My friend msleetobe started a series on teaching strategies in the Korean classroom, and wrote to me about her student’s reactions to her lessons regarding the hijab. So I asked her to tailor her brilliant work for the WoodTurtle community. We are often bombarded with very North American reactions to the hijab and religious veiling, and I find her experience teaching in Seoul to be quite eye-opening. Please take the time to read her account and welcome msleetobe!


Hello wood turtle readers!  I’m honoured to guest blog here today and to write to an audience quite different from my own blog’s readers.  I usually write about living as an expat in Korea, or about being in an ‘international marriage’ as a white woman married to a Korean man.  However, I also share what is going on in my classroom as I teach at a Korean university in Seoul.

Five years ago, just a few months after finishing up my MA in South Asian religions, I came to Korea and almost immediately began teaching an advanced reading/writing class which was also supposed to deal with critical thinking. My students were very good at answering content questions based on the readings, and could write basic, if problematic essays, but they didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do with anything remotely critical or analytical, mostly because Korean education is focused on route learning in order to prepare students for the massive college entrance exam.  I wasn’t really sure how to approach teaching critical thinking and analysis as a newcomer to Korea, and I had absolutely no idea how to teach it in a skill based class instead of a content based class.  Thus, I decided to bring content into the class and introduce my students, who were already studying cultural logic and intercultural communication in their textbook, to an issue I had had a lot of experience with.  I’ve been using it on and off with students from various ages and backgrounds, and in different kinds of classes, and in general, it works pretty well.  I hope you’ll enjoy reading the thoughts of Korean students on an issue in Islam which wood turtle often covers, and I hope this lesson plan might help you to think about how to approach other controversial issues which you encounter.

I start out by asking my student to individually answer the following questions:

What are your personal opinions about religion?  Is religion important in your life?  Do you think religion is important for society?

Before the students even know what the topic is, they have to first think about the position they are coming from, and I make them write down their opinion before they speak on it because I noticed pretty quickly that when asked a question, my students tended to all respond in the way the first responder had answered.  I tried this experiment for months actually, where I would ask the same question in 8 different classes every day.  Over and over again, the majority of each class followed the first responder (also usually the eldest student because Korea is a deeply Confucian country), even when it was a factual question. Therefore, I wanted students to focus on their own personal views and to understand the bias from which they were individually beginning.

This approach tends to work well.  The students each take turns reading what they have written out loud, and we take some time to note similarities or differences in perspectives.  I usually have the zealous Protestant Christian who tells everyone that Jesus Christ is his/her Lord and Saviour and that religion (ie. Christianity) should be the basis of moral behaviour in society, the disaffected slightly rebellious younger student who proclaims that religion is the root of all evil, and a student who says that religion isn’t important in his/her own life, but that it can be a positive force in society if used ‘correctly.’  It’s important to orally validate all of these opinions as the students’ personal feelings on the topic, and we discuss the fact that how we personally view religion and the role of religion in society will probably affect our perception of the particular religious marker we are about to discuss.

How are women expected to act and dress in Korea?  Are there different expectations for women compared with men?  Do women face social restrictions in Korea, or do they have the same freedoms and rights as men?

This is another question the students write their individual responses for before they share their views.  The point of this question is to get students thinking about differences between men and women in Korea and to see if students feel the differences they identify are examples of discrimination or not.  Again, there is usually a wide range of opinions, and each student has a chance to share their views before we compare the different responses.

At this point, I reveal the topic: various forms of covering among Muslim women.  We look at pictures of women in burqa, niqab, and hijab.  I make sure to include pictures of women in all different forms of hijab to show diversity in styles and interpretation.  We talk briefly about the tradition of covering, and a bit of the religious basis for the practice, but I don’t go into the various reasons why women cover.  I want the students to figure out those reasons for themselves.

After viewing the pictures of various forms of Islamic covering, what are your initial thoughts about burqa? niqab? hijab?

