East vs. west/men vs. women

Material Information

East vs. west/men vs. women Muslim women immigrants' ESL experience in America
Ward, Carissa Reneé
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
v, 65 leaves : ; 28 cm


Subjects / Keywords:
Muslim women -- United States ( lcsh )
English language -- Study and teaching -- Foreign speakers -- Sex differences ( lcsh )
Sex differences in education ( lcsh )
Second language acquisition -- Cross-cultural studies ( lcsh )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 62-65).
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Carissa Reneé Ward.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
62769152 ( OCLC )
LD1193.L54 2005m W37 ( lcc )

Full Text
Carissa Renee Ward
B.S., John Brown University, 1994
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts

This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Carissa Renee Ward
has been approved
Hong Guang Ying

Ward, Carissa Renee (M.A., English)
East vs. West/Men vs. Women:
Muslim Women Immigrants ESL Experience in America
Thesis directed by Professor Ian Ying
Previous research on gender and power issues in education and lan-
guage reveals the impact of strong religious beliefs and the force of current
events on how a specific segment of the English as a second language (ESL)
population, Muslim women immigrants, can be helped by teachers being
aware of the factors that interfere with the Muslim womens learning and cre-
atively problem-solving their situation.
There has been much research on gender issues within education and
language itself. This paper brings together this research along with immigra-
tion statistics on Muslim women, the premises of their religion, and the high
contrast of the American culture to Islam to see how all these things combine
to create a learning environment for these women. The question for this paper
is if and how Islam and the American culture affect their learning and what
ESL teachers can do to assist these women in their learning.
This abstract accurately represents the co
recommend its publication.
of the candidates thesis.
Ian Ying

1. INTRODUCTION...............................................1
Islam as an Obstacle to Learning..........................2
American Attitudes towards Muslims........................3
2. BACKGROUND INFORMATION.....................................6
Power and Gender Issues...................................6
Grammar and Gender.......................................10
Power in Communication Styles............................14
Language of Power........................................16
Male and Female Communication ...........................19
Gender and Power in Language Use.........................20
Background of Muslim Women...............................22
Historical Perspective...............................22
Loss of Community Access.............................24
Who are Muslim Women Immigrants?.........................27
Reasons for Immigrating..................................29
Countries of Origin......................................30
Differences in Islamic Beliefs...........................30
Factors that Increase Learning Difficulty................31
Creating an Identity.................................33

What Muslim Women Immigrants Face
Minority Female Education in the United States..........36
Female Grammar as a Second Dialect......................36
American Attitudes toward Muslims...........................41
Procedural Understanding................................46
Relevance Theory........................................47
Context and Culture Cues....................................48
Traditional Classroom Style.................................52
Learning Environments.......................................53
Practical Application.......................................57

Previous research by Jennifer Coates, Penelope Eckert, Sally McCon-
nell-Ginnet, Mary Bucholtz, Diane Larsen-Freeman, and others on gender
and power issues in education and language reveals the impact of strong reli-
gious beliefs and the force of current events on how a specific segment of the
English as a second language (ESL) population, Muslim women immigrants,
can be helped by teachers being aware of the factors that interfere with the
Muslim womens learning and creatively problem-solving the womens situation.
Muslim immigrant women are likely to have a difficult time learning
English as a second language because of three main obstacles: the power/
gender issues in education, the religious tenets of Islam that block immer-
sion in western language and culture, and western attitudes toward Islam and
Muslims. Learning English is important for all immigrants to the United States
if they want to flourish in this culture. Second language learning as an adult
is daunting, but as a womanespecially a woman with religious beliefs that
sharply divide male and female freedomsthe access to education, society,
and other places and times in which to learn can be especially trying. How-
ever, learning the language of the land in which they now live provides great
reward: the freedom to express their unique voices directly into American
society instead of relying on an interpreter to make themselves known.
Any person who has tried to acquire a second language would testify
that the task is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. No matter who

the learner is, as an adult, learning a second language is frustrating at best
and impossible at worst. However, certain situations increase the difficulty of
learning a second language, making the experience more difficult than it has
to be.
Islam as an Obstacle to Learning
Depending on how conservative an immigrant familys view of the teach-
ings of Muhammad are, a Muslim woman may not be able to interact freely
in public, particularly if there are men present. It is common that a Muslim
woman is required to have a male escort in order to attend to her public
activities. This is true even of American women visiting Muslim countries. An
acquaintance recently spent several weeks in Yemen observing a nurse prac-
titioner. My friend observed that when she and the nurse were accompanied
by the male driver, the two women were able to move about in society freely.
However, if the driver was not present, even though the women were together
and in modest attire, they were often hassled when they appeared in public.
My American friend found this to be an extremely stifling aspect of life in the
Muslim country.
With many Muslim women, when they are in public, their escort becomes
their go-between. They often cannot deal directly with another man even if he
is the grocer. Since immersion is generally accepted as one of the best ways
to learn a second language, how would this woman who is shielded from
English-speaking society learn English well? Often among devout Muslims it
is considered inappropriate for women and men to interact in public together,

including a classroom situation. How does a woman who is not allowed to be
in a classroom with men learn English?
Gender, aside from religious rules, can be its own hindrance. In the
United States and many other countries, women were not given as many
opportunities to succeed in education in the past. In the United States, this is
beginning to change with the help of several non-profit organizations and gov-
ernment programs dedicated to helping girls and women stay in school, like
the passing of Title IX in 1973 that requires equality in what is offered to men
and women in school. There are many things about the way the education
system is set up in the United States that have historically held all students to
a standard that was biased towards white male success with everyone else
falling in line somewhere behind them. Although many of these standards and
thought processes are changing, learners who do not fall within the definition
of a typical studentwhite, upper-class, and maleoften are left behind.
Americans Attitudes towards Muslims
The events of 9/11 have highly exacerbated attitudes of suspicion of
many Americans towards Muslims. In any country there is a wariness of those
who are different. When there seems to be just cause to blame an entire
group for certain tragic events that only a small percentage of that groups
number took part in, fear and hate can run high. Ask the average person on
the street in the United States what they think of Muslims and Islam. The

responses will be much more skeptical of any Muslim not being somehow
involved in terrorism. Many will even say that Islam encourages the kind of
terrorism the world has seen of late. In 2004, Genesis Research Associates
conducted a phone survey across the United States. Of the people polled, 32
percent said that they thought of something negative when they heard the
word Muslim (CAIR).
The Muslims places of worship, their clothing, and their language have
all become threatening to many American citizens. There are communities
in the United States as represented in statistics regarding crimes against
Muslims that do their best to make sure Muslims in general feel unwelcome,
particularly Muslims of Arab descent. The attitude even extends to any person
resembling a Middle Easterner, no matter if that person is not Muslim or even
if that person was born in the United States. Anti-lslamic crimes rose dramati-
cally after the September 11,2001 terrorist attack in New York according to
the FBIs 2001 Uniform Crime Reporting Programs Hate Crime Statistics
The backlash of violent crimes has decreased gradually since the at-
tacks on the World Trade Towers, but many people in the Muslim community
are more worried about how they are perceived by their fellow citizens, and
whether issues such as immigration and employment discrimination, or de-
famatory statements against the Islamic faith by several prominent American
Christian leaders will be tolerated (Kauffman n.pag.). According to the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), over 800 charges have been
filed to the EEOC since September 11 by individuals who are or who are

perceived to be Muslim, Arabic, Middle Eastern, South Asian or Sikh (n.pag.).
The potentially hostile environment caused by this kind of behavior by Ameri-
cans towards people of other religions creates a fearful environment for a
Muslim woman to step out in to learn English.

In order to understand the plight of Muslim women who have immigrated
to the United States, some background information needs to be established.
There must be an understanding of theories about how power and gender are
entwined within the structure of language, who these women are and what
kinds of situations they are coming from, as well as what biases these women
must face as minority women in the American educational system and in
American culture.
Power and Gender Issues
Power struggles, particularly between men and women, are as old as
time. All the way back to Adam and Eve up to modern times and in practically
every culture, men have held the keys to social power and women have strug-
gled to gain a more equitable share of that power for themselves. Many times
this power has been kept within a certain class of people through the control-
ling of education. Those in powertypically mencontrol who has access
to education and what is allowed to be taught to those students. Often times
these decisions and judgments have been made to the detriment of womens
education. For example, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and
placed the whole country under supposed Islamic law, its first actions were
to shut down most higher education and ban women and girls from attending

school (Human Rights Watch 557). The education of women, then, was lost
and the female voices and their power were muzzled.
This form of governmental control is common, not only in regards to the
Muslim women in the example, but also to stifle the educational system in
general or to force education to become more of a method to spread political
propaganda in order to control the people. When Hitler sought to control pub-
lic opinion, he began by rounding up the educated and artistic of the commu-
nity and placing them in concentration camps. He also controlled what future
generations were learning by dictating the education of the children, which
was filled with Nazi propaganda. The same actions occurred in the former
Yugoslavia as Milosevic began a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Russia and
China both put in place educational systems that promoted the Communist
Party and have used force and fear to subvert any thought that differed from
the government.
People who look or act different than those who hold power are a threat
to those in power; therefore, there is a fear of educating people who are differ-
ent physically or who may not think the same way as those in power. Power-
ful dictators of the past have understood that education can be an ally if used
correctly, but it can also be the downfall of a regime if it is not saturated in pro-
paganda. If knowledge is power and everyone has free access to knowledge,
then who is in charge? Power, politically and socially, is attained by controlling
the knowledge people acquire.
These power and gender patterns and issues come into play in the
United States education system. People with power decide who is considered

