One semester, I was teaching a Dramatic Literature course at a major public university on the East Coast, when I was approached by four women after the first session.
The four walked up to me and one of them told me they were Muslim and that I had to guarantee them no man would touch them during class.
I was stopped for a moment by their request. When I looked up from my desk, I saw they were all dressed in traditional Eastern clothing and their heads were covered and they were deadly serious.
“We thought this was a literature class,” one of them said.
“It is,” I replied.
“But you just said we would be acting out scenes. That isn’t reading literature. That involves moving around the classroom,” said another.
“Some people teach dramatic literature by sitting around discussing only the text, and other teachers, like me, believe in integrative learning: Plays are not meant to just be read. You only get the real meaning in the context of a performance and you start to get there by acting out parts and scenes and becoming characters.”
Another one replied, “Yes, but that means we might be touched by a man. That is unacceptable to us.”
The last woman spoke up to add, “You must guarantee us that no man will touch us.”
I was puzzled. I’d had Muslim women in my other classes and I never had this sort of issue. The other Muslim students appeared to observant and they covered their heads as well. They interacted with the non-Muslim students in class and they might have even been inadvertently touched by a man in class. One female Muslim student even played three parts in one scene and two of those roles were male; when she was a young boy, she put a baseball cap over her hijab and gave a memorable, outstanding performance.
“I can’t guarantee no man will touch you,” I said. Their faces twitched a bit in a dismissal of my answer. “I understand your concern,” I continued, “and I can guarantee you that you won’t have to act in a scene with any men; but I cannot guarantee you that a man won’t inadvertently touch you, or unintentionally brush by you in the chaos of setting up a scene or in the preparation of moving sets and lighting equipment. I can’t control the unfettered, free movement, of the class.”
The group of women thanked me and left the room.
As they walked away, I wondered how they managed to walk down the crowded hallway they were entering — or along a busy street — without being “touched” by a man. I seem to always get bumped into by all sorts of people on the train and the bus and the sidewalk.
The next day, I was disappointed to learn all four women dropped the class.
I still think the loss was massively theirs, and not ours.