We are pleased to announce Nagla Bedir as our September 2022 Muslim Woman of the Month!
Teaching is one of the most under-appreciated fields in the United States, but for Nagla Bedir, it was a calling that she could not ignore. As she began to wear hijab in adulthood, she experienced what it was like to be a teacher as a visible Muslim. In her determination to find a community and to create a support system for herself and others, Teaching While Muslim was born.
Nagla Bedir is the founder and Executive Director of Teaching While Muslim, an organization that aims to support Muslim educators and spread awareness of Islamophobia in public schools. She graduated from Rutgers University-Newark with a master’s degree in K-12 social studies education and later graduated from Grand Canyon University with a second master’s in educational administration. She has been teaching social studies and psychology at a high school in New Jersey for the last ten years. She also works part-time at Rutgers University in Newark in the Urban Education Program, helping future teachers become strong and forward-thinking educators.
A daughter of two Egyptian parents, Nagla grew up in a post-9/11 world. While her experiences have shaped her into the strong-willed woman she is today, she dreams of a future where Muslim educators and students are not judged based on the stereotypes and biases that have formed in this country. In the meantime, she continues to take action in advocating not only for herself, but also for her fellow Muslim educators.
Teaching While Muslim is beginning to pursue change at a state level through a new Muslim Studies curriculum that will be taught and mandated by schools. Nagla strongly believes in targeting the misconceptions about Muslim people at the source: the country’s educational systems. Her work with Teaching While Muslim also provides aid and mentorship to those in need, offers workshops to further the education of Muslim history, and spreads awareness of the Muslim experience that is so rarely discussed.
Nagla is also part of a research collective known as Reclaiming Muslim Educators, a group that explores the experiences of Muslim educators in order to fight Islamophobia in schools. The collective was recently awarded a Spencer Grant for half a million dollars earlier this year to continue their important research.
She has a fierce determination to change the way society views Muslims. Revising our public education system and targeting the way that schools treat Muslim educators and students is just the first step toward that change. By making her own voice heard and taking active strides with Teaching While Muslim, she has encouraged many others to share their stories and to make noise in the face of adversity, rather than remaining silent.
Read on to learn more about Nagla’s story, her passion for advocating against Islamophobia, and her advice to other teachers!
What is Teaching While Muslim? Can you describe it and the mission of your organization?
Teaching While Muslim’s purpose is to confront discrimination, implicit bias, and fight institutional racism by discussing issues that Muslims experience in public schools in order to create a more equitable society. We do that in several ways.
The first and the most popular way within our organization is through giving professional development workshops to educators on how Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism specifically show up in schools and curricula, and what to do about it. There’s a whole range of workshops that we offer, from how to support refugee students, how Orientalism shows up in schools, the Arab American identity, and everything in between-all listed on our website.” So that’s one aspect of Teaching While Muslim.
The other aspect is a blog. It started with the dream of being a space for Muslim parents, Muslim students, and Muslim educators, specifically in public schools, to be able to discuss whatever it is that they really care about, and it didn’t have to be specific to their identity. We’re really focused on public schools because experiences in private schools are different. It’s a different need. It’s a different group of people. We have a bunch of blog posts, but that’s kind of been on the back burner recently because we’re trying to bulk up some other aspects of Teaching While Muslim.
“The goal is to create a space where Muslim educators can feel safe, and can give each other feedback and advice on how to handle whatever situation they are in.”
The third part of it is a network. The dream is to create a nationwide Muslim educator network. Almost every Muslim educator, I would argue, has experienced some form of Islamophobia or racism in their school community, be it by their administrators, by the parents, or their own students sometimes. The goal is to create a space where Muslim educators can feel safe, and can give each other feedback and advice on how to handle whatever situation they are in.
We had an in-person event a few years ago, right before the pandemic happened, so in 2019. Then we had some virtual events in the last couple of years, but we’re finally going back to in-person, which is exciting. We’re going to have a back-to-school potluck picnic on the first weekend of October.
I think that we’re starting to shift the network towards including all educators, not just Muslim educators. There are a lot of educators who come to Teaching While Muslim for a lot of things. We need to be able to meet those people and establish that we also work with people who care about Muslim students. So that’s where we’re shifting in terms of the network.