worthy or capable in society. It may not be as extreme as the forced propa-
ganda of certain countries, but the basic hierarchical structure of power is in
place. These ideals of worthiness were culled from the ancient Greeks and
Romans who determined that the rich, educated man should be the most
esteemed by sole value of his education, which was only available to him
because of his riches. Women, because they could not own land or riches at
the time, were not allowed a voice in society, nor were they given an educa-
tion. According to Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg in The Rhetorical Tradi-
tion, Women were supposed to remain sequestered within the home and to
be concerned solely with domestic matters....Women generally received less
education than men, had far fewer legal rights, and were greatly restricted in
their public roles (27). The power and gender issues, although much im-
proved in the United States school system, still remain and need to be ad-
dressed in order to ensure that men and women receive solid educations.
When the school and university systems began to be established in the
United States in the mid-1600s, women and girls as well as minorities were
not allowed free access to these places of education. Girls of European de-
scent started being allowed into schools in the mid-1700s. Not until the early
1800s were there any institutes of higher education that would accept female
students. Not until 1954, with the decision from Brown vs. Board of Education
of Topeka, did it become illegal to keep minorities from studying at particular
schools (World Book n.pag.). With that foundation, our educational system on
all levels has since developed in such a way that still subconsciously caters
to the ruling class of that period: wealthy men of European descent. School

curricula, testing, and teaching styles are generally skewed through wording
and topics to men with a European background.
Jennifer Coates, Professor English Language and Linguistics at Roe-
hampton Institute in London, found in researching for her book, Women,
Men and Language, that many researchers feel that girls are failing to fulfil[l]
their potential in school, and that language is one of the contributing factors
(187). Coates research reveals how the traditional classroom teacher tends
to teach towards the standards previously created to assess learning when
classrooms were more homogenized, as in one race and one gender in the
classroom. This style of teaching often does not reach the minds of female
or minority students because it focuses on one kind of learner. Many strides
have been made to change the system to integrate people with more varied
cultural backgrounds and skill levels by incorporating into the school: ESL
classes, classes for the gifted, assistance for those with physical and learning
disabilities, and multi-ethnic literature and festivals for example. Unfortunately
the problem is at the root of the system in the narrow standards that creak
and groan as society attempts to incorporate more diversified people into it.
Our educational system is a reflection of a hierarchy common not only
to the United States culture but also to cultures around the world. That hier-
archy is based on the idea that whoever is in power is somehow superior to
the rest of the population and must remain so. As people come to the United
States from other countries to live and work or to enter a university, they run
head-long into this system. It is a system where looking, thinking, and speak-
ing differently from those in charge often means that the immigrant or minority

student is viewed as not as intelligent or capable as the natives, especially
the ruling class of the natives. For example, if a man who comes to America
from Indiawhere he is likely a part of the class in power there because of
his ability to afford school in the United States and his elevated position in
their strong caste systemto study at an American college will find that he is
no longer at the top of the hierarchy. This is not because he is not intelligent,
but because he is not a native English speaker and therefore he is not a typi-
cal student. If a woman comes to the United States from a country where
education for women is not valued, she will find herself even lower within the
hierarchical system than the educated man from India because she is not a
typical student and she is female. She not only is not a native speaker, but
she may have a difficult time learning English because of her level of literacy
in her own language. How easy will it be for her to succeed in a country where
education is so highly valued?
Grammar and Gender
How do issues of power and gender interact in learning? In her ar-
ticle, The Grammar of Choice, Diane Larsen-Freeman, from the School for
International Training in Battleboro, Vermont, discusses how the grammar
structures of native speakers of English contain very subtle elements that can
change the meaning of a sentence. These kinds of subtleties in the language
are difficult for second language learners to pick up on and many times mark
them as non-native speakers for the duration of their lives in America even if

they can disguise their accents. This glitch in communication can have nega-
tive repercussions on their ability to succeed in this country.
Larsen-Freeman specifically addresses the issue of social power hier-
archies in language usage, especially the acknowledgement of authority. How
do native speakers defer to one another or show respect for authority in the
grammar structures they choose? How do non-native speakers learn or even
notice these structures? These cues in the new language the Muslim woman
is learning are particularly difficult to grasp when the second language or L2
student is from a culture where these cues may be very different from what
she is familiar with in her own language.
For example, in parts of America the authority structure in a job is prob-
ably not as formal as would be found in many other countries, but there
are definitely unwritten rules about what is appropriate to say to someone
in authority. When speaking to a supervisor it may be difficult for a second
language learner to decipher what those rules may be. A person in manage-
ment may give the impression that she wants to be everyones friend. Na-
tive speakers may understand that she may talk to them like a friend, but
they may not understand that they still need to speak to her with respect for
her authority. Another example would be talking about what people earn. In
the United States this is a taboo subject to ask someone, but in some other
cultures it is acceptable to ask people about their salary. How do these fac-
tors affect second language learners communication, and particularly, how do
they affect female learners differently than male learners?

The three main categories Larsen-Freeman uncovered were attitu
power and identity. Beneath each category she listed sub-categories alor
with examples of some choices people make in structuring their language
output that show each of the sub-categories. These sub-categories indue
aspects such as politeness, deference, assertiveness, age, status, and S'
eral other designations. These categories are meant to show the multitude
of choices a person may make in choosing which words to speak depenc
ing on the kind of discourse in which the person is involved. For example
both speakers are female but one is a supervisor at a job and the other is
employee, the power category along with the status sub-category would
insight into the kinds of grammar choices available in the discussion betv
these two people.
One of the sub-categories under the larger heading of power is
der. In the English-speaking world, as well as many other language grou
the feminine voice is not the voice of power. Power relations are reprod
through talk, and it would be naive to deny that there must be some relation
ship between these gender-differentiated conversational styles and exist
ing power structures (Coates 194). Women use words differently than m
such as using more passive structures in their grammar choices. Accordiji
to Larsen-Freeman, women make more use of intensifiers than men out
concern that they are not going to be heeded (112). Women are more li
to soften their utterances using intensifiers likeperhaps, so, I think, sort
or probablywhich then translates to passivity to others. Because wome
have often been in powerless positions, their style of speaking has becon
ge >

Of a

associated with powerlessness. This difference in who is perceived to have
the power in society, needs to be a concern when teaching ESL students,
particularly female students. They need to know that ways they communicate
in English may not be heard and that there are ways to speak that will assist
them in accomplishing their communicative goals.
Diane Larsen-Freeman discusses some specific words that women
tend to use in their speaking as well as certain structures which show an
individuals assertiveness or lack thereof. Assertiveness, which is often linked
more with male communication than female, can be measured through the
grammar structure that Larsen-Freeman calls the negative transportation con-
struction. The example she gives in her article is the contrast between these
two sentences: (112)
a. I dont think Sandy will arrive until Monday.
b. I think Sandy wont arrive until Monday.
These example sentences show how the opinion in sentence a is soft-
ened by the beginning negative which is a feature often associated with wom-
ens speech. The second example is considered more direct and therefore
more common of mens talk. In teaching ESL to Muslim immigrant women, or
even immigrant women in general, it is important to reveal to them the subtle
difference in these grammar structures that show different levels of asser-
tiveness. This information would give them clues as to why a native speaker
might be taken aback by something the non-native speaker says because of
subtle grammar choices the speaker has made.

Women learning English as a second language here in the United
States come in with two strikes against them: they are women, and they are
minorities. Muslim women add one more strike against them if they are from
a conservatively practicing branch of Islam. They may not even be allowed
to attend a typical English as a second language classroom, or they may not
have much of an education in their first language. If these students are inter-
ested in higher education in the United States, which kind of English do they
need to be taught? Do they need the kind of language they can relate to and
use in daily life? Or, do they need to know the dialect typical to the academic
world? Or, do they need both?
Power in Communication Styles
Deborah Tannens study, The Relativity of Linguistic Strategies: Re-
thinking Power and Solidarity in Gender and Dominance, tackles the issue
of differences in grammar structure and gender. Tannen acknowledges the
differences in style in the way men and women traditionally communicate, but
refutes the idea that power is given or taken away solely based on those style
differences. She cites examples from other cultures where a man uses an
indirect style of communication, which is generally considered a more femi-
nine way of speaking, but still retains his authority within his cultural setting.
Another example she gives is of a culture where the females are more direct
in their communication and the men are more indirect. While we may assume
that women held more power in that setting, the opposite was actually true.
The men held more power (165). Her point was that the issue of who holds

