Christmas and the muddle of multiculturalism

It’s nearly Christmas! This means:

1. I’m having palpitations about the number of gifts we’ve bought (zero).

2. I’ve failed (again) at Christmas cards, homemade decorations, and Christmas pudding *wrings hands/hangs head in shame/yells “down with Pinterest!” and punches air with anarchic glee*

3. Everything. Must. Smell. Of. Cinnamon.

4. My selective memory/eternal optimism leave me with only romantic memories of snow (both my babies were born during snowy times). So I’m thrilled by the Daily Mail snow ‘terror’ alerts. Snow is beautiful. I love snow. I want it to snow. Snow.

5. I’m having an annual flip out with my inner grinch. I had Christmas banned as a child and (small detail) I’m not Christian, so each year I feel like a Christmas fraud and I worry my children will see through my attempts to create meaningful tradition from nothing.

Christmas time, mistletoe multiculturalism, and wine making it up as I go along…

I think it might be an unwritten law of blogging, parent-blogging at least, that December is dedicated to wish lists and that elf on the shelf thing, but I won’t be going there. To me Christmas is about lots of the usual fun (foooooooood, Bridget Jones on tv, all the wine, a 48 hour period of intense Christmas shopping involving tears and expletives, the tinsel debate – yay or nay?) but with an added layer of niggling worry that I’m doing it all wrong.

As the half-Iraqi, half-British, step-daughter of a Pakistani revert to Islam (I am all the hyphens), I grew up in an intersection between different faiths and cultures. We stopped celebrating Christmas after my parents began practising Islam when I was about 10, and we were herded with the psychological equivalent of hot-pokers into an Islamic ideology that was intolerant, exclusive and uncompromising. Some of the cultural changes that occurred after the ‘conversion’ were gradual, but Christmas ended abruptly. We had one year’s grace when we were allowed to put up a Christmas tree on New Year’s day as an odd compromise, but that was just weird for everyone. The following year there was nothing. After that, whenever I heard Bob and the gang sing “do they know it’s Christmas?” with their earnest, self-important faces, I’d feel terribly sad. For myself. It was obvious that Ethiopia had more pressing concerns than missing out on *cough* a-white-saviour-complex-themed *cough* Christmas, but me? I was heartbroken. What can I say? 10 is a selfish age.

As the years went on, new challenges arose that made Christmas a non-issue. I spent my teenage years battling for clarity amidst conflicting cultures and the pressures of a religious ideology that I had little respect for. Despite being mixed race, my white skin and blonde hair granted me white privilege. I felt it from a young age, especially when I saw my ‘half’ (I hate that phrase) siblings battle against racism and stereotypes that bypassed me. But my ‘whiteness’ also meant I grew up on the periphery of each of my cultures. I was the perpetual oddity; the novelty gori (white person…with loose morals) in the Pakistani-Muslim community, and to white British people I was the curious convert girl. As is often the case, my siblings and I were seen as half this and half that; lacking in culture and identity, rather than having it in abundance. Those feelings of cultural inadequacy have stuck.

My experiences leave me with conflicting ideas about multiculturalism. I see how positive and enriching it can be, but I hate that it’s become synonymous with misguided, lazy notions of tolerance. I know people want multiculturalism to work, but they need to be more considered. Communities, schools, families and individuals mustn’t assume that multiculturalism necessarily plays out as the utopian ideal of cultures existing side by side, in harmony. In reality, conflict, tribalism, prejudice and abuse cam seethe just below surface level. It’s wrong when the traditions of any ethnic group or religion trump all other value systems. And it’s dangerous. I remember my life turning upside down after being forced to convert, and how not one teacher batted an eyelid. They never questioned my upset, my transformation, or the way I retreated into my shell. Religious misogyny was played out overtly, day after day, in my life and the lives of so many girls I knew, but no one in my school, or the wider community, dared challenge the status quo dictated by religious leaders. Maybe they were worried about being seen as politically incorrect and culturally insensitive. Or perhaps, on a subconscious level, they were making the value judgement so often confused with cultural tolerance:  that ethnic minorities and Muslims don’t deserve the freedoms afforded to other British children. Either way I realised pretty quickly no one would help me, so I kept my head down and focused on university, knowing it would be my escape from religious fundamentalism. A few months after starting my degree I met my now husband, was disowned, and the rest is history. And heartbreak. And freedom.