You are doing such amazing and important work! What made you want to start this organization in the first place? What has been your experience?
So, I had a lot of extremely negative experiences that were absolutely attributed to my identity as a visibly Muslim woman. I started wearing hijab when I was almost 21, and I started teaching when I was 22. I didn’t live that long before I was a teacher as a hijabi woman, so my experiences have been mostly as an adult and as an educator.
There were so many situations that I don’t really talk about because I’m still in the same district in which these situations happened, and I just haven’t been ready to talk about them publicly. But there were several situations that happened that made me feel extremely isolated and alone, and I didn’t really know any other Muslim educators at the time. This was eight years ago that it started.
I feel like now there are a lot of Muslim teachers, and there have always been Muslim educators in this country. Obviously, Black Muslims have been in this country since its inception, but none that I personally knew. There was no one that I knew personally going through what I was going through and so, in feeling isolated, my dream was to connect with other Muslim educators and talk about the experiences of Muslim educators. So that’s really why and how Teaching While Muslim started.
There were so many issues that I was facing, and at that time, there was a former professor who asked me to do a workshop during a conference at Rutgers. It was around how these biases against Muslims show up in schools. That was my first time giving that kind of workshop and I was like, “Wait, there’s a massive need for this.” At that time, there were no organizations that existed that really served the Muslim student population or the Muslim teacher population at all. So I was like, “Okay, then we have to create it.”
“The dream is to have this curriculum passed as a state legislation, and mandated by the state to be taught in public schools.”
So you saw a gap and decided to fill it. I think that’s really awesome, and good for you for taking the initiative. Do you feel that it’s important that we create more space for Muslim teachers in the school systems, especially in public?
Yeah, and I think there has absolutely been a growth of visibly Muslim educators. Like I was saying, there have always been Muslim educators in public schools, but it’s just a different experience when a person is visibly Muslim where there are no Muslim people. Sometimes there are visibly Muslim teachers in communities where there are also Muslim people, and that’s awesome because then there’s an actual reflection of the student population in the teaching population, which is really important.
But that’s a different experience than a person who’s not physically Muslim in a community with no other Muslim people. Then it becomes based on the race and identity of that person because a Muslim person can be of any race or nationality. Maybe they are fitting in visibly, and not necessarily being pointed out as a person that’s different, or maybe they aren’t because they are of a different race than everybody else in that community.
Either way, all of those experiences are so different, and the Muslim population is by no means a monolith in any type of way. Having Muslim people as educators brings a massively wide array of experiences into the classroom and schools, and offers a completely different perspective whether you fall into any of those categories, such as not being visibly Muslim at all.
So, in that sense, it is absolutely important for us to open up the channels and encourage young people who are Muslim to become educators because you see things, understand things, and perceive things differently based on your experiences. And that’s the case for any identity or any group.
It would be nice to see even more growth in Muslim educators among the teaching population, and maybe it would help foster a better connection to education and learning in general for minority students. So you mentioned some future goals and aspirations for Teaching While Muslim. Can you go into a little bit more depth? Where do you hope to go with this organization?
There are two main things that I’ll talk about. The first thing is that Teaching While Muslim actually teamed up with CAIR, which is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, last year. We’ve teamed up with them to produce a Muslim Studies curriculum. Teaching While Muslim wrote the curriculum and CAIR has been advocating for it since we started.
The dream is to have this curriculum passed as a state legislation, and mandated by the state to be taught in public schools. In New Jersey, there are curricula that are mandated by the state that schools have to teach and include in their classrooms.
For example, we have something called the Amistad Curriculum, which ensures that slavery is being taught in schools. We have the Holocaust curriculum, which ensures that the Holocaust is being taught in schools. Two years ago, the LGBTQ curriculum was passed, and climate change standards were also added. There is a disabilities curriculum. There’s also an AAPI Commission that just came into existence.
“It’s also Muslim studies, not Islamic studies, so the curriculum itself is really focused on the people, their contributions to society, and making them more visible in all disciplines.”
It’s really unfortunate that we have to be so specific and so separate in how we’re trying to advocate for the identities of people who are missing in schools and curricula. The Muslim studies curriculum that we wrote consists of 16 different units and it’s meant to be used as a supplement.
