Students get a closer look at the Middle East

Retired teacher tries to dispel myths, stereotypes of culture


Eighth-grader Catherine Compton laughed and strutted covered nearly head to toe in black Monday in a traditional Saudi Arabian heijab.

But the heijab (pronounced "uh-bye-yuh") likely won't find a place in her wardrobe.

"I have to show my face so everybody knows I'm smiling,"

Compton said.

Students shuttling in and out of Craig Middle School's auditorium saw more than just an

impromptu Middle Eastern fashion show.

"Why would a lady wear that stupid stuff on her face?" Sue Koenig asked assembled students.

Not under threat from Arab authorities, she said, replying to one student's response.

"They believe all women are beautiful and a woman's beauty should be for their families and

not for the whole world to see," said Koenig, who lived and taught schoolchildren in Saudi Arabia for 11


The loose-fitting attire is preferred among some older women but hardly forced on anyone as reported in some Western media, she said.

"I got so angry when I heard that I wanted to call Peter Jennings and say 'I lived there folk,'" Koenig said.

From western impressions of Saudi heijabs, to Saudi impressions of Brittany Spears' scantily dress, middle school students Monday discussed culture, perceptions and stereotypes.

Koenig -- a retired Jefferson County schoolteacher and owner of an international bazaar gift shop in Lakewood -- has made such presentations a passion over the last seven years. A task she takes with renewed intensity these days, she said.

"We see the negative," said Koenig, 61. "Some of these kids may not get out of Colorado."

Lori Dodge, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, said Koenig was invited to the school to offer students a perspective beyond a Middle Eastern textbook -- a supply of which is limited to begin with.

"Most are just decent people trying to live peacefully, and we're trying to give them that wider perspective," said Sharon Skwarek, a seventh-grade language arts and social studies teacher. "Not every Muslim is Osama Bin Laden."

As students dressed in traditional Arab or Jewish attire, Koenig shared stories and cultural nuances -- particularly women's roles in Muslim society.

"I didn't drive for 11 and a half years ... go ask your moms how they would like that," she said.

Jennifer Brockman, an eighth grader, walked away pondering new perspectives.

"I had heard they were taught to hate us and stuff," Brockman said. "I don't think they do so much."

Paul Shockley can be reached at 824-7031 or at

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