power as shown through communication may not always be solved by know-
ing which gender is participating in passive or directive talk.
Tannen writes that power can be shown and solidarity can be formed
using indirect or direct grammar structures in communicating. In many cul-
tures of the world it is disrespectful or rude to speak directly, and yet some
group must hold the power in those countries. Women are often associated
with using indirect grammar structures in their communication here in the
United States. Unfortunately, that style of communication is considered weak
in this culture. Therefore, even as a man, if a second language student comes
from a country where indirect communication structures are considered more
acceptable, this male student will have a more difficult time becoming a part
of the power structure of western society or of a university system. In Lan-
guage and Gender, the authors find that language ideology among dominant
white social groups in the [United States] sees directness as a virtue, indirect-
ness as at best a waste of time and often as an impediment to effective com-
munication (Eckert and McConnell-Ginnet 188). Therefore, Muslim women
immigrants will have to be taught the importance of direct speech because of
the possibilities that they will not be heard in this culture if they communicate
in indirect grammar structures.
Tannens theory is that these styles of communication are only a part of
a more complicated web of issues that result in the domination of one group
over another. According to Tannens research, The consequences of style dif-
ferences work to the disadvantage of members of groups that are stigmatized
in our society, and to the advantage of those who have the power to enforce

their interpretations (8). The people with the power are the gatekeepers of
that power and only let in the people they feel are acceptable. Because of this
requirement, people who do not fit the mold of the gatekeepers will have a
difficult, if not impossible, time entering into that power hierarchy. The people
who are stigmatized on multiple levels by the gatekeepers, for the most part,
will have to struggle against this dominance from others or accept the hierar-
chy as it is yet avoid becoming a part of that structure themselves.
Language of Power
Any language is tied to the culture in which it is used. Language and
culture are entwined, and although many countries may have the same over-
all language, the working out of the language in the different cultures results
in varying dialects of the main language. Jennifer Coates revealed from her
research that learning to speak is learning to be a member of a particular
culture. The social order, in other words, is reproduced through speech (143).
This offers an explanation of why English spoken in the United States is vastly
different from English spoken in Britain, Australia, or any other English speak-
ing country. The vernacular of a language develops through the events that
occur in any particular place. In the United States, womens suffrage as well
as feminism have affected the way we use language, although men still hold
many of the positions of power. In the realms of education and religion, the
rules which mark success in many areas of life are still the ones written by

Gender roles and interactions have changed enormously in approximate-
ly the last fifty years or so in the United States. We have seen women move in
status from teacher or secretary to Ph.D. or CEO. Women are still viewed as
less capable than men overall, which is attested to by the differences in pay
for the same job, but life as a woman in America is much improved in many
ways. This improvement is evidenced particularly in regards to human rights
and individual freedoms; it is especially an improvement over the way many
women around the world are still mistreated and oppressed.
The domineering attitude towards language use and standards seems
to be the last bastion of male control in many ways. It is a way to control who
receives which jobs, who receives how much pay, who receives higher edu-
cation, who runs for office and who can participate in religious activities. This
controlling attitude is under the surface of everyday speech. For example, the
science or engineering departments in most universities tend to be populated
by men. Those particular fields are many times rewarded with higher-pay-
ing jobs as well as a boys-club mentality because those are the fields that
women do not necessarily excell in. The heads of these departments would
never say boldly that they would like to keep women out, but the experiences
of many women who have braved the halls of these departments have of-
ten been that they had to become like one of the guys in order to succeed.
It is not that women do not have the capabilities to become engineers and
scientists, but that the way they approach the sciences is different than the
way men approach it. However, because men are the majority in those fields,

women have had to adapt to a more masculine way of thinking in order to
pass tests and move up in the science and engineering fields.
Language is key to survival and to success in any culture. People have
to have some way to communicate their needs, ideas, and dreams to others.
When the ultimate grade of such expressions lies either in the hands of privi-
leged, white males or in the institutions and standards which this group has
created, it is unlikely that anyone dissimilar to themselves will be able to run
the gauntlet and succeed.
In the United States, because of large pockets of same language groups
who have immigrated from a common country or area of the world to the
same city, it is possible to immigrate and then live comfortably without ever
learning English. However, this means that new immigrants rely solely on
other people in that community who speak the same language. The new
immigrants end up only going places or doing things if there is someone to
translate for them or to guide them. Muslim women would be even more likely
than other immigrants to fall into this pattern since the Muslim women are
expected to have male family members escort them in public.
In order to truly succeed and be autonomous in a culture, immigrants
have to learn the language. If they plan to do exceedingly well, they have to
learn the language of the powerful people in the new country. In the United
States, that language of power and prestige has historically been the lan-
guage of upper-class, educated, white males. In modern times, it is still true
that men tend to dominate in the area of language. In Jennifer Coates book,
Women, Men and Language, she studied different instances of language use

between mixed sex and single sex groups. What she found was that overall
men pursue a style of interaction based on power, while women pursue a
style based on solidarity and support (136). This hierarchical structure, or
one up, one down, to the mens conversations is considered normal where
the female tendency towards a cooperative structure of conversation and
even in how they live their lives is considered as inferior or passive to this
Male and Female Communication
Language is highly complex because of the connections to power, gen-
der, and social context. Once communicative competence is reached, then
one has to discover how to use the language appropriately. Part of appropri-
ateness of language use is being able to select topics of interest that will be
accepted by those to whom you are speaking. This is another area where
men dominate through their conversational behavior. Coates found that in
conversations where one speaker is male and one female, male speakers
tend to dominate (113). This was shown through high incidences of the men
interrupting the female as well as through male silence or delayed minimal re-
sponses. Through these various acts, men were able to control the topic and
flow of the various conversations Coates recorded and analyzed. Therefore
Coates surmised that the male speakers were making conversational power
plays. This was very different from the way men interacted with other men. In
all-male groups, the men were more equal in their turn-taking and they did not

interrupt each other as often as the men interrupted the women in the mixed-
sex groups (110).
Part of the issue Coates found with regard to whether or not men contrib-
uted to a conversation was whether the subject was considered worthy of
discussing by the man in the conversation. The fact that topics such as sport,
politics and cars are seen as serious while topics such as child-rearing and
personal relationships are labelled trivial is simply a reflection of social val-
ues which define what men do as important and conversely what women do
as less important (115). This idea that one genders topics are more or less
important than the others is so socially ingrained that women often believe
that the things they are interested in are indeed trivial and attempt to be-
come more interested in traditionally male topics. Since it is not acceptable
in many cases for Muslim women to relate to men who are not in their imme-
diate family, the womens topics of conversation often center around subjects
that are considered unimportant to a male audience. This disinterest in the
topics of their women reduces the chances of the Muslim women being heard
in their Islamic communities and even less so in the public sector.
Gender and Power in Language Use
Language learning is so much more than just learning vocabulary and
grammar. It needs to have a context. Even for people learning English as
a foreign language in their own countries, it is important for the students to
understand something of the culture in order to understand the subtleties of
some of the structures. As Diane Larsen-Freeman wrote,

During more communicative practice, students can be given
situations in freer activities, such as role plays, and asked to
use the grammar appropriate to the occasion and to the way
that they would position themselves in that role. In this way, little
by little, students will begin to understand the choices that are
available to them and to learn the consequences of their choices
Truly, social context is vital for acquiring a second language, not just for knowl-
edge sake, but for certain concepts or uses to be understood adequately.
Female speech is judged differently than male speech according to these
theories presented by Diane Larsen-Freeman, Deborah Tannen, and Jennifer
Coates. When women who come from a background where religious beliefs
can deeply divide the realms of male and female begin learning English,
special care needs to be taken by those teaching these women. ESL teachers
of these women need to ensure that these Muslim women learn the language
in ways that will help them cope in a society that is so different from the one
they came from. There are some important issues to keep in mind for these
female, minority students in order for them to be successful whether they go
on to college education or not. These issues can be found in the social sys-
tem that places Muslim women immigrants near the bottom of that system: if
they do not speak English well, they are a minority, and they are women. The
American social system is a real barrier to these Muslim women. Hopefully,
the added attention to diverse learners such as ESL students and conversa-
tions in the public sector regarding bilingual education mean some reform is
beginning to happen in the education system in the United States as a whole.
Changes like ESL bilingual classes will eventually allow for varied kinds of
educational experiences to be valid.

Background of Muslim Women
Historical Perspective
In its founding days, Islam was very equal in its treatment of women. The
prophet Muhammad was known for his high regard for his wives and their
impact on the birthing of Islam. Muhammad married strong women who were
a product of the culture and place in which they lived. This pre-lslamic cultural
group in the Middle East was called Jahilia which was a primarily matrilineal
society where property was handed down through the mothers. This is the
society that Muhammads first wife, Khadija, came from. She was a wealthy,
independent business woman who proposed marriage to Muhammad when
she was fifteen years his senior. As a result of this union, Muhammad was
freed from his poverty and therefore able to begin a life as a philosopher and
eventually a prophet of Islam.
Until Khadija died at the age of sixty-five, she was Muhammads only
wife. Monogamy was a situation that changed as Islam developed more fully
after her death. According to Leila Ahmed in her book Women and Gender in
Islam, Autonomy and monogamy were conspicuously absent in the lives of
the women Muhammad married after he became the established prophet and
leader of Islam, and the control of women by male guardians and the male
prerogative of polygyny were thereafter to become features of Islamic mar-
riage (42-43). As Islam was introduced by Muhammad and assimilated into
many different cultures, many such practices evolved that were not originally
part of the religion.