It’s also Muslim studies, not Islamic studies, so the curriculum itself is really focused on the people, their contributions to society, and making them more visible in all disciplines. Kids might learn about Muslims when they are learning about Islam in ancient history and when learning about the Five Pillars, which is a very, very basic understanding of Islam.
Oftentimes that’s the only thing that they hear about, and then they might not ever see another Muslim person in their curriculum or hear about Muslims at all until, maybe, in their social studies classes in high school when they learn about 9/11. In that context, they’re learning about them as terrorists. So you’re learning about Islam as this ancient culture and then you’re learning about it in the context of terrorism. That’s giving you a very limited view of this over 1.8 billion group of people.
That’s one of our more immediate future goals: to have the Muslim studies curriculum actually passed by the state. We’re also considering different approaches. With this curriculum, we’re thinking, “Okay, well, maybe we just sell it to people and open it up to more states to not just keep it in New Jersey.”
We’ve published some sample lesson plans on our website as a free resource, but really the direction I think we’re going with here is that we are consultants. Part of Teaching While Muslim is us being consultants already, and so maybe that’s the direction that we go in with the curriculum. We’re kind of exploring that and establishing that more solidly.
The other dream is to team up with pre-service programs at universities and consult with those programs on how they are addressing Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, and combating those things in their classes, as well as how they can continue to do so in the professional development that they offer pre-service teachers and alumni.
We say pre-service meaning before you actually step into a classroom, so as an undergrad or as a post-baccalaureate, but before you actually become a teacher, because a lot of times–and you see this in the entire world–people who have fully formed their opinions as educators are really difficult to sometimes teach.
So if we team up with pre-service educators–they haven’t become teachers yet, they aren’t fully molded yet, they aren’t rigid yet–that’s an opportunity to combat how some Islamophobia and racism shows up. Our dream is to work with universities across the country to ensure that’s present.
“Yes, of course, there are Muslim women who are oppressed because they are being oppressed by men. But God doesn’t oppress people.”
I really hope you’re able to reach your goals for the organization. What are some of the common misconceptions that you see and the biases you witness when talking about the identity of being Muslim that you try to address?
Oh, there are so many. The first one, and I think the one that irritates me the most, is conflation: thinking that all Muslims are Arabs or that all Arabs are Muslim. Arab and Muslim are conflated to be the same and they’re absolutely not. It erases so many people, first of all, and that conflation shows up in the media all of the time.
The other one that we talk about a lot is the oppression of Muslim women, and that’s a bias and misconception that people have that is also really irritating. So when I first started wearing hijab, people would ask me, “Oh, did you get married? Did your dad make you? Oh, my god, I’m so sorry that you have to do this.” I was a whole adult when I made this decision and was on my own, so it’s also extremely patronizing.
Misogyny is a problem in every culture in the world, including the American culture. We are no different in this country than Arabs or Southeast Asians in terms of the problem of misogyny and patriarchy in general. Yes, of course, there are Muslim women who are oppressed because they are being oppressed by men. But God doesn’t oppress people.
That’s the distinction that I always try to make for people like, “Yeah, sure, there are Muslim women who are oppressed by men, just like there are American women that are oppressed by American men.” There are a million ideologies that people use to justify their oppression, but that doesn’t mean that the ideology itself actually promotes that oppression. So that’s a second major annoying misconception.
And what do you think causes these biases and misconceptions in American society?
In this country, it’s so many things, but I would argue from the very beginning that it’s a lack of education and understanding that other people are different than us. American society does this and scapegoats groups of people throughout history. This is not new. American society scapegoating a group of people, stereotyping them, and having biases against them is not a new concept.
It has existed literally since the beginning of this country’s existence. The foundation of this country is white supremacy and white supremacy means everyone else is not fully human. So that’s really the root of it here, and that’s continued throughout history up until today.
Consistently, in the movies and other media, we see the stereotypical choices made for the language around how Muslim people are talked about, how they are described when something bad happens, what’s said when a Muslim person does something bad, and so forth. Those things are important. The lack of representation is important and so is the lack of visibility of Muslims. These are our causes, but it’s really who this country is and always has been.
