did not take any offense to the use of the term “infidel.” In her line of work she had been referred to as one quite often. It was not meant to be offensive, simply a way of distinguishing here.
“Hello. My name is Fatema.”
“My name is Elizabeth.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you. I am curious Elizabeth, may I talk with you.”
The two of them walked outside to a small courtyard that was reserved for the school’s women. Though situated so as to keep the males from being able to see them, all of the women still wore their blue burqas. Elizabeth and Fatema sat underneath a tree.
“What did you want to talk about?”
“I want to know what you think about our school and Islam.”
“Oh, well it has been a very interesting experience so far. I am interested in the beliefs of Muslims.”
“Do you wish to become a Muslim?”
“Well, I don’t have any strong religious feelings.”
“Hopefully you will be inspired by the Quran. I would feel very sorry for you if you returned to your home without embracing Islam.”
“I would you feel sorry for me? Because of what might happen to my soul?”
“Yes, but I was thinking about the way things are in your country and the poor treatment of women. I have read about the strip clubs where women are forced to degrade themselves for money. Also, all of the magazines encouraging them to starve themselves to look thin. I have seen some Western magazines, the women are stripped down to their underwear. We respect women. She must always be in full purdah. In America women are treated like sheep or goats.”
Elizabeth wanted to protest this but she found it difficult to articulate her response. She also did not like the strip clubs and the annorexia encouraging magazine photos. She did not agree with forcing women to fear hijab but she did not agree with some of the West’s excesses either.
“Why don’t you become a Muslim? In your system there is no respect for women. So many rapes. Men look at you whenever they want. A woman should not be subjected to a man’s lustful gazes. In your system rapists are arrested, but there are rapes still going on every day. Rape is not stopped. This is due to bad policy.”
“I agree that rape is one of the worst things, but forcing women to coverup to stop it doesn’t seem right. I enjoy the freedom to choose.”
“You might enjoy being able to choose, but if the choice leads to a bad thing you will not like it in the end. Being forced to do something might irritate you, but in the end you will be happier because of it.”
When Elizabeth had first arrived she had observed a white woman preying. This had intrigued her quite a bit and she had been gradually asking the other women and girls about her. Nakia explained the origin of the mysterious white girl. “We were getting computers installed in all of our Madrassahs. Ahmed, he was on of the men who drove you here. We went to American to learn about such things. He met a young Christian woman there and she became so infatuated with him and traveled all the way here after he returned. With the Emir’s permission she converted and they were married.
A part of the mystery was solved. It was amazing to hear that an American woman had married such a traditional looking Central Asian man.
“Is it possible for me to speak with her?”
“I will ask. You will need Ahmed’s permission.”
After half a day Elizabeth had learned that Ahmed had consented to the meeting. On the appointed day she came over to their home. Ahmed opened the door and welcomed them in.
In the living room there were some simple furnishings. Two children, a boy and a girl were busy playing with some simple wood toys. Watching over them was a woman in a blue burqa. She looked up at Elizabeth.
“Hello. My name is Aziza. Before my conversion it was Samantha.”
“Hello. My name is Elizabeth.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you. Ahmed tells me that you want to talk to me.”
“Yes, I was curious about your story.”
“You mean how I met Ahmed and converted to Islam and came to live in this place?”
“Well, it was several years ago. I was working at a university in the field of computer science. Ahmed was a student there for several years working on an advanced degree in the subject. We just sort of clicked. When he had to return to this school I did not want to be separated from him. So I came out here. The Emir was worried about my presence at first but Ahmed convinced him that I would be useful to have around because of my computer skills. I actually maintain the foundation’s webpage now.”
Elizabeth thought about that for a moment. She had visited the webpage several times. It never even occurred to her that the person maintaining it might be a white American woman!
“I had to convert to Islam and marry Ahmed of course. I didn’t mind, I was never really religious so it was just a few words as far as I was concerned and the burqa was just an inconveinance I would have to put up with. However, as I read the Quran and learn about Islam I fell in love with it. Each chapter of the Quran I read slowly made me aware of the truth I had been missing.”
“That it is women in the West who are oppressed, not the other way around. When I lived in America I had to wear makeup and high heels and my appearance was solely to please a man. Here, my appearance is not for the pleasure of men. The burqa is an honor and a protection.”
They talked for a while until it was time for prayers. At their invitation Elizabeth joined them.
Then one day came.
Elizabeth woke up like usual. After she washed all the necessary parts of her body and putting on her hijab she took out her prayer rug and performed her morning prayers. As she bowed her mind was free of any and all earthly worries. Once she was done praying she put on her burqa and showed up to the kitchen to help Nakia with preparing breakfast. Afterwards the two of them sat alone in Elizabeth’s room for three hours studying the Quran together. Their dialogue was engaging and lively and both walked away feeling like they had expanded their knowledge of Islam. The rest of the day passed and it was not until the evening when she was in her room that the realization had occurred to her.
She had gone through the entire day without making a mental note. Everything she had done was not for the research but simply because it had been routine. Her discussions with Nakia about the Quran had changed so slowly over the weeks she hadn’t realized it. When they talked about the Quran, it was not as a secular Western and a Muslim Pakistani. It was as two people exploring the meaning of existence together. And she had done all of this while wearing a burqa. She had become so accustomed to it that she did not think of it as a foreign encumbrance anymore.
It occurred to Elizabeth that she learned what she needed to know.
A couple of days later she said her farewells to the people of the school and took the journey back. First she was driven back to Lahore and after staying in the same hotel as before she took a flight back to the United States. In her bag was the blue burqa that she had been given as a gift. A reminder of the month that she had lived as a devout Muslim woman in Asia.