I think this is a very important question.  It’s important for students to feel safe in sharing their initial personal feelings.  Most of them respond that they feel strange.  Korea is an ever globalizing society, but most of my students have never come into contact with a Muslim let alone a woman wearing niqab.  Until extremely recently, Korea was considered one of the most homogenous nations on Earth, and even today it is normal to encounter Koreans who have never ever met a person from another culture. Many say they are afraid of women who dress in this way, and some have seen news clips on Afghanistan or read books about women in Muslim countries, and so they sometimes say they feel pity for women because they feel they are oppressed.  A few say they find it fascinating, mysterious, or beautiful.

At this point I bring up the concept of hermeneutical lenses.  We tend to think about issues from the perspective of ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’ with the topic, and in Korea, there is an additional tendency to say ‘we Koreans think.’  The first part of the lesson has been about acknowledging the role of personal or cultural bias in how we think, but now we move to looking at forms of covering from other perspectives.  Since my students are all non-Muslims, we start with the ‘insider’ view point.

Brainstorm various reasons why a woman might wear hijab. (We focus on hijab only at this stage as it is far more common than burqa or niqab).

The ideas usually start off fast and furious: fathers make them do it, husbands make them do it, culture makes them do it, the law makes them do it, religious leaders force them to do it.  I actually recently showed a picture of wood turtle and her husband on their wedding day in class, and my students said wood turtle wears hijab because her husband looks like ‘a hijab-loving man’

And then I show some pictures of women living in Western countries who wear hijab and ask if, as the students initially say, women are forced by law, culture, family, or religious leaders to cover, why women living in countries without such customs, converts and women from non-covering immigrant families still wear hijab.

There’s a bit of quiet, and then some tentative responses:  it’s pretty, you don’t have to worry about your hairstyle, you can focus on things over than body and fashion just as public school students here wear uniforms in part to spend more time and energy to focus on studying, because they think that’s what Islamic tradition says, because it’s a way for converts to identify themselves, it’s a physical reminder of religion, it’s a way to hold onto cultural traditions when in a new country, it’s a way to rebel against secular society or non-hijab approving parents, it’s a way to feel community with other wearers, it’s a political statement, not wearing it feels like nakedness in the same way my students feel not wearing pants and a t-shirt is nakedness, it’s comfortable, it’s the equivalent of the sun visor older women in Korea love to wear.  This final statement is profound because the sun visor is worn proudly by women of a certain age as a marker of that status, but it is also ridiculed by those who do not wear it, or even seen as an embarrassing feature of Korean culture by some younger Koreans.

My all-time favourite response is that hijab is comforting to Muslims in the same way that kimchee (the beloved fermented cabbage side dish) is to Koreans.  You really have to live in Korea and eat kimchee for every meal to understand the emotion and love embedded in this statement.

Some of the responses are elicited with prodding, but once the students put on the ‘insider lens,’ they start pretty quickly to be able to imagine other possible interpretations than their initial personal responses.  And the diversity of interpretations is of course the point.  There is, no matter how much any insider or outsider contends, one interpretation or reason for anything.  There are multiple layers, multiple instincts, multiple reasons for our actions, the food we eat, and the rituals we do.  We don’t all ascribe to every reason, but there is usually more than one reason.

We then move to expand the concept of lenses, but this time, we want to think about how various people – Muslims and non Muslims alike – might support or oppose women covering.  We mix them up sometimes, and add or subtract certain people:

A feminist
A conservative politician
A person who believes in multiculturalism
A person who believes the Qur’an is the literal word of God
A woman who lives in a country where women do not usually cover their heads
An atheist

Initially for example, students will probably say that feminists would oppose covering because it goes against women’s rights.  This is a good interpretation, and they are applauded for this.  However, I then challenge them to think about why some feminists support covering.  This takes a few moments of silence, but students eventually come up with the idea that if feminism is about choice, then choosing to cover is supported by feminists.  They also talk about how if a woman can wear a miniskirt, then maybe feminists think that it’s okay not to wear a mini skirt.

Likewise, they initially say that conservative politicians are against covering because the existence of hijab, niqab, and burqa here are all symbols of Korean/American/Canadian culture changing and thus traditional Korean/American/Canadian culture being in jeopardy.  But then, after a period of silence, one or two students also note that if conservative politicians and certain Muslims have similar views on conservative social issues, these politicians might search out ‘visible Muslims’ to help illicit more support for these causes.