“The lack of representation is important and so is the lack of visibility of Muslims.”
Yeah, it’s something very deeply rooted here, unfortunately, and that needs a lot of work to change. So switching gears a little bit, you mentioned the research project that you’re involved in, Reclaiming Muslim Educators. What are the findings so far?
We just won a grant to continue our research! We had a survey, then we had focus group interviews. We had groups of educators come in to ask them questions and for them to talk about their experiences, but we haven’t really aggregated that data too much yet, so I can’t really say, “Oh, this is a finding,” because we haven’t published that yet.
But it has been extremely validating to do this research. There are a wide array of experiences which is important because we cannot say that all Muslim educators experience the same thing. I think what’s different about this study, that’s different than a lot of other studies, is that we are also part of this study.
The researchers–there are seven of us–we’re all educators, we’re all Muslim, and we have our own stories, too. We’re engaging in this radical dream, but also this radical research that is not separating us from the study.
A lot of people like to believe that a study can be objective or neutral, but there’s no such thing, and we’re acknowledging that. So, it’s radical in that way. We’re not pretending, like the rest of science does, that we are somehow neutral, objective, or not impacted by the research.
I think that is also the other reason why our research has taken so long–because some of it is triggering for us. A lot of us have been part of institutions that have not supported us for a lot of reasons, and one of those reasons being our Muslim identity. Going through all of that also just takes a long time to process. So we’re still processing.
How do you hope to use the information that you find to battle these stereotypes and biases in society?
We have dreams of writing a book about our findings. We are also trying to present at different conferences. There’s actually a conference that we were just approved to present at virtually in October. So, really just making that information accessible to everyone.
But the other big part of this is that we’re also really trying to build community, which is why this research is so great for me personally. It’s directly linked to the work that I already wanted to do, in terms of building communities with Muslim educators.
When we’re traveling to other states, doing these focus groups, and interviewing teachers, we want to build a community and connect to the already established communities in those places, and then link those communities across the country. So this is a much more practical way to do that than how I’ve been thinking about doing it with Teaching While Muslim.
“At first, we were doing this for the larger academic community, but then we were like, ‘Yes, that’s going to be a byproduct of this, but we’re really doing this for us, for Muslim educators.'”
When we go to the cities that have Muslim educators and we interview them, we’re also going to be building community. And that’s really for us, for Muslim educators, and that’s the most important goal.
Yes, we want to make sure that schools, districts, administrators, and teachers are not being Islamophobic or racist against Muslim educators. Yes, we want to impact Muslim educators in a positive way. But we also want to impact Muslim educators outside of school in creating that space for a community. I think that has actually been a shift in our research.
It was like, “Well, who is our audience? Who are we actually doing this for?” At first, we were doing this for the larger academic community, but then we were like, “Yes, that’s going to be a byproduct of this, but we’re really doing this for us, for Muslim educators.”
Community is so important and I’m so happy that you’re doing that. It’s also spreading awareness of everything that goes on for Muslim educators that people don’t even know about. So, in addition to all of the roles that you have, arguably one of the most important things you do is being a teacher, yourself. So what made you want to become a teacher in the first place?
So, funny story. Actually, my whole life I wanted to be a doctor. I was a volunteer EMT when I turned 16 in high school, and I love science. Then, I went to Rutgers and I ended up majoring in psychology because of my first psychology class my freshman year of college, and I really loved it. I was taking science, too. I got to be a junior, and that’s when you start preparing for the MCATs, and I was feeling really intimidated by that, and by the fact that med school was so expensive and was going to take so long.
So I started to shift my thoughts, like, “Maybe I don’t actually want to go to medical school.” I was also really uninformed at the time about the scholarships or the funding that exists for people. I just didn’t know as much as I do now, which might have kept me on the medical school track at that time.
But I was a junior and I was like, “Maybe I’ll do public health instead of pre-med.” So I double majored in psych and public health. I was minoring in chemistry because I really enjoyed chem. In my fourth year of college, the first semester, I was still pretty unsure about what my future was going to look like.
“I was supposed to wear hijab because I hit puberty and I actually wanted to, but then when 9/11 happened, my parents didn’t let me because I walked to school, and they were afraid for my safety. Unfortunately, I think they made the right decision.”
