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Fully Qualified, but Still Marginalized

A nonnative English speaker, an Arab, and a Muslim, Faiza Derbel found that her TESOL colleagues silently accepted her exclusion after 9/11. See Debbie Zacarian's The Road Taken column, "Competent, Literate, but Still on the Outside," Essential Teacher, June 2005 (pp. 10-11).

With thirteen years of experience in teaching EFL, including university-level experience, and a PhD in education under my belt, I never envisioned that my credentials or my expert status as practitioner would be questioned. Nor did I imagine that I would face a lack of acceptance into the broader TESOL community because of my nonnative speaker status and my connection to the geopolitical area associated with the U.S. war on terror.

"…Because You're Not a Native Speaker"

By the time I received my MA in TESL and applied linguistics from a U.S. university, I was aware that the projects I set out to do were jeopardized by a subtle process of exclusion resulting from my identity as an Arab, Muslim nonnative speaker of English. However, I never expected to be told directly, "I can't hire you to teach any sections of first-year composition because you're not a native speaker!"

When I challenged this decision, I was given other reasons: I had never taken a course in teaching composition for teaching assistants or taught composition in the United States. The gist of the argument was that neither my prior training (a PhD in education from a leading British university and an MA in TESL from the university to which I was applying) nor my teaching experience (100-level courses in the department to which I was applying and composition classes in my home country) qualified me for the position of temporary lecturer. The issues raised against me and the accompanying silence of my TESOL peers and advisers was bewildering and disheartening.

Is the Real Problem My Identity?

A person's identity, personal traits, qualifications, citizenship, religion, ideology, race, gender, and ethnicity all intermingle in situations of border crossing. Native speaker bias (Braine 1999), among other issues, means that English language educators who move from the Outer or Expanding Circle to the Inner Circle (Kachru 1985) are never readily accepted as full-fledged professionals.

My brief passage in the United States at wartime did not ease my way into the TESOL community. Vivid memories of 9/11 and the wars unfolding in Afghanistan and in Iraq strained my personal and professional relations with members of the TESOL community. They had, I believe, two types of difficulty with me as a colleague: my status as a nonnative-English-speaking professional and my identity as an Arab and Muslim woman. In any Western country I visited, at least these last three layers of my identity always captured people's attention.

My peers frequently queried me on the status of women in Islam and in Muslim countries. My answers and clarifications, no matter how candid, were not powerful enough to counter the entrenched stereotypes about Muslim women in Western media. I knew that my classmates saw me as an exception to the rule and struggled to consider the possibility that I, in fact, resembled the average educated Tunisian woman.

My colleagues' questions seemed to be genuine attempts to situate me in the larger picture. I was, however, bothered by the risk of being associated with the enemy (or the terrorists). I was for peace, not war. As an educator, I believed that part of the answer was to build compassionate, respectful relations between members of the TESOL community (which included Americans and non-Americans). I never questioned my credibility and authority on this just because I am an Arab Muslim.

Collective Silence

Following the events of 9/11, some graduate students and I formed a group called America-Middle East (AME), the purpose of which was to make sense of U.S.-Middle East relations and bridge gaps in knowledge about the Arab world. Connecting with other students and instructors was inspiring, though I was disappointed that none of my TESOL peers participated.

As the war on Afghanistan gained momentum, AME members started dropping out. Only two people besides the three scheduled speakers (of which I was one) attended a composition department-sponsored, brown-bag discussion around the theme of teaching in a post-9/11 era; our peers and professors in TESOL and composition failed to show up.

Their collective silence was incredibly intimidating.The process of exclusion was, for the most part, subtle and undetectable. Most bewildering and unfortunate was my TESOL colleagues' and peers' silent acceptance of my exclusion. Such silence can only further marginalize TESOL professionals from the periphery who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Braine, G., ed. 1999. Non-native educators in English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kachru, B. 1985. Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the outer circle. In English in the World, ed. R. Quirk and H. G. Widdowson, 11-16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Faiza Derbel ( is an assistant professor in the Department of English, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Sfax, in Tunisia.