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To Scar or Not to Scar 

As a teacher, what we call experience is merely a reciprocal process of learning which comes from our students. Much of the knowledge imparted by a teacher to students is a result of knowledge gained from students. What do I mean? Because learning is based on more than just text, teachers make adjustments in delivery, priority, and sometimes the knowledge itself based on previous experience, or simply put—what they have learned from student feedback.

I have experienced the pleasure of teaching on different levels and different subjects. The benefits gained over the years from pupils and students is invaluable. The curiosities, inquires, and sometimes frustrations of learners provide ideas for the upcoming year, class or another subject being taught. One such instance of benefit happened in an upper intermediate English class with university students. In one of our over discussed discussions (marriage in Sudan), I quiet student raised a point about expectations and what is considered beautiful.

However, first let me set the scene. The class was mainly made up of university students and graduates, three fifths female. This course was not the most expensive English course available, but was definitely not the cheapest. The students had a very good level of spoken English and some, not all, were planning to take or retake (for the ump-teenth time), the IELTS exam seeking the bright lights of Europe or the U.S.

Now this student, as previously mentioned, was a quiet young man. His English language level was good, but a bit rough around the edges. Most likely he had learned English through courses, not through a natural acquisition from films, music, travel etc.  Compared to his colleagues you might say he was a bit conservative, or maybe even introverted.

So, right in the middle of a heated discussion, unsolicited, he interjected his expectations for his bride-to-be. He said: “My wife has to be mushallaqa”, meaning she has to have the traditional tribal facial scars. The room went dead silent.  Its’s extremely rare to see a person under 60 or even 70 years of age with these traditional scars today. The young ladies, previously bubbly and frivolous all stared at him in horror, as if he secretly may be harboring a razor and a stash of garaad paste in his shoulder bag.

The young confused, didn’t know whether to take him seriously or write him off—they first needed to confirm the consensus of the young ladies. In an attempt to keep the discussion alive, I asked, “Ahh… so what is beauty? Everyone has his or her own idea of what is beautiful and we don’t have to agree.” But my interjection fell on def ears. This young man was now the only focus for the moment.

However, the young ladies, with a cut of the eyes and swift flip of the wrist, decided he was a backwards nutcase not worth comment, and returned to their frivolity. The young men, eyeing him askance, sought futilely to join in conversation with the young women.

Analyzing the situation, I recalled a sociology lesson and made an immediate connection. This was a good example of primary socialization. Armed with a new set of questions, I was ready to reestablish the class discussion. Sociology, unlike religion and culture only makes observations, no judgements. The immediate response of the religious would be “haram”, forbidden; and the immediate response of culture (because it changes) would be “backwards”. so, my attempt now is not to have the young man put on trial and judged, but to seek an understanding of where this expectation is coming from. Eventually, the young man (after much feuding) was able to touch a soft spot in everyone’s heart. His seemingly dreadful expectation came from his unending love for his mother and grandmother. They both were mushallaqa and to him, the most beautiful people he knew, therefore he wanted his wife to be of them… the most beautiful.

To know more about this custom and the experience of women who have gone through it, see:

Sudanow Magazine, Sudan: Aesthetic Heritage, story of the scars and beauty, 18 June, 2013

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