During the cultural hiatus between leaving home and having children I had to feel my way with all things festive and previously forbidden. As is the case with most parents, I want my children to enjoy things that I couldn’t and to have traditions in which they find comfort and happiness. But the guilt I was taught to associate with Christmas, birthdays, Halloween…and anything else enjoyed by the kufr (non-believers) was deeply ingrained. As time’s gone on I’ve developed into a more rational person, but I think Christmas will always be symbolic of a monumental and disorientating shift in my life. The ‘convert’ years have left me with a sense of cultural dislocation, so I continue to make up ‘tradition’ and cultural identity as I go along.

The man who refused to sit next to a woman on a plane (and why I find his behaviour deeply offensive)

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:

The Bind

Only a little light made its way
through opaque windows.
The air was still. Artificial.
I could hear
the deep
hum of
him.

I thrashed like hopeless bait
before resigning to fate
I didn’t believe. But in
darkness with no air,
you forget who 
you
are.

I stooped
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.

The Cave

Recently I stopped everything to write. I switched off the biggest distractions, reined myself in, and poised my pen. Unfortunately life didn’t get the memo about my book, so I’m hunkering down and writing poetry until this storm passes. The book is waiting.

Outside my cave, coffee steam
whirls around faraway eyes,
and fingers tap dance
atop flickering screens.

This cafe is rhythmic
with people and noise, and music
that skips from melancholy
to euphoria without pause.

I sat here with my firstborn.
Perfect and perfectly round.
So many plans.
So much joy it hurt.

I sat here with my second.
He grew despite my battles
and cracked body
and the fog that hung heavy.

And now, instead of writing
myself free, I sit here stuck
in a loop of cryptic stanzas,
waist deep in cloying uphill battles.

I hunch in a corner of my cave,
all jagged edges and sleeping bears.
My fists are tight with fear and full
of crumpled men from my past.

I’d hoped by now the fog would have lifted.
I’d hoped for more than shadows of forms,
tiptoeing between broken things,
whispering so there’s no echo.

Writing a book on religious patriarchy

I have another blog and recently I was asked to talk there about the book I’m writing. The book will be an extension of this space so it seems right that I share my piece here too…

What am I working on? A non fiction book about my past. As a teenager I was forced to convert to Islam and after the ‘conversion’ I experienced (and witnessed many other women experiencing) years of religiously sanctioned misogyny. After falling in love with a non-Muslim I was disowned and forced to leave my home and family. In the years since I’ve pieced together a new, autonomous, identity. My book will tell my story and it will discuss how the female experience can be limited by religious patriarchy.

How does my work differ from others in the genre? the research process has helped me discover some great writing about women who escaped religious control and misogyny, but these pieces tend to be written by, or about, people who were born into the religion. I’m not aware of any books about women forced into converting to Islam, as I was.

There’s a dearth of first-hand representation regarding religious misogyny. This results in a disconnect between the reality of being controlled and abused by religious patriarchy, and the stories being told. My book will offer an alternative to the faceless, academic analysis of religious misogyny. It will discuss, honestly, the emotional (and sometimes physical) manipulation that occurs in the context of forced conversion, as well as the reality of living under extreme patriarchy, and with conflicting cultural identities.

My story might sound unusual, but it’s certainly not unique. Islam attracts large numbers of converts each year and, if what I witnessed is anything to go by, there are other women (and men) who are emotionally corralled or trapped into Islam, by parents or partners.

Why do I write what I do? Initially I started to write as therapy. I spent years consumed with guilt over my decision to leave my family, but writing has allowed me sift through the emotional debris of my past. Writing has taught me that I had every right to want more from my life than being an automaton, that I’m entitled to feel angry about the way I was treated and about the years of lost opportunities, and most importantly that I can and should talk about my past.

Writer’s Boot Camp Week: 21 Things No One Will Tell You As a Writer (But Someone Probably Should)

I also write in the hope that I might be able to help others. And that’s not an entirely selfless act. If, all those years ago, I had come across a book like the one I’m writing, it would have started the healing process so much earlier. I would have found my voice before having my own family and it would have saved a lot of people a lot of heartache. I want to help those isolated by ‘sacred’ or cultural misogyny to feel less alone, so that they have the confidence to demand their freedom.

Lastly, I write because I know that human rights are being abused by those at the helm of organised religion (men). I passionately believe that any religious practice involving emotional or physical coercion, patriarchy, prejudice, or discrimination must be ripped apart for analysis – there can be no sacred cows. And women need to talk honestly about their experiences, because if we don’t rock the boat with truth, misogynistic attitudes and behaviours can’t be dismantled.

What is my writing process? I’m an impulsive writer and not particularly organised, but once I decided to write my book I knew I needed a more methodical approach, so I allocated time during the summer to plan my chapters, put them in order using Scrivener and fill them with notes.