These discussions do not always happen smoothly or spontaneously.  There is silence.  There are confused looks.  There are half formed sentences that you may have to help finish because the students are struggling with speaking about something for which they lack language about or even a way to speak.  They are so used to saying ‘I think’ or ‘We Koreans think’ that it is linguistically difficult to rephrase from another’s perspective. But if a teacher is comfortable with silence, and allows that silence to be a space for thinking and translating to occur, students really can come to these interpretations by themselves.

Originally when I created this topic, the French hijab-in-school controversy was raging, so we then looked at online comments from a BBC profile on the subject. There are the BBC featured commentator opinions, but the comments of regular posters are actually more interesting.

We do discuss if these people agree or disagree in terms of allowing hijab in public schools, but we go further and try to compare the reasons why the commentators feel this way.  Two people may be for allowing hijab in school, but for very different reasons.  A person can, for example, believe there is an underlying culture which influences a woman to cover which is wrong (‘forcing’), but feel that the greater evil is that girls will be denied an education and be further marginalized from society if they are forced to remove their hijab.  On the other side, two people might be against hijab, but one because it symbolizes personal oppression and another because it is seen as damaging to the rights of other women.

More recently in class, we’ve dealt with the Canadian controversies of whether or not a woman accusing men of rape should be forced to take off her niqab in court to testify, or the issue over wearing niqab in a Quebec-government sponsored language class.  If I had simply given these topics to students without the initial primer of personal background, bias, and lenses, my students probably would have simply said, ‘I wouldn’t allow it because I think it’s scary.’  Or, ‘I think she should remove niqab because it’s strange to wear it in Korea.’  These statements are fine, but they are more based on personal emotion or particular concepts of normative behavior.  This pre-activity is not meant to change the students’ views or to influence them to think a certain way.  All viewpoints the students bring up are considered, discussed, and evaluated by the class.  Instead, the point is to also consider all the different viewpoints instead of just asserting one’s own view, and to make an argument based on logic not emotion or the students’ initial views of normative behavior.

By the end of the class, the students usually retain their original opinion, but they have a much more nuanced view and defend their position with a more thoughtful analysis.  The student who thinks covering is oppressive and against women’s rights is more likely to talk about how the State is just as likely to enforce dress codes on women as certain Muslims are on each other.  The student who initially saw it as a personal choice is now interested in making connections between clothing norms in Korean and Muslim communities.  The person who was fearful is now more likely to say that when identity or safety is called into question, maybe there is a way to accommodate both the need for security and the wearer’s desire to remain covered.  As one student put it last week, ‘maybe there is a middle way.’  Their basic position hasn’t changed, but how they articulate themselves and how they view the other sides is radically altered. (And the idea that there are more than two sides is a radical idea as well).

This is perhaps one of my favourite activities to do with my students.  I love taking the journey with them each time.  I love the slow process of widening perspectives and of putting on each lens and pretending to be another person to see their viewpoint.  I love observing how the students make connections with their own cultural symbols and experiences.  Even when the connections are a bit skewed, it’s fascinating to see the thought process behind the links.  And most of all, I love how each and every time I do the activity it’s completely different because of how the discussion flows or the personal experiences and backgrounds the students bring with them to class.

I live far away from my land of birth, but I keep up with all the debates raging across the Pacific.  I observe with interest, trepidation, and curiosity the controversies surrounding niqab, illegal immigration, Qur’an burning, and the Park 51 cultural centre.  We have our own controversies here about the sudden increase of ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign’ things in Korea and especially about the place of people like me and the rapid rise in the number of bicultural/biracial families in Korea.  I do not believe that these discussions are dangerous.  I think we need space for people to debate what kind of multiculturalism we need in our countries and which values should be kept, accepted, or reinterpreted.  But unfortunately, the language many people use, the way the debates are framed, and the emotional, dare I say hysterical way these issues are debated, is a cause for concern.  I say that for everyone: ‘foreigners’ in all contexts included.  We all have the tendency to dwell on our own views and assert our own agendas, but we dislike putting ourselves in others’ shoes.  The structure of this activity is perhaps a way for different people (with different topics for different audiences), to begin viewing our surroundings in a more thoughtful way because we all need to expand our viewpoints and better articulate our positions.

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