There was an opportunity at Rutgers New Brunswick: a freshman seminar class that upperclassmen got to teach. They were called First-Year Interest Group Seminars, and they were exploring the majors that exist at Rutgers like health and medicine, psychology, business, math, etc.
An upperclassman would be teaching this one-credit seminar to freshmen to help them understand what it means to actually pursue this major and the opportunities that exist within the school for it. So I applied and I got the position. It was my first time in the classroom, and I really liked that role.
That same semester, I began to wear hijab. It was October 26, 2010. I will never forget the date. It was the middle of the fall semester, and it was a really big decision for me to make. Before I wore hijab, most people thought I was Puerto Rican so I was quote-unquote “normal looking.”
So, on my very first day of wearing hijab out in the streets, I got on a bus and I was going to class. There was an empty seat next to some dude. As soon as I sat down, he turns to me, gives me a dirty look, and then gets up and walks to the other side of the bus. I was like, “Oh, okay.”
This was day one, and I was already so nervous. I was so anxious about how my friends were going to react because I didn’t tell them. I didn’t make an announcement. I just started wearing it.
I was already in a state of trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but that interaction really just highlighted the ignorance. Of course, I knew that ignorance existed, but I had been so detached from it myself.
I was 11 years old when 9/11 happened. So I saw what my mom went through, and she was also always visibly Muslim, but she didn’t work, so she was home a lot.
In the summer of 2001, I was supposed to wear hijab because I hit puberty and I actually wanted to, but then when 9/11 happened, my parents didn’t let me because I walked to school, and they were afraid for my safety. Unfortunately, I think they made the right decision.
So when I made this decision later on in life, as I was interacting with this ignorance, I was like, “Wow, this is still a thing.”
To me, the only solution to ignorance is education. So, that thought, along with my experience of being in the classroom for the first time that semester just shifted my entire life trajectory.
There was no undergraduate program at Rutgers–New Brunswick for education, so I went to the graduate school. I went to a dean and begged her to help me figure out how to become a teacher. Then I applied to the five-year program.
I ended up doing an extra year of undergrad so that I could add history as a major. So my final degree is a double major in psych and history. Then, I did their graduate program in a year and I got my Master’s in Educational Administration.
“The philosophy that I have as an educator, the most important thing for me, is students being able to advocate for themselves. I establish from the very beginning that I am not all-knowing; I am also a human and I will also make mistakes.”
Wow, what a change going from pre-med to education, but it sounds like you knew it was what you were meant to do. As a teacher now, having gone through all of that, what kind of things do you do in the classroom to create a safe place for the students and for yourself?
The first thing is really spending the beginning of the year actually getting to know the students and creating a community in the classroom. Everybody hates icebreakers, but I love them, and I love making people feel awkward because I feel like you grow out of discomfort.
I have the kids do skits, acting, and put themselves out there from the very beginning of the year. And also taking the time to actually build the community, like having the kids come up with their own community standards in our classroom.
I also always give students a survey at the beginning of the year that asks them a lot of questions about themselves, which helps me understand who they are, what their dreams and goals are, and how I can best support them as a teacher. So I build that individually and as a community in our classroom.
The philosophy that I have as an educator, the most important thing for me, is students being able to advocate for themselves. I establish from the very beginning that I am not all-knowing; I am also a human and I will also make mistakes. I will be wrong sometimes, and I will also sometimes not know the answer.
Actually, a lot of times I won’t know the answer because they ask brilliant questions. I used to say that “I’m not an encyclopedia,” but the kids don’t know what that is anymore! So now I say, ”I’m not Google.” They look at me real wild when I say encyclopedia. And I’m like, “Wow, I feel old.”
Sometimes I joke around with the kids and say, “This class is a dictatorship,” when they give me a hard time with their phones. Like, “I don’t care, give me your phone, we’re not using it.” But outside of things like cell phones, the classroom is not a dictatorship, and they have a lot of freedom to push back when they don’t understand or when they don’t agree. We discuss all of the perspectives that exist about a particular topic, and there’s a really fine line of doing that.