As Muhammad moved through the Middle East, he began discount-
ing the many forms of marriage that were a part of the different cultures. He
advocated the patrilineal and polygynous marriage and declared the others
to be immoral. Upon converting to Islam, both men and women had to pledge
not to commit zina which was, in essence, adultery as defined by Islam. This
definition of adultery was often times in conflict with the marital practices of
the cultures where the conversions to Islam were taking place. Now, forms
of marriage that were previously considered acceptable among these new
converts were considered wrong. This pledge began to change the way mar-
riage and family looked in these different cultures. This change to a patriar-
chal society was due in part to the growth of Islam, but it was also due to the
new merchant class which was growing wealthy and wanting to pass on their
wealth to their sons rather than participate in the more communal, tribal living
in existence. All of these structural changes in society eventually worked to
change the role of women from integrated to segregated in society, especially
once more and more of local customs infiltrated the religion.
Even while Muhammad was alive, certain practices in the treatment
of women that have become common in Islam began to gain a foothold in
the religion. According to Ahmed, of central importance to the institution it
[Islam] established were the preeminence given to paternity and the vest-
ing in the male of proprietary rights to female sexuality and its issue (45).
Up until this point, women were often found in leadership roles in the Jahilia
culture, if not in the Arabic culture in general. These women were fearlessly
outspoken...rebels and leaders of rebellions that included men; and individu-

als who initiated and terminated marriages at will, protested the limits Islam
imposed on that freedom, and mingled freely with the men of their society
until Islam banned such interaction (62). As Islam developed, the voices of
these women were slowly excluded from public life as they were forced to
exist in only in the world of females and issues of the home became their only
Loss of Community Access
Unfortunately, as is shown in many societies, once a group of people no
longer are given access to public discourse, they lose most of their power
except that which is granted to them by those who are allowed into public
discourse. Jennifer Coates observes that,
While muted groups are not necessarily silent, their mutedness
means that they have difficulty making themselves heard by the
dominant group. However, in many cultures, muted groups are
indeed silenced by rules laid down by the dominant group (36).
In this case, the interpretation and working out of laws based on the Quran
led to the mutedness of Islamic women.
Furthermore, as Islam developed and gained converts in other cultures,
the ways of the conquered or converted people were often incorporated into
the everyday workings of Islam including the misogynistic practices of other
parts of Arabia. During this period of Islam,
the words woman, and slave, and object for sexual use came
close to being indistinguishably fused. Such practices, and the
conceptions they gave rise to, informed the dominant ideology
and affected how Islam was heard and interpreted in this period
and how its ideas were rendered into law (Ahmed 67).

So, the very ways in which men spoke about and with women changed dra-
matically from the beginnings of Islam even to a few hundred years into its
Then and now, once women are corralled into their own world it is com-
mon that the topics of conversations will change. Typically, the topics move
from global community issues to small group issues. In many of these Muslim
cultures today, women usually become centrally concerned with their children
and husbands. Because any wealth the family owns is inherited by the males
in the family, it is supremely important that there are male children that can
care for the female members of the family in case something happens to the
male head of the family who speaks for the family. In cultures where women
do not speak in public places, their ideas will not get onto the tableat least
not directlyin the situations in which public affairs are decided (Eckert and
McConnell-Ginnet 93). Since the ability to speak into the situations affecting
the public community have been taken away from them, the women focus on
the cares of the private community of women and children to which they can
contribute and be heard.
However, many countries where Islam is the dominant religion also
embrace Islam as a form of government, Islamic law. As a result of this law,
women often have very little legal or social recourse if their husbands should
choose to divorce them and leave them and their children without a means of
providing food or shelter. The extent of this treatment of women depends on
how the tenets of the Quran are interpreted in different countries. The threat
of losing their husbands then creates a sort of urgency among the women to

make sure that their home lives are working correctly so as to circumvent an
untimely end to the marriage. It is a matter of survival.
These topics that arise in the circles of female conversation bring us back
to the idea of language as power. If men are in power in the public realm and
they are speaking about topics and speaking in ways that are not available
to women, and the men have no concern with the topics women are familiar
with, then men often stop listening to women. They stop listening because
they consider the womens topics unimportant. According to Eckert and Mc-
Language has its effect on society through repeated use,
through sequences of use, through the laying down of a history
of use. And embedded in this history are not simply the things
that have been said and done, but the identities and status of
the people who have said and done them (53).
The men wield their social power by choosing whether or not to accept the
topics women speak of and again in choosing whether or not to contribute the
topics to the public ear for discussion. Many issues related to women never
reach the ears of people who have the power or ability to help.
Because women are distanced from mixed-sex interaction, it is next to
impossible for them to be heard. They are unfamiliar with the context of the
kind of language the men are using to take care of global community issues.
If the women cannot be heard, then they have to trust that the peoplespe-
cifically, the menwho are included in the public discourse will stand up for
the women and make sure that the womens interests are attended to. Many
times throughout history, women have been able to make themselves heard
eventually, womens suffrage for example. Women in many countries were not

allowed to vote, only men. In order to change the law to allow women to vote,
men had to be concerned or convinced by women that women should be al-
lowed to vote. If the laws had been created in the first place to allow people to
vote regardless of their sex, much suffering could have beeen avoided. The
problems occur when women are not allowed free access to public dialog.
Who are Muslim Women Immigrants?
Although there are no exact numbers for how many Muslim immigrants
are in the United States, the estimates show that the issue of Muslim women
as ESL learners in the United States is significant enough to warrant real
consideration. According to law in the United States, the question of religion
cannot be asked on the census or upon immigrants arrival to the United
States. Most population experts estimate the total to be around just over two
million people. Many Islamic associations estimate a much higher number of
four to eight million Muslim immigrants. The total foreign-born population in
the United States, including Muslims, was approximately 31 million as of the
year 2002 (Camarota, Wave n.pag.). Muslims who immigrate to the United
States come from over one hundred different countries around the world.
Most of them are not of Arabic descent as many people assume. The country
from which most Muslim immigrants emigrate is actually India, which was
the fourth largest immigrant-sending country in 2000 (Camarota and McArdle
n.pag.). Ten of the top fifty immigrant-sending countries for the United States
that year were Muslim-majority countries.

From the data collected by the United States government, it is difficult to
pinpoint the number of Muslim women who immigrate to the United States
every year from various countries. In fact, the Muslim immigrant population
is mostly male for two reasons: 1. there was an influx of Iraqi soldiers who
defected in the 80s because of war in that part of the world and 2. a plethora
of men from Muslim countries who move to the United States and then bring
the women of the family over later. (Pipes and Duran n.pag.) The number of
Muslim women in the United States is probably around one-third of the total
Muslim immigrant population.
Muslim immigrants from the Middle East are one of the most highly
educated groups in America, with almost half having a bachelors degree,
compared with 28 percent of natives (Camarota, Wave n.pag.). In many
Islamic countries women can pursue higher education, usually in Europe or
the United States, only to return home to be barred from jobs because of the
economy or because of Islamic views on womens roles in society. When
there are jobs available, it is often the case that a woman can only work with
other women. For example, a woman who is a lawyer would only work with fe-
male clients. In some regards this is still a helpful role as those women previ-
ously may not have had someone to stand up for them in court.
However, educational opportunities are not equally available to women in
all Muslim countries. Many countries with high Muslim populations or Islamic
governments have large numbers of impoverished and uneducated women,
some of whom have immigrated with their families to the United States. Wom-
en from Afghanistan, for instance, who may now be in the United States as a

result of the war, most likely have had no formal education and now have to
learn English when they probably are not literate in their own language. Coun-
tries like India still have a strong caste system which keeps many women in
poverty and without an opportunity to become educated. Without a solid edu-
cation or even a knowledge of the education process in their own language,
acquiring a second language is a daunting task.
Reasons for Immigrating
Muslim women immigrate to the United States for various reasons, as is
the case with all immigrants. For many, they arrive as refugees from war or
terrorism or perhaps a natural disaster like a tsunami or earthquake. Many
Muslim women are in the United States because of religious or ethnic per-
secution in their home countries. Even those from Muslim countries may not
live out their Islamic faith in the same way the Islamic law of their country
requires them to, and therefore they need to flee the country. For example,
many women from the former Yugoslavia immigrated to the United States
because Milosevic began an ethnic cleansing. This meant that Bosnians, who
are Muslim and the targeted group, felt the brunt of the cleansing. For oth-
ers, there is the opportunity for jobs and economic stability because women
are allowed to hold jobs in the United States that they may not be free to hold
in their home countries.
Female students...are particularly inclined to stay; they ap-
preciate the independence, self-sufficiency, and opportunities
for assertiveness the United States offers them and know that
to return means having to conform to restrictive ways, demure
behavior, and family dictates (Pipes and Duran n.pag.).

