Earlier this week someone I follow on Twitter shared a story about an ultra Orthodox Jewish man who refused, on religious grounds, to sit next to a woman on a plane. Even to me – a woman who spent a good chunk of life segregated from men – the story sounded absurd. I mean, come on, its 2014!
But it’s true. Of course it is. It wasn’t so long ago that I existed behind curtained partitions, and scurried to the kitchen whenever it looked like someone with a penis had rung the doorbell. Nevertheless, it’s easy to forget, once you’ve left behind the norms of radical religion, how cruel men can be.
When I read about Elana Sztokman, the woman treated so appallingly in the name of religion, I realised that there’s a special type of anger reserved in my belly for stories like hers. My anger comes from several places. I really struggle with the idea of gender segregation. I also struggle with the men (and sometimes women) who find it impossible to ‘up’ their humanity even temporarily to bypass archaic doctrine. In my experience people who demand gender segregation in public spaces are either irritatingly precious about their right to enforce their decisions (never mind the rest of society), or terrorised by the concept of a god who defines, controls and values us all by our sexuality and gender.
All those things make me angry, but nothing hits quite as hard as remembering what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such behaviour. My family converted to Islam when I was a teenager, and my siblings and I were expected to follow suit. I don’t remember any official conversion moment, it was more a wearing down over time sort of thing. After a while I realised I had no choice and that until I left home I’d have to live as a Muslim, whether I believed or not. It was my first and, so far, only foray into acting.
I’ve spoken before about how life changed once we started practising my stepfather’s interpretation of Islam. It was all pretty hard-going but, for me, one of the hardest parts was how my sex, gender and sexuality became used as a weapon of control. Suddenly they were the only significant parts of my identity. How I dressed, how I behaved, who I spoke to and befriended, which school I could attend, and how I was treated by men in both personal and public spheres was, all of a sudden, entirely dictated by what was between my legs. Even as a teenager I found the obsession with human sexuality a crude and frankly backwards way to live, and I hated the way it was used to manipulate female life. But my opinions were irrelevant, because as a woman I was choiceless.
I remember the justifications for the treatment of women. The insistence that God’s law was final, no matter the pain or inequalities it caused, or the logic it defied. I remember the insulting, saccharine nonsense about how my subjugation was in fact an ultimate kindness. Apparently I should have been grateful that I was all but banished from the public sphere and wrapped up, away from the gaze of unsophisticated men who’d never been taught to control their most primitive urges. Apparently that kind of special treatment meant I wouldn’t be tainted, it meant I was ‘free’ to live life without being a sex object, and, most importantly, it meant I could be loved by God.
One of the worst experiences was seeing women internalise the misogyny they were exposed to. It’s one thing listening to men bark about how women need to be controlled, it’s quite another witnessing women espouse the virtues of subservience and victimhood. Each time a woman told me how important it was for me to be covered, pure, humble, and grateful to the men who effectively owned me, I felt betrayed and utterly crushed. That’s why when I come across writing like Elana Sztokmans piece about her experience, I’m so very happy. Here’s an excerpt, it’s pretty perfect. More power to you Elana, we really do deserve better.
If there is one thing that I would like to change in the world, it is this: I would like women to respect themselves enough to say no to all this. I want women to allow themselves to feel the impact of the silencing. I want women to be honest with themselves and to look at their lives and the places where they are powerless or oppressed, and to acknowledge that. Better yet, I want women to say no, I will not be silent or servile. I will not continue to absorb the insult as if this is all OK. I want women to say that they deserve better. I want women to believe that they deserve better.
It’s hard to put into words just how suffocating I found religious oppression, but this poem I wrote comes pretty close:
Only a little light made its way
through opaque windows.
The air was still. Artificial.
I could hear
I thrashed like hopeless bait
before resigning to fate
I didn’t believe. But in
darkness with no air,
you forget who
to fit. I scrubbed
til dirt gleamed. I learnt all about
covering and draping and buttoning high, about
lowering eyes, about shuffling; not sauntering my thighs.
I learnt about the flash of my ankles, the lure of my smile. I silenced
my voice, reined in my mind. Suffocated soft, round flesh in a constricting bind.
If you are humble
and pure, quiet and
kind, He will wait for you,
in no man’s land, behind brick,
cloth, ticking clocks, lusty, flinching
eyes, sharp exhalations and disapproving sighs.
But I needed air and light, day and night. I needed love and touch and joy undefined by wizened men so terrified, they dare not meet my eye. Unshackled from the dead-weight shroud, from the doctrine of men who know no bounds;
I am free.