Rabi-Ul-Awwal \ Rabi-Ul-Akhir 1424 H
Volume 16-06 No : 198
Camps \ Workshops
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The very idea of a highly educated Muslim woman may present an incongruous picture for many Americans. But that's precisely the kind of thinking Tasneem Khaleel would like to dispel!
Tasneem Khaleel has two first names, two birthdays and two countries that she calls her own. The diminutive native of India also embodies two extraordinary roles that have the power to shatter widespread American stereotypes.
As chair of the biology department at Montana State University-Billings, Tasneem thrives on teaching and research. As a Muslim woman, she prays for peace and a better understanding of her religion. The very idea of a highly educated Muslim woman may present an incongruous picture for many Americans. But that’s precisely the kind of thinking Tasneem would like to dispel.
“A woman covered in headgear walking 10 feet behind the man – that’s not Islam,” explains the woman whose husband moved 3,000 miles to re-locate for her job. “Women have rights in Islam. Muslim women didn’t even have to fight for those rights. The religion has given them those rights,”she says.
Tasneem, who was the first woman to earn a Ph.D, from her home state of Karnataka travelled a long and twisted path – a path shaped by her culture and her drive to excel – to become the distinguished professor she is today.
Born 58 years ago as the fifth of seven children in a Muslim family, Tasneem was given two first names at birth. Her mother named her “Shayasta” – meaning “the cultured one, the decent one.” Her grandmother, being very religious, had different ideas and named her Tasneem, meaning “river in Heaven”.
Tasneem – then known as “Shayasta” – was three when India gained its independence from Great Britain.“There was no such thing as Muslim-Hindu (discrimination) when I was growing up. I went to school with Hindu kids. My father, because he worked for the government, had more Hindu friends than Muslim friends,” she said.
Just as Tasneem grew up learning the ways of Islam, she grew up in a home that placed a high value on education. Her mother, who was married at the age of 14, never went to college. But she was adamant that her children particularly her daughters have the opportunity she did not. Tasneem’s father and grandmother, a retired teacher, also set high academic goals for Tasneem, her brothers and her sisters.
So, at the age of three, when Tasneem begged her parents to let her follow her siblings to schools, they relented. As a student, Tasneem’s drive to excel was fuelled by her parent’s high expectations and her sibling’s success. When she graduated from grade School, the Indian Government recognised her as an outstanding student. The award of nine rupees – now worth less than a dollar – seemed like $ 900, or even $ 9,000 to the young girl.
“That was the very first reward I ever got,” says the woman who has now earned countless awards and recognitions. “It was just that feeling of getting something.”
After high school, Tasneem went on to college. She majored in science, because she said, “In those days, there were very few women in sciences,” and she wasn’t drawn to the arts. But, when Tasneem walked into her first botany class, she nearly walked back out. The syllabus on the blackboard – what seemed an endless list of confusing Latin names – overwhelmed her. “I panicked that first day,” she said. “I told (my advisor) I wanted to change to home economics, that I didn’t understand anything there.” But her advisor would not bend, instructing Tasneem to go back to class, to return in six months if she still had a problem. “The fear of being held back kept me going,” she said.
Tasneem pondered her future in biology. “I knew I wanted to teach,.” she said. Tasneem was only 17 when she earned her bachelor’s degree in both botany and zoology. Knowing she needed a master’s degree to teach at the college level, she continued her studies, graduating two years later at the top of her class.
With that kind of ranking, she asked herself, “How could I not get a job to teach?” In spite of her hard work and success, the dean of the graduate school dashed that dream. He said, “how old are you? You look like a high school girl. And you want to teach in college? How are they going to take you seriously?” Tasneem recounted.
Just as the dean slammed one door in front of her, he opened another, encouraging her to enter the Ph.D program just established in Bangalore. She drove into her research but the newly established program lacked guidance and direction. “Four years later, I still didn’t have my Ph.D, because no one knew how to guide my research.” she said.
By the time her dissertation was properly routed and Tasneem had officially earned her Ph.D, she was 26. Her mother was ecstatic that her daughter had lived up to the dreams she had envisioned when she named her Shayasta.
Yet, Tasneem's accomplishments were not always cast in a favorable light. The media attention she received for being the state’s first female Ph.D depicted her as “too much to measure up to too aggressive.” Meanwhile, as Tasneem focused on academy her culture labeled her a “ a confirmed spinster.” But Tasneem had no interest in marriage. In spite of her family’s attempts to find her a match , she always declined. Finally, in a ruse, her brother invited her to a movie. During the entire movie, she said, “He gave me a long sermon on why I should get married, that I would not find a match if I wanted too long. After three hours, I finally said, yes, I would get married.”
The Khaleels set up their first home in Delaware, then lived in Pennsylvania for several years before Tasneem took the position at MSU-B (then Eastern Montana College). While her husband Shafiq finished his residency in veterinary medicine back east, Tasneem moved to Billings with their first daughter, Rubina, then two years old.
Living far from a Muslim community, the Khaleels had to make an extra effort to teach the practices of Islam to their daughters – Rubina now 28, and an attorney in Nebraska, and Maseeha, 20, a junior at Montana State University-Bozeman.
Three years ago, the Khaleels performed the Hajj with their daughters. For Tasneem, her religion and her profession are inextricably intertwined. “Teaching is to impart that knowledge, to give somebody else that same ability you have to become something in life,” she said.
As a Muslim promoting cultural understanding, she explains why her role as a professor is actually enforced – not rejected – by her religion. “In Islam, the place of a teacher is next to (that of) the parents. ” In fact, as part of every prayer, every Muslim prays, for his or her parents and teachers”, she said.
And so, the highly educated, Muslim woman with two first names and two birth dates continues her life’s work. For her, that means blending her two roles into one simple path, a path that shatters stereotypes as it reveals a truer picture of Islam, the religion that means “peace”.
(Courtesy: Yellowstone Valley Woman)
Photo Courtesy : Phil Bell.