Dr. Mitra Shavarini began as Executive Director at WorldTeach in September 2017. Mitra holds a doctorate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and has taught at Brandeis University for nearly ten years. In her first blog entry she discusses one of her earliest cross-cultural teaching experiences.
The adventurousness in me signed up to teach English in post-Revolutionary Iran. It was 1992. This experience would come to define my future professional trajectory.
Having flipped from a monarchy to a theocracy, and going through a brutal war with neighboring Iraq, the newly installed Islamic Republic of Iran opened up its borders to the outside world that year. Iran’s new (and first) president, Hashem Rafsenjani, wanted to rebuild the nation. If his plumpness were an indicator, this man was well-served by the Revolution. Turbaned and bearded, he beseeched expats from his pulpit to return and help rebuild the country.
Being idealistic and rather curious, I heeded the call and offered what was practically the only thing that I could do for that context: to teach English. Because of stringent laws protecting K-12 grades so to inculcate the youth with revolutionary ideals, I was restricted to teaching college-aged students.
As teacher in my first college classroom, cloaked head-to-toe in the required Islamic uniform, I stood in front of one packed classroom. I had not expected so many students to show up for my course: most sat crowded atop the dusty tiled floor, others cranked their necks to peek in from the doorway, and more were peering through a window from the fire escape. They had heard that I had come from “The Great Satan,” the Islamic government’s derogatory epithet for the United States. They had heard I was going to teach English. They had heard I was Iranian but had left as a child.
They wanted to learn from me, and I from them. “English” was our excuse. Each side thirsty to learn from one another.
My female students sat in the front of the class while their male counterparts took up the back rows. The peculiar seating arrangement was a mandate at all universities: young men could only look at the back of women’s heads, so as not to be tempted by their feminine beauty, it was haram in this Muslim world. I looked at these twenty somethings who had been isolated from the world during their formative years; their youth had been clouded by bloodshed and none of their families managed to escape the ravages of a Revolution and a war.
I had left Iran as a child and now in my late twenties had come to meet the other half of my Iranian-American hyphen. The part I had come to meet was the identity that back in Narragansett, Rhode Island, had evoked such ire among townspeople who didn’t know us that they felt compelled to egg our house, call us late into the night with vulgar obscenities, or write profanity filled notes instructing us to “go home.” At the college bars where I had tried to blend in, drunk young college boys banged beer mugs in unison, expressing hatred for a country which they could not locate on a map, even when sober.
Teaching English in Iran that year was a transformative experience, to say the least. I not only understood how my upbringing in the U.S. had afforded me Western privileges, but also the ways in which those same privileges limited my global comprehension. I found one of my feminist expectations got turned on its head: donning the hijab can be a strangely liberating experience that can empower women.
It was not uncommon for my female students to invite me to their homes after classes where, in the private realm, they’d remove their hijab and reveal their jet-black hair. These outside of class encounters were some of the most enriching and thought provoking experiences of that year. Over cups of amber, aromatic, Persian tea, these young women shared their hopes, aspirations, goals, and fears. In many ways, they were a reflection of my own self.
It was these conversations that sparked my interest to research the role of education in Muslim women’s lives. I would later attend Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, teach courses on the topic at Brandeis University, and publish articles and books as well.
Teaching English in this familiar but strangely different land continues to ripple through both my personal and professional life.