In terms of writing software, I flit between the Evernote app on my phone and Scrivener. Evernote is so user-friendly, it syncs with all my other devices and I can use it whenever I have my phone to hand. Scrivener is a pretty slick programme that gives you complete control over formatting, but there’s no app so I don’t find it as practical as Evernote, especially as I tend to write in snatches – 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there – on my phone. My writing process is far from ideal and I often get frustrated at not having longer stretches of time to sit down and organise my ideas, but with two small children and a job, I’ve got to work with what I have.

I own this

Today I spoke to a troll. Not an ugly cave-dweller (although…) but one of those curious types on Twitter who crops up from nowhere, wielding their 140 characters like an overtired toddler with a pointy stick. I know I should take a deep breath and step away from the internet. I know his words (I’m assuming it’s a he) should have no bearing on my thoughts. But they do.

I’d been keen to find out what literature already exists on misogyny in Islamic communities, so earlier this week I tweeted this:

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No one came back to me with any book suggestions, but instead I had several tweets from Mr Troll telling me, among other things, that my story is a ‘yawn inducing cliché’, that I’m building ‘sensationalised mythologies’, that I have ‘little independence of thought’, and that I’m playing ‘into a toxic public narrative about Islam’ with a ‘tired story that is heavily politicised and deeply divisive’.

At first I was pleasantly surprised. So, the tweets weren’t overly supportive *cough*, but I was amazed that my little blog with just 6 posts had evoked such passion in someone I’ve never met. Alas, the smugness didn’t last, because his words stung and dug away at the part of me that until now has been too scared to talk about my past.

Mr Troll implied that I’m using my ‘small, personal story’ to attack Islam. It’s not the first time I’ve been told that in opening up about the forced conversion, the misogyny, and the disownment, I’m pitting myself against a whole faith. Several people have suggested that despite, or perhaps because of what I’ve been through I’ve a responsibility to defend Islam and Muslims. I’ve been told that instead of reflecting angrily I should help to improve the lot of Muslim women from within the faith. All those arguments have niggled away at me for years and so I’ve stayed quiet, worrying that I might contribute to the anti-Islamic rhetoric that has hurt so many of the people I love.

I would probably still be weighed down by those fears if it weren’t for the internet. Thankfully my computer sings to me with beautiful feminist writing and women who refuse to be victims. And I’ve come to realise that misogyny is like any other abuse in that it wont sort itself out. In order for men to be held accountable and women to be given any chance of freedom, we need to speak up about our experiences. We need to stop tolerating misogyny. We need to stop feeling guilty for wanting equality. We need to raise our voices. And Muslim and ex Muslim women need to rise above accusations that their stories are inflammatory, irrelevant and anti-Islamic – those arguments are just manifestations of a culture wanting to control female minds and bodies.

Over 20 years ago a man commanded that I be Muslim. I had no choice in the matter. It was an abuse of power. It’s ridiculous to assume that I’ve a responsibility to promote or protect a religion just because I was forced to practice it. I’ve no desire to upset Muslims, indeed some of the people I love most are Muslim, but I am entitled to reflect on the abuses of power I, and many other women, have suffered in the name of Islam.

The suggestion that my story is just a personal account with no bearing on wider society is absurd and it’s an attempt to belittle and silence me. Growing up I could only watch as women around me were reduced to vessels of male honour, their lives stunted to fit archaic models of purity.

The lack of autonomy that women in so many Muslim communities experience is relevant and must be discussed. As I’ve said before, presenting my story and my belief that women should have complete autonomy is not an attack on Islam, it’s a legitimate demand for equality and a necessary calling out of injustice.

I didn’t ask for the misogyny, but it happened to me, so now I own it, and I will talk about it. Whether you like it or not.

Writing as resistance and why I love to blog

They do best falling from my brain right into the ink in my pen.

I was about 10 when I decided what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to be a journalist. It was my destiny. I would grow up and get paid to write for people. And I’d write books too. Lots of them. So simple. Oh, to be 10 again! As it turned out life wasn’t the smooth path to professional writing that I’d anticipated. Somewhere along the line I lost track of who I was and by the time I needed to make those all important decisions about subjects, exams, and university, my earlier career aspirations seemed painfully unrealistic.