And for some, America offers the opportunity to practice their faith without the
restrictions present in their home countries.
Countries of Origin
Muslim women come from many different countries. The major areas of
the world they immigrate from are South Asia, the Middle East (Arabic speak-
ers), and Iran (Farsi speakers). Some of the places they come from can be
as diverse as urban Cairo to island village living in Indonesia. There is a lot of
diversity in their income levels from doctors, lawyers, and professors in some
of the more developed and resource-rich countries to people who make a liv-
ing making hand-crafts or working farmland in more rural areas. Because of
this diversity, there is also a wide range of educational backgrounds in these
women that affects their abilities to learn English.
Differences in Islamic Beliefs
The effects of Islam on a Muslim woman depend on what the womans
country of origin is.
Usually, in each country people think they are following the
tenets of Islam when they are actually following native customs
that may pre-date Islam. In theocratic countries, it is the leaders
who set forth religio-cultural mandates (Colvard S-1).
A woman from Istanbul, Turkey is likely to be very modern and westernized.
The Islam practiced there is often more of a cultural practice than a spiritual
one. She calls herself a Muslim and participates in the holidays, but she is not
a practicing Muslim in her daily life. In Saudi Arabia, women under the Islamic

law of the nation are not allowed to drive because of the governments con-
servative view of what the Quran says. In Egypt, women are free to practice
Islam conservatively or liberally, but in other parts of Africa some women have
to go through genital mutilation in the name of Islam. It is this vast array of
cultural norms that Muslim women bring to the United States and to the ESL
experience: the lack of homogenous backgrounds requires more sensitivity
and perceptiveness on the part of the ESL teacher by becoming familiar with
the cultures and religions of their students.
Factors that Increase Learning Difficulty
For all its variables in cultural tenets, the religion of Islam contrasts dra-
matically in many ways to American society; when women from conservative
Islamic countries move to the United States, they are faced with enormous
cultural changes and challenges on top of learning English. In many Islamic
cultures, women are viewed as needing protection; one of the duties of the
men is to provide this protection, resulting in a non-autonomous lifestyle
for many women. According to a study done by the League of Women Vot-
ers Fairfax Area, Women from cultures where they traditionally remained in
the home and had little outside contact tend to do the same here. Lack of or
limited English skills is another inhibiting factor (Colvard S-3). These cultural
views limit access to the public sphere for Muslim women and definitely affect
how these women learn English. Learning environments are often beyond
their reach without permission from the males in their families.

Women the world over have traditionally been thought of and treated as a
powerless or weaker or gentler group of people than men. This has mostly oc-
curred because of how power is achieved and what has to be done to achieve
it: in general, men have held the positions of power in society because wom-
ens roles have relegated them to the home, and men have then established
the rules to follow for anyone else wanting to become powerful. An illustration
of this idea from the past would be the status of women voters. In the United
States, for example, only people who owned land were allowed to vote and
since women were not allowed to be land title holders, they were not allowed
to vote. These kinds of rules have kept women from achieving high levels of
education or job status or even merely integrating into a new culture fully.
Religion and spirituality are no exception to this overall emphasis of the
male over the female. Women generally are the more spiritual or religious
of the sexes. In February of 2002 ABC News and BeliefNet conducted a poll
via the phone asking people in the United States to report how often they
attended religious services. According to the results of the poll 44 percent
of women reported attending weekly church services versus 32 percent of
men (Sussman n.pag.). Other polls done by The Pew Research Center and
Barna Research Group regarding the same kinds of questions as the ABC
News/BeliefNet poll found similar information about womens church at-
tendence versus mens. Women have also been the main care-takers and
educaters of children in many, if not all, societies which means that women
can be very influential in the passing on of religion. However, men have often
made this realm of religion their own by creating rules that keep women from

participating in leadership levels of most religions. In Christianity and Juda-
ism, rules outside of the core text of each religion have kept women on the
outside of many religious activities and roles. Islam is no exception to this.
Women are often not allowed into mosques at all, and when they are allowed
inside, they are relegated to separate areas from where the men pray. For
example, Muslim women said in interviews that they had visited mosques in
the United States where women were sent to pray in basements, hallways,
parking lots, and rented apartments down the street. At some mosques, they
said, they had been turned away entirely (Goodstein n.pag.).These religious
tenets regarding womens levels of involvement are slowly changing in certain
branches of Islam, but the culture shock of moving to the United States and
being forced to interact with men in everyday life while not being allowed to
worship in their mosques, negatively impacts the language learning of these
Muslim women.
Creating an Identity
As a newcomer to a language and a culture, an immigrant woman
would have to discover those social values of her new country. As a Muslim
woman, she would have to determine even further how those social values"
aligned with her cultures and religions values. She would have to learn how
to communicate in the target language not only for survival purposes but also
for self-discovery. She would need to determine how to talk in a way that
would assist her success in school, at work, or in the public square as each of
these situations require a specific kind of speech such as academic or politi-

cal. In the case of a strongly religious woman, she would have to discover
how to balance the values of her old life, which she would consider non-ne-
gotiable, with her new life in the United States that most likely appears com-
pletely immoral in her eyes because of the overt sexuality she sees in how
women in the United States dress, the amount of violence on television and
movies, the availability of alcohol, and the lack of strong family Hives. Success
for her would include this development of a new identity for herself through
synthesis of new and old. She would need to take the previous information
she had and decide how it did or did not apply to her new combination of cul-
tures; she would also need to consider how it might change her interactions
with people from her culture and how she is viewed by them.
Mary Bucholtz considers the idea of creating identity through language in
quoting Gloria Anzaldua, a multi-linguistic writer, that no language linked to
these identities is privileged over any other (6). The identity a Muslim woman
brings to the United States has to meld into who she becomes as a person
once she takes in the culture and language of the United States. This kind
of thinking challenges the cultural hierarchy in which certain languages and
the identities that they render are valued over others (Bucholtz 6). The act of
forming of an identity from different parts of different cultures is a valuable and
necessary endeavor for the female Muslim immigrant. This struggle to define
for herself who she is and how she can relate to her new culture with integrity
will assist her in becoming a full participant in her adopted country. By redifm-
eing herself in light of the culture she now lives in, she gives herself a chance

to become a part of the cultuer in a way that would allow her to make herself
heard in the public arena.
Muslim women emigrate with beliefs on gender and identity both from
their culture and their religion. Learning how to reinvent themselves as citi-
zens of a new country is a necessary part of acclimating. Unfortunately, re-
ligion can often deter womens learning and adaptation of the new culture.
Most major religions around the world have a checkered past when it comes
to treatment of women. Yet, many of these religions can also go back to the
original texts they were founded on to prove that women were originally given
equality with men. However, through the course of the years, these religions
have been interpreted in ways that have been spiritually detrimental if not
down-right physically dangerous towards women. Several of these religions
have found ways to justify emotional and physical violence towards women
and have created ideologies that perpetuate these beliefs. How do philoso-
phies and theologies with humanitarian intentions and a global view of per-
sonhood become so gender-biased?
In all these religions there is a continuum of belief and then of action
based out of that belief so not all believers of a particular religion fall into the
category of anti-female. There are certain stereotypes that Americans gener-
ally hold towards certain religions or people that are not true of every person
associated with any particular religion or people group. But, because of this
stereotyping, many Muslim women immigrants feel the negative response

of Americans who find out that these women practice Islam. This is just one
of many aspects that these women face in their quest to learn English in the
United States.
What Muslim Women Immigrants Face
Minority Female Education in the United States
Because of the power, gender, and language issues, the educational
system in the United States has been historically unequal in its treatment of
females and minority students. The unwillingness to create standards that
incorporate more diverse cultural and gender backgrounds as different ways
of learning shows this inequality. Muslim women who enter the United States
needing to learn English will come face-to-face with some of the prejudices
toward minorities, especially minorities who are not native English speakers.
Female Grammar As a Second Dialect
Shirley P. Browns Lighting Fires paints a picture of the linguistic and
educational power struggle that takes place even between the traditional
American academic language and native English speakers who are minority
women. Brown reports on a case study she did with her class of female, mi-
nority learners to help them engage in their writing and learning. She discuss-
es some of the issues involved even within the English-speaking world that
make it difficult for those who are not typical speakers of English (minorities,
women) to succeed in the American educational system. She illuminates the

power structure inherent in English academic literature and how it can ostra-
cize groups of English speakers who are not as fluent in the academic dialect
through her work with minority American women.
This case study highlights an issue that affects second language learn-
ers as well: the issue of who holds the power in this dialect of academia.
There are levels of hierarchy in the academic world which play out in the
ESL classroom as well, unbeknownst to those who are merely trying to learn
English in order to live successfully in the United States. If English-speak-
ing, minority women fall somewhere towards the bottom of this hierarchy, and
non-native speaking men place below the level of English-speaking minor-
ity women, where do non-native speakers who are female rank? The issues
faced by English-speaking minority women multiply exponentially for non-
English speaking minority women.
Brown is specifically concerned about female minority students. In the
essay, she recounts changes she made in how she taught a class for teenage
mothers studying for the Graduation Equivalency Diploma (GED) test. She
found that these young women were not terribly interested in reading or writ-
ing. They did the work, but there was no spark in learning for them that Brown
sincerely wished to impart to them. Her past research included much about
feminine scholarship; therefore, she decided to try to bring those ideas into
her classroom and see if they made a difference in the students learning. She
did this by replacing traditionally classic academic literature such as Shake-
speare with literature by female and minority authors such as Toni Morrison
and Alice Walker.

