White sands, blue waters, huge numbers of blond, blue-eyed children, a dock from which one can dive, beach grass, beach plums--the scene could be Nantucket, except for the stocky, gray-haired old lady and her white-bearded husband relaxing in their beach chairs, he with a pipe protruding from his mouth, she throwing off the Ikea towel draped over her, revealing pendulous breasts. She ambles down to the water and swims.
Plenty of Swedish beaches and pools advertise naked swimming. This isn't one of them, and topless does not count.
I lie on the beach thinking about swimming, but too lazy to move until a need to relieve myself prevents my nap. Following the direction pointed to by the sign reading "Toalett," I end up on a parallel path, where I hear a language I know isn't Swedish, and see girls who appear to be ten or eleven in hijabs, long sleeved shirts and long pants, chatting with a man, probably their dad. The three of them seem to be moving a branch somewhere. They see me in a shirt and bare legs and the conversation stops. I retreat and finally find the toalett.
When I am back on the beach, the little girls are squatting by the waves, gazing with apparent longing at the water, throwing a few pebbles in, the younger edging her feet almost to the water's edge. I know those kids would love to go swimming.
Behind me, partly hidden by beach grass, their mother, also in a hijab and long-sleeved shirt and long dark pants, stands, her face grim. What must she think? The dangerous neighborhoods in Malmö and other Swedish cities we visited are not safe for Western women, who have been stoned. And here her children sit among the heathen, these half-naked blond heathen.
I think of a young, bright student of mine who took my class on race and racism in American life. She discussed her own experiences as an immigrant: "Before 9/11, when people asked where I was from, I had to draw them a map of Afghanistan. After, I never had to draw the map."
A year after my class, she came to visit, this time in hijab, her body covered in black cloth. She wanted to go to New York--she knew I came from there. Did I know cheap places to stay? What sights should she see?" Halfway through my enthusiastic description, she burst into tears and admitted that her family wanted her to marry. But she wanted to travel.
"Are you being threatened? Coerced?"
"No--" she looked away. "It's more like I'd break my father's heart if I don't." Her father always told her, "We live in Germany, but we're not German."
She asked me to send her a reading list. I did. I saw her on the street months later, hugely pregnant, not looking happy. She had a B.A. in a science.
There is no women's center at my university--at least none addressing these women. There are no conversations. There seems nothing for me to do apart from ask questions--the ones I felt too stunned to ask this girl--What about your own heart? What about what you want? What about your longing to travel, what about that career you wanted?
I have suggested to students like her that they read Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Sometimes I say, "You may not agree with her, but she's important, so you should know about her." Will the mullahs come after me?
And who will help these women? They live in Germany. They live in Sweden. They live in France. They live elsewhere in Western Europe But their families, their fathers, warn them not to belong to these places. Their fathers are full of fear.
I want to talk to the fathers, the mothers, the daughters--without being stoned. Any suggestions?