“Always being critical, I think, creates a space for students to feel safe because they get to make their own decisions in the classroom about what they think, and the conclusions that they come to. I’m not teaching them what they have to think. I’m teaching them how to make decisions, but not what those decisions are.”
I don’t tolerate racism. I don’t tolerate sexism or homophobia in the classroom, but there’s a fine line between that and allowing kids to speak their minds. So you have to be able to say, “Okay, you have these thoughts, where are they coming from?” Be critical about everything that they believe, think, or say, and explore that together. “No, you can’t be racist, but why does racism exist? And what is racism to begin with?”
In a class like International Diplomacy, where we talk about world conflict, we’re making sure that we’re using primary resources when we’re looking at the origins of different conflicts or issues in the world, and also being really critical about the information that we’re getting. The questions are always, “Who wrote this? Who was the intended audience? What was the agenda? Why was this written, said, distributed, or produced?”
Always being critical, I think, creates a space for students to feel safe because they get to make their own decisions in the classroom about what they think, and the conclusions that they come to. I’m not teaching them what they have to think. I’m teaching them how to make decisions, but not what those decisions are. It’s also myself modeling that I’m not right all the time, or, “Do you have a different opinion? Okay, let’s talk about it.”
You mentioned that you try to make students advocate for themselves as part of what you do. What are some other lessons that you try to instill in your students?
Besides them learning how to advocate for themselves and things that they care about, I also want to help them understand that they are part of an entire world, and not just this bubble that they live in within their city, community, or the United States. That’s one of the biggest things that I drill into their minds.
I have a shower curtain that’s a map in my classroom because maps are expensive. It is not the best map, but it is a map, and I will always stand there like, “Can you even point to where you are here? Like you can’t even physically point to where Perth Amboy is because it’s that tiny, and look how big the world actually is.” The understanding that they are part of an entire world is so important for me to teach.
Another thing that I really want my students to learn from my class, like I was saying before, is how to critically consume the world around them. To always question everything, literally everything, and be open-minded about what they’re consuming, always.
“I think my advice is always to find and build a community with other like-minded educators. Then once you do, do not be silent.”
Hopefully those lessons will stay with them as they continue on in life. So as a teacher, what is your advice to other teachers, whether they’re Muslim or not–because you said you’re opening it up to more than just Muslim educators–what can they do when they witness or encounter institutional racism?
This is such a hard thing because when you are an individual trying to fight against an institution, you’re probably not going to succeed. So I think my advice is always to find and build a community with other like-minded educators.
Then once you do, do not be silent. It’s so hard to say to someone, “Don’t be fearful of the consequences,” because that’s not fair, right? I have the privilege of not having children right now. If I lose my job, I don’t have mouths I need to feed but my own. So I can’t tell someone to “Go fight and who cares what the consequences are,” because that’s just unrealistic. But what if you’re doing that within a community and you’re actually being involved?
I would say there are so many different ways that you could fight institutional racism without actually fighting the institution itself. For example, if you are a teacher and you have a curriculum that you are obligated to follow, and there are problematic things in that curriculum, go to the supervisor, point it out, and suggest something different, or have a group of you go do that.
Be critical, yourself. Educators are overwhelmed by so many things all of the time. So it’s really hard to find time to be learners and students of the world also. But we have to make sure that we’re carving out that time to also learn and grow, no matter how small that information is.
All this work can be so overwhelming and it’s like, “Well, I don’t know everything about white supremacy or the history of racism,” but you don’t have to know those things to know what right and wrong is, and to move forward with those thoughts. I guess what I’m saying is, learning anything is better than not learning anything at all, regardless of how small it is.
To learn more about Nagla Bedir and Teaching While Muslim, visit their website. Be sure to also follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to stay up to date on information and events.
Teaching While Muslim offers lots of workshops on important topics such as Islamophobia in Schools, Teaching Etiquette with Muslim Students, and the Arab-American Identity. Check out their full list of workshops, here.
If you’re a teacher, be sure to utilize these free Muslim lesson plans, and join the fight for more inclusivity in the classroom!
What are your thoughts on and/or experiences with Islamophobia? What are some additional ways we can combat Islamophobia in our schools? Let us know in the comments below!