Brown writes of the feminine way of speaking as its own dialect: the
mother tongue. She compares this dialect to the dialect which she calls the
father tongue. This is the dialect of masculinity and social power which is
more commonly associated with academia. It tends to be logical in structure,
missing the intuitiveness often found in feminine wording. Brown wanted to
find a way for her students to connect with literature in the way she, herself,
felt connected with it. However, to the students, reading and understanding
the traditional academic literature was difficult as it did not speak to the kinds
of lives they knew. It was just something that had to be done in order to earn
their GEDs.
As Brown began to incorporate female and minority authors into her
program, the students enthusiasm for learning grew. Here were stories they
could relate to. The students also began to take more of an interest in writ-
ing as they connected with the literature. The pieces they were reading now
triggered more ideas in their minds that caused more of a flow in their writing.
These authors thought the way the students did, and there in the books was
the proof that people who thought differently than the traditional academic
standard. This change in perspective on what was considered acceptable
academic literature allowed the students to work within a context and system
that made sense to them instead of learning a new system completely unfa-
miliar to their lives. They did not love writing, but at least they felt as though it
was a task they could accomplish on their own now. It was not so overwhelm-
ing as it had been.

Brown found that her students were able to do the work acceptably
when using white, male-dominated language in the classics she was teach-
ing them in the beginning, but that they only truly engaged in learning with the
literature she began to introduce to them. This was the kind of learning she
wanted for them: the students interacting with the texts and developing their
own ideas more easily using these works by women and minorities.
Brown also began making discoveries for herself that helped her un-
derstand her students backgrounds and situations more clearly. As she re-
searched, she found how inter-connected race, class, and gender were and
about the power of culture when I read materials that were baffling because
I wasnt familiar with the cultural references in them (Brown Lighting 246).
These were all ideas and discoveries she integrated into the classroom as
she continued her case study.
The ideas Brown developed in her studies impact not only English-
speaking female learners, but also learners from different cultural back-
grounds. It is impossible now to assume that the students in a specific class,
who may even all speak the same language, have the same cultural back-
grounds. Varieties of literature by minority authors and women authors such
as Tony Morrison and Alice Walker helped in reaching students who were
unmoved by Shakespeare. More and more linguistic studies reveal the ways
learners of different genders, races, and cultures understand and process
new information. No longer is there a typical student to teach. No where is
this more obvious than in an ESL classroom or even a regular public school

classroom containing ESL students. As teachers, it is important to be aware of
the differences in how individuals learn.
As the issue of not fitting in to the typical academic realm was a prob-
lem for the young women who spoke English, but who were not considered
mainstream students, so this is a problem for non-English speaking women
in the ESL classroom. No language exists in a vacuum. The rhythm and pat-
terns of a particular language are in constant contact with the culture which
uses and develops the language. It is a vital tool for succeeding in a society
and understanding the people who are a part of that society.
These minority American women and Muslim immigrant women need
to have a desire to learn and express themselves through writing and lan-
guage in a way that is personal to them. They also need to learn the coping
tools necessary to succeed in a culture where the male-dominated language
reigns. Unfortunately, women in general often miss out on learning prestige
languages. For example, Keith Walters discusses in his essay Opening the
Door of Paradise a Cubit, that prestige language is often used in religious
settings to keep women on the outside of the mens world and that opportuni-
ties for literacy and hence access to prestige (sic) varieties of language have
been slower to reach females than males (205) concludes Walters during his
study of variants of Arabic spoken in Tunisia. Walters also suggests that a
corollary of limited education is limited access to prestigious linguistic variet-
ies that might increase the likelihood that the female body would not only feel
empowered to speak but also be able to make itself heard in public settings
(208). This seclusion of Muslim women from learning the language used in

particular sectors of public life, keeps them in a position of ignorance on many
issues that affect their communities. In learning ESL, these same women are
given the opportunity to have their voices heard on topics that previously were
only part of the prestigious male culture.
American Attitudes toward Muslims
American attitudes toward Muslims have generally been strained over the
past fifty years or more because of different international events and tensions.
International wars, civil wars, oil conflicts, terrorist acts, and American poli-
cies in the Israel-Palestine issue as well as in other Muslim countries have all
affected how citizens in the United States view people from Muslim countries,
particularly countries under Islamic law. The attitudes of Muslims towards
Americans have suffered just as much, particularly with Muslims in Islamic
countries. All of these tensions affect the ability of Muslim women to learn
English here in the United States.
Probably the pinnacle event of 9/11 caused the most damage of the view
Americans have towards Muslims. In a recent poll of United States citizens,
CNN found that just under one-third of Americans surveyed said they be-
lieve all or most people in Muslim countries admire Osama bin Laden, and
one-third said they believe Islam promotes more violence than other religions
worldwide (CNN). This poll went hand-in-hand with a poll of several Muslim
countries who find Americans arrogant and disrespectful of Islamic beliefs.
Public policies instated since the destruction of the World Trade Center in
New York have not helped matters. Many Arab-descent immigrants as well as

American citizens have noticed an increase in discrimination in places outside
of work and school which probably reflects the profiling occurring in airports
and other public places according to a poll taken by Zogby International for
the Arab American Institute Foundation. Many non-Arab Americans and non-
Muslims have used public policies in regard to Arab-Americans as an excuse
or a cue to profile these people themselves, which can create a sense of fear
among different groups of people. Public policy has often been influential in
determining how citizens think by creating guidelines for specific instances,
such as the airport profiling, that are then adopted by the rest of the citizens.
As a result of these political issues, many Muslim women immigrants
may fear for their safety in public or even in an ESL classroom that contains
people from non-Muslim countries. Not only is the attitude of non-Muslims an
issue, but also the presence of Muslim immigrants who interpret Islam differ-
ently or who are from countries that are in contention with each other. These
situations can cause tension not only for Muslim women but also for other
students in the class who may fear how their classmates will react.
All of these are issues that Muslim women may have to face when at-
tempting to learn English: how Islamic beliefs about women which can in-
terfere with learning, the attitudes of Americans and Muslims towards each
other, and the shock of assimilation into western culture. These difficulties
need to be addressed in assisting these women in their learning. Many of
these factors create an inability for a Muslim woman immigrant to participate
in American, English-speaking society in a way that leads to truly acquiring
the language. This in turn affects her ability to successfully integrate into this

culture and find ways to make it her own. As Eckert and McConnell-Ginnet
write, language and the use of language are inseparable; indeed,... lan-
guage is continually constructed in practice (4). Without being a part of the
public forum where English is being used to discuss community issues, these
women are not able to gain a full perspective on the language.

There are as many methods of learning a second language as there
are languages. The typical method used in high schools in the United States
involves rote memorization and testing based on the regurgitation of what
was memorized. But, language, like any other subject, must be put into prac-
tice in order for it to be useful. Simply having knowledge of the languageof
the parts of speech, of the function of nouns and verbs, and the meaning of
wordsdoes not contribute to full language acquisition. There has to be some
kind of motivation to actually use the language in conversation in order for the
language to become part of the psyche. Therefore, the concept of immersion
that follows also needs to have practical applications in the classroom.
Based on modern language theory, particularly the relevance theory,
total immersion into the culture of the second language is foundational to the
successful acquisition of that language. The definition of immersion in this
instance will be learning a second language by being completely surrounded
by the language, and if possible, the culture of the language being learned.
Learning a second language through immersion motivates the learner to be
highly involved in his or her education because the learner must acquire the
language in order to go about daily tasks. The language and its nuances are

revealed to the learner through the context of the culture in which the lan-
guage is used. Also, the learner acquires the language in a setting similar to
the experience of learning his or her first language.
As a second language learner in an immersion-based program, the
learner has to sink or swim, in a manner of speaking. The learner either
decides to figure out how to survive by responding to and interacting with the
culture and the language while receiving support from the teacher and fellow
students, or gives up and withdraws from the experience by surrounding him-
or herself with people who speak his or her same language. For many Muslim
women immigrants, if being in a comfortable classroom setting with other
students is not possible, they disappear into life with only family members or
people who speak the same language around them.
Personal experience in a Spanish language immersion program in Costa
Rica proved this to me vividly. Not knowing much Spanish made it very diffi-
cult to communicate with my host family when I was dropped off at their home
and it was uncomfortable. It was tempting to want to seek out English-speak-
ing people instead of being uncomfortable. As my host family and I struggled
to communicate, I mentally made a list of words I needed to look up in my
dictionary or ask about in class the next day.
Daily new situations arrived; new words, phrases, conjugations, and
tenses were required in order to effectively communicate. These opportuni-
ties were chances to ask questions of my teacher and fellow classmates or
to divine answers from my own meager resources. The solutions given in
class, as well as the new material covered, were immediately applicable and

therefore completely memorable. Even the opportunities to make up my own
words by using the rules I was learning in class helped solidify those rules
in my mind. Without the opportunities to both interact with the culture and to
receive feedback and guidance from my teacher, learning the language would
have been much more difficult. Immersion in conjunction with some sort of
classroom experience were vital to my personal language learning and to the
Muslim women in acquiring a second language.
Procedural Understanding
In a classroom setting, this dynamic of learning is not always pos-
sible. Fortunately, for most immigrants to the United States, learning English
through immersion is viable because they are surrounded by opportunities
to interact with native speakers if they choose. This interaction with the local
culture takes advantage of one of the ways people begin to learn their first
languagethrough procedural understanding. Gillian Brown states that it is
procedural understanding which is exploited in many foreign language class-
room activities, where familiar activities make transparent the language which
accompanies them (12). Immersion into a real setting is much more effective
for second language acquisition than is a classroom simulation. Authenticity,
or real language for real purposes, is elemental to survival motivation. First
languages are generally learned in the home environment, whereas second
languages are usually learned solely in a school setting. By introducing a
home environment through immersion in a classroom setting or by helping
the Muslim women immigrants find places of safe interaction for speaking

English with native English-speakers, these students of second languages will
learn the language not so much as a subject but as a mode of expression, via
relevant topics.
Therefore, as a form of education for second language learners, im-
mersion is the optimal method. It challenges the student to jump directly into
language learning, it surrounds them with the culture and context in which the
language is naturally used, and it is a method with which the students mind
is already familiar due to the similarity to the first language acquisition. These
Muslim women who have immigrated to the United States have a perfect
opportunity to learn English through immersion if some of the religious and
cultural barriers can be eased for them.
Relevance Theory
The idea of immersion as the primary way of learning a second lan-
guage is supported in part by the theory of relevance, as stated in Relevance
and Understanding by Dierdre Wilson. The assumption is that human cogni-
tion is relevance oriented: we pay attention to information that seems relevant
to us (44). That is never more true than when a person, such as a Muslim
woman, moves into a culture where she does not know the language. The
worry of not being able to understand or be understood propels the learner
into actionfinding the words to ask questions, to understand directions,
to buy food, even to talk to her childs teacher. The need to discuss politics
probably is very low on the priority list; therefore, any words learned related
to those more difficult, less immediate topics quickly fall by the wayside in

order to retain only the most relevant information. The learner focuses on the
words, verb conjugations, and sentence structures that are of the most con-
sequence at the moment such as basic grocery items or academic terms that
would allow these women to accomplish their purposes.
This poses the question of what those items of highest priority might
be. Since the learner is living in the country of the language she is trying to
learn, there is a different feel as to what may be relevant as opposed to what
is relevant in an English as a foreign language classroom. This is where the
cultural context in which the language is being learned enters the discussion.
Context and Culture Cues
Context is of vital importance if a second language learner is to see the
process as actual language acquisition rather than just memorizing parts of
the language. The Muslim immigrant woman immersed in her new culture can
see the direct correlation of how the pieces of the language fit into the whole
task of acquiring English. Instead of only learning lists of words which may not
relate to her everyday activities, the woman can immediately use the words
she is learning in practical ways, such as when she needs to ask a store clerk
an items location or read a bus route.
Religious context is an important influence on the learning process,
both in what Muslim women bring from Islam and what Muslim women en-
counter in the American culture. A teacher of Muslim women needs to have
a respect for the religious context of these women in order to create a bridge
to the religious context of American English. Because Muslim women immi-

grants come from a variety of different countries, they cant be pooled togeth-
er in language learning through their religious beliefs. Their religious beliefs,
however, do inform the way they use their own language.
The United States is generally thought of as a Christian country. While
this may not be the religion of choice for most Americans at present, the his-
tory of how American English has developed is tied to our overall religious
affiliation as well as our choice of government and economic structure. These
are things that women from a nation under Islamic or theocratic rule or even a
dictatorship may not grasp about the English language. In the United States,
religion and politics are kept separate from each other, whereas in Islamic
rule, the Quran is a large part in determining the politics of the nation. This
concept of dividing the secular and the religious becomes evident in how we
use language. This division affects when, where, and how religious words or
connotations can be used in the United States, which is a difficult nuance for
even native speakers to learn in our politically correct nation, but Muslim
women who are used to the concepts of religion and politics being tied togeth-
er may find this separation a difficult concept to understand without participat-
ing in the different contexts of appropriateness.
While the ESL student is learning verbs and other vocabulary words,
perhaps through memorization, she can immediately put those words into
practice if she has access to an English-speaking community. The vocabulary
that will most make an impression will be the vocabulary relevant to her pres-
ent world. The words that are employed on a daily basis are more likely to be
solidified in her mind and to remain active. Similar to learning new vocabulary

in a first language, the more opportunities there are to put that word or that
phrase into practice, the stronger the connection between the meaning and
the knowledge of when and how to use that word. The greater the contextual
effects, the greater the relevance; but the greater the processing effort need-
ed to obtain these effects, the lower the relevance (Wilson 46). Therefore,
the more practice in context there is, the less struggle will be required of the
speaker of the second language over time.
English words learned while sitting in a classroom in the United States
may have a completely different meaning when used in a super market or
among native English speakers. Depending on the culture surrounding the
use of the word, the meanings or shades of meaning can vary. According to
Wilson, the context in which an utterance occurs affects the interpretation of
the utterance (41). To directly translate the phrase Where is the bathroom?
In Europe would not convey your need, as they would wonder if you were
looking for a room with a bath as opposed to a toilet. In Spanish, to say Ex-
cuse me in order to pass by someone is to admit some sort of faux pas or
bad behavior on your part. It would be better to use the phrase asking for the
persons permission to pass in order to get through a crowd.
This can also happen when translating another language directly into
English. Knowing the linguistic items is not enough; there must also be an
understanding of how the lexicon works within the language system because
different cultures have different sets of implications associated with certain
words or phrases. Surrounding themselves with the culture as well as the Ian-

guage is probably the easiest way those implications can be more understood
by learners.
Learning through immersion allows the learner to use relevance to
strengthen an existing assumption, contradict and eliminate existing assump-
tions, or combine with an existing assumption to ...yield a contextual implica-
tion: that is, a logical implication derivable neither from the new information
alone, nor from the context alone, but from the new information and the con-
text combined (Wilson 45). This hearkens back to how first languages are
learned. By immersing herself in the culture, the learner challenges herself
to communicate with native speakers in their own language in order to sur-
vive. Fortunately, within a certain environment, the procedure can be acted
out along with the spoken instructions to make sure that there is some under-
One of the main conflicts with immersion as the primary learning tool for
Muslim women is that Muslim immigrant women may not have or may not
want access to the American culture. So many things about the American
culture are in direct conflict with many Islamic beliefs in the minds of many
Muslims: the scanty dress of women, the independent nature of people and
therefore the breakdown of families, the liberality of what is shown in the me-
dia, the coddling and spoiling of children, the free mixing of men and women
in public, the amount of sexual freedom, and the list goes on. Some of these
actions are perceived values these women hold of the United States derived
from movies and television, but exposing themselves and their families to
those values can feel threatening to these women. This clashing of cultures

and perceptions needs to be minimized by a teacher or some kind of cultural
mediator by reassuring the Muslim women that there are moral Americans
and helping the women to understand how the American culture is affected
but not defined by the media. These issues need to be addressed in order for
these women to feel comfortable engaging in any part of society where they
can acquire English fully.
Traditional Classroom Style
There is always room for change and growth as we learn more about
the human mind and how the mind incorporates knowledge into understand-
ing. This is evident in how we approach teaching people to acquire a sec-
ond language. Traditional second language learning environments in school
settings often focus primarily memorization and assessment. Some Muslim
women come from countries where English is taught as an academic subject,
but they may not have had any practice actually using the language. Often
the assumption in the formal classroom is that having a student do well on a
written exam is the most valuable way to assess if the student is learning well.
This emphasis on assessment is a reflection of the traditions on which the
United States education system is based. The assessments show an ability
to memorize facts, but not the ability to create conversation. Assessment and
feedback are important tools in learning a second language, but they do not
necessarily contribute to actual fluency in a language.
Probably the biggest obstacle for teaching English as a second language
to Muslim women immigrants is the mixed-sex classrooms. Many Muslim

women are uncomfortable in a learning environment that includes men and
women. Even though as Americans, it seems that we should enforce our
agenda regarding gender equity in education, it may be better to think cre-
atively about how to reach these women and meet their language-learning
needs. One English teacher who had many Muslim men in her classroom
found some creative solutions to the problem. One of her students brought his
conservative Muslim wife to class with him to see if she would like the class.
Unfortunately, she was very uncomfortable with the situation. She requested a
womens only class, but because the classes were government funded, it was
impossible to set up a situation like this for her and women like her. In this
the idealstudents from all countries sitting together in a class-
roomis not always possible. In reality, some individuals want
to learn English, but social customs and dedication to certain re-
ligion beliefs prohibit them from learning comfortably in a mixed
gender class (Niquette 2).
The teacher contacted the local Imam, or leader of the mosque, and be-
gan working with him to develop a class for women only, sponsored by the
mosque, where they would be comfortable learning. Eventually the women
would have to face certain aspects of American society, but perhaps working
with religious leaders was (and is) a way to begin to integrate the women into
the public culture.
Learning Environments
According to the contributors of How People Learn, there are four
parts to developing a learning environment. Four perspectives on the design

of learning environmentsthe degree to which they are student centered,
knowledge centered, assessment centered, and community centeredare
important in designing these environments (National Research Council 153).
Community is merely one part of this whole. A successful second language
program would need to incorporate all four areas in an immersion setting or a
setting where immersion can be mimicked.
The traditional classrooms strengths generally lie in the areas of as-
sessment and knowledge. Typically, when the emphasis is on these two
areas, learning lists of vocabulary words and knowing enough information to
pass the exam are the sole achievements. This is an important beginning in
academic second language learning. In his article about immersion studies in
Canada, Jim Cummins reports that effective content based instruction in an
L2 (second language) must focus initially on meaning or messages. Virtually
all applied linguists agree that access to sufficient comprehensible input in the
target language is a necessary condition for language acquisition (n.pag.).
However, this is only a place to begin. Comprehensible input is the main way
someone taking in the language without actual study would probably start
out. For an example from another field, this method of learning in the realm
of mathematics it was argued that the process of calculation or computation
only involves the deployment of a set routine with no room for ingenuity or
flair, no place for guess work or surprise, no chance for discovery, no need for
the human being, in fact (National Research Council 137). This same argu-
ment applies to the learning of second languages. Jim Cummins advocates
that students must have opportunities to communicate powerfully in the

target language if they are going to integrate their language and cognitive de-
velopment with their growing personal identities (n.pag.). This is where real
learning happens. If the immigrant woman learns only the words and never
learns how to use them to benefit herself, then the language is not truly be-
ing acquired. Language is essential to community life in any culture and is a
tool for this woman to be heard in the public sector of the American culture in
this case. If the vocabulary is not relevant to the woman and how she would
incorporate it into her life or thought patterns, than the information is useless.
Using a version of immersion inside the classroom draws two other
areas of a well-rounded learning environment into play. In a class where im-
mersion principles are used, the student must engage with the language in
order to do well. In engaging with the language, the student then acquires the
language on a knowledge level as well as a practical level. Thus, the com-
munity aspect becomes essential. As the Muslim woman is placed in situa-
tions within an ESL classroom where she uses the second language in the
classroom in authentic ways, or if she is somewhere outside of the classroom
interacting with native speakers of the second language, then the language is
impressed upon her mind. The support of the community inside and outside
the classroom is invaluable. Jim Cummins states, Of particular importance
in the success of any immersion program are the resources that are required
to enable it to function adequately and the continued high level of commit-
ment of all involved in the program, from policy-makers to teachers and stu-
dents (n.pag.). I would also include the community that speaks the second
language being learned, where the students can gain practical experience

with the language and the culture. The language is not only a subject to be
learned, but also a relevant skill to be used.
In How People Learn, the comparison is made between traditional
learning and a rutted path, whereas the alternative is learning the land-
scape. The authors explain, in this metaphor [of the rutted path], learning is
analogous to living in an environment: finding your way around, figuring out
what resources are available, and implementing those resources in conduct-
ing your activities productively and enjoyably (139). Introducing an immer-
sive setting into the classroom requires the student to be more well-rounded
in his or her learning, which will result in a fuller understanding of the lan-
guage and its usage outside a formalized setting.
The most complicating factor in attempting an immersive environ-
ment in a traditional classroom setting is the question, How do you suc-
cessfully motivate the student? There has to be a good reason, aside from
assessment, for the student to put effort into second language learning. This
is where being completely immersed in another culture is so effective. The
motivation is built in as a need for survival, whereas in a classroom where
most everyone has the same first language, it is difficult to recreate a sense
of desperation, of an absolute need to know the language. According to Jim
Cummins, There must be an authentic audience that motivates communica-
tion ideally in both oral and written modes. The lack of such an audience for
most students in French immersion programs is a major reason why the ex-
pressive skills of these students are relatively undeveloped (n.pag.). He also
emphasizes the importance of encouraging them (the students) to compare

and contrast aspects of their two languages and by having students carry out
individual and group projects focusing on structural, sociolinguistic, and so-
ciopolitical aspects of language (n.pag.). Audience can be created through
publishing writing to public forums, performing verbally through drama or
speeches, or possibly by requiring students to interact with people with the
target language in a public setting such as a restraunt or store. Thess types
of activities require the student to engage in the culture of the language as
well as motivate them to incorporate the language into more aspects of their
lives than just some facts they learned in school. They learn how to make the
language relevant to their lives.
Practical Application
There are several ways that immersion of the student into a second-
ary language community can be introduced into a classroom that will help
compensate for a lack of direct contact with the second language community.
The class would have to be conducted almost entirely in the second language
with the teacher to enforcing this English-only rule overall, but allowing some
speaking of the first language to help the women sort out language problems.
Stories, games, and excursions are just a few types of activities that could
be integrated to into the curriculum. These types of activities help the stu-
dent graduate through the modes of understanding: identification (learning
the words), procedural (learning to follow directions), manipulative (using the
learned words in more complicated ways, i.e. in sentences), narrative (being
able to tell a story or relay a series of events), and argumentative (being able

to express and support opinions, ideas, thoughts) as discussed by Gillian
Brown (10-20). The activities start by identifying words and grammar rules
and end by having the student create a mental representation of a number
of premises, that you [the student] distinguish between these and remember
them accurately, and then that you track the abstract relationships established
between them, until you [the student] reach the conclusion which the speaker
wishes you [the student] to reach (Brown Modes 18). These modes of un-
derstanding represent a working knowledge of a language within a particular
culture, which is usually the goal of learning a second language.
Stories are a particularly strong way to learn another language. In fact,
stories are a large contributor in how we learn our first language and how we
learn about the world. For many Muslim women, stories and poems are a
large part of female literacy.
Womens stories, known as tatsuniyoyi, were more akin to
fictional fairy tales and were performed in the confinement of
domestic space. Traditionally, the custodians of this female folk
genre were elderly women in the community, who, through this
cultural medium, both entertained and instructed the young
This way of using story as a learning tool and for passing on important cultur-
al information is taken from the Islamic Hausa people of Sub-Saharan Africa.
These stories were and do play a key role in Muslim life and ritual not just for
the Hausa but for most Muslim women. One example of how stories might
be incorporated as an immersion tool that also encompasses the four areas
of a learning environment would be to begin by introducing a set of vocabu-
lary words. Then the teacher would tell a story using those particular words

and create actions for the words in relation to the story or show pictures that
represent some of the words in the story. The teacher would continue retell-
ing the story using the same motions as until the students are able to tell the
story themselves.
The next step would be to have the Muslim women create their own
stories using the same set of vocabulary words. They could then partner with
another student, teach that student the words used in the story, and then
tell the story to the class using either pictures or actions to help the students
understand the story. The women could then turn in their stories in book form
with pictures and drawings to the teacher, or tell the teacher the story using
the motions or pictures they used in telling the story to their partner student.
Playing games in the ESL classroom also allows an intuitiveness to
enter the learning process and lowering the students affective filter. The
competition involved in games means that answers must come quickly, thus
testing the true knowledge that the students have gained while creating a low-
stress ennvironment in which to aquire new information. According to Stephen
there appears to be a consistent relationship between various
forms of anxiety and language proficiency in all situations, for-
mal and informal. Anxiety level may thus be a very potent influ-
ence on the affective filter. These studies have shown a relation-
ship between low anxiety and language acquisition (33).
In Krashens low affective filter hypothesis, people who receive comprehen-
sible input and then output in a low-stress environment, will have an easier
time acquiring a second language (Brown Principles 279). These games, or
the story-telling mentioned previously, give these women a chance to interact

with each other using real conversation as opposed to pre-planned conversa-
tions. This makes conversation a creative process instead of merely quoting
back memorized phrases. While studying Spanish in Costa Rica, my teacher
had us play a game of bingo after learning the words for numbers. We took
turns playing and reading the numbers out loud. In order for somebody to
win, one had to understand the numbers faster than the next person, or know
what the called out number represented on the chart of written numbers. We
had to ask questions of each other that included already learned vocabulary
as well as the chance to learn new vocabulary in order to continue the game.
The mental processing between hearing the words and recognizing what they
represented on the chart was forced to accelerate in order to compete well.
Excursions can be highly effective in helping the student gain confi-
dence in the language skills she has acquired. By placing students in a set-
ting where they have to use what they have learned such as a store, library or
restaurant, they will gain a greater understanding of how well they are grasp-
ing the language, or even what words they wish they had known or needed to
know in order to be successful in that situation. The down side of excursions
is that they can be more stressfull emotionally for students. The benefit would
be received in the real-life situation in which the students would have com-
municate. Some of the stress of the excursions is helpful in that the students
are still supported by the teacher in this environment if it is pursued as a class
which will give the student increased confidence in her ability to interact in
public situations on her own. Activities that require actual usage and practice
in context with creativity are effective tools for second language learning.

The ultimate goal of an immersion programindeed, of learning in
generalis to not only teach a particular subject but to give the students tools
for understanding. There may be cases where the Muslim women may resist
some of these approaches to language learning because of the uncomfort-
ableness of the different immersion activities. The support and input of the
insturctor before, during, and after each activity is vital. It is also important that
the students have a working knowledge of the second language; it is even
more important that they understand how to learn languages and how to con-
nect with the people and culture from which the language emerges.
Muslim women immigrants to the United States are a growing segment
of the ESL learning community. They have particular educational needs be-
cause of: the power/gender issues in education, the religious tenets of Islam
that block immersion in western language and culture, and western attitudes
toward Islam and Muslims. These are difficult but not impossible obstacles.
With some creativity in developing solutions that incorporate a respect and
understanding of these women and their religion, these women can be suc-
cessful in their language learning and in integrating with the American culture
that is now their home.

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