There were a couple of reasons why my plans for international journalistic success *snort* were scuppered. I had a breakdown that spanned my A Levels; I didn’t realise this at the time, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I understand now that the panic attacks and hiding away to cry in the toilets most days weren’t just teenage angst. In being forced to convert to a very strict form of Islam I’d had my identity stripped from me, and I felt like I was suffocating. As well as this I only had a small parameter of choice with regards to subjects – Islam (of course), teaching and medicine were viewed as acceptable options by those pulling the strings in my life, but most other subjects were seen as a dangerous distraction from god. This made the year or so before going to university an emotionally fraught time. I was frightened someone would put their foot down at the last minute and forbid me from going and I knew it was my one opportunity to escape the religious control. So I did what I had to do, I manipulated my patriarchy by studying for a degree I wouldn’t have chosen had I the freedom to make choices. It was a necessary inconvenience to achieve the autonomy I so desperately needed. I did a degree in Islamic Studies, Arabic and English Literature (although I gave up the Arabic in my third year: utterly hopeless) and then a diploma in International Relations.

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I loved the English and a lot of the political and sociological modules, but the rest I found arduous. If I’d had the clarity and the freedom I would have done gender studies and journalism, or something along that vein. Writing has always given me a giddy high, and analysing gender inequalities was my coping mechanism during the years of religious misogyny. 12 years on from graduating and I’m more passionate than ever about feminism and writing, and I still harbour the rather whimsical dream of being a writer when I ‘grow up’. But at 33, with a career and two young children, I’m bound by responsibilities that make my dream a little impractical. So I blog. It kills 2 birds with one stone – it sates my burning desire to write, if only temporarily, and it allows me to learn more about feminism.

Blogging has triggered so many epiphany moments. Since I started tapping away on WordPress I’ve realised I have a voice, that I’m entitled to feel anger and that it can be a constructive emotion, that I’m not as hopelessly dim as I thought I was, and that women like me can make a difference. My experiences mean I connect with certain feminist concerns, like ‘honour’ crime and religious patriarchy, more than others. But I realise that my experience is only one in a sea of inequality suffered by women, and the beauty of blogging is how much it teaches me about others. There are so many inspiring people online (women like GlosswitchSarah DitumJasvinder SangheraRaquel SaraswatiMaha, Huma and Mona Eltahawy) who’ve opened my eyes to sexism and the potential for emancipation, and after years of questioning my own worth and the legitimacy of my pain their words validate my anger and encourage me to believe that I can bring about change.

I hope that one day I’ll get the opportunity to write ‘properly’. I turn a bit green with envy each time I’m on Twitter – I’m pretty sure 75% of the people I follow have either written for newspapers or had a book published – but I’m also inspired and motivated by the success of other women. I have a book burning away in my mind that I’m desperate to write, but it’s only since I’ve had an online presence that I’ve felt I could make it happen. After speaking to a publisher at Britmums Live this year I’m more ready than ever to start writing about my past – the forced conversion, the religious misogyny, the disownment, and the piecing together of my new identity. It’s a story that needs to be told. It hurt me so much, but now I’m free, and I’ll be freer still when my words fill up those pages and can encourage some other poor soul who feels as trapped and hopeless as I did. But until the book really starts to come together I’ll continue to blog, because every time I write a post like this I feel like I’m chipping away at the patriarchy that took away my agency and manipulated my choices. These words are my feminist resistance.

Maya Angelou by Katie Rodgers

Sinking: when feminism is a dead weight

The last time I blogged here was through tears, after watching the documentary on Banaz Mahmod. It was a short post, punctuated with fury. I’d intended to be back way before now with a more coherent, useful piece on the issue of ‘honour’ abuse. I just needed some time out – to make sense of the anger and to turn it into something useful.

Truth is I’m still lost in that sea of rage. I’ve yet to achieve the perspective or clarity I was hoping for. I think about Banaz and the swathes of other women and men who suffer ‘honour’ abuse and I feel heartbroken. I want to be productive, to make an effort towards change, even in the smallest way. But it feels like an impossible task while I’m so ground down by upset. It’s taken months just to muster the thoughts I needed to write this post.

It feels selfish to acknowledge this, but I’ve reached saturation point. I’m exhausted by the scale and relentless of the suffering and by my own helplessness. Its not ‘just’ the ‘honour’ abuse – although that alone should be too much for any sane human being to comprehend – it’s the avalanche of misogyny that’s suffocating. Over the past few years my eyes have slowly, slowly, been opening to the extent of the hatred, the violence and the injustice suffered by women.

Misogyny in the news

Recently there’s been widespread media coverage of misogynistic crimes. At first I wondered if my increasingly feminist outlook was just making me more aware of the sorts of injustices that have always prevailed. And perhaps, to a certain extent, that is what’s happening. Misogyny is certainly nothing new. But the gift of social media and its constant and live news feed means we are only hours, minutes, or seconds away from the next breaking story about violence against women.

Only this month the press has reported widely on the increasingly uncertain fate of more than 200 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram – an Islamist militant group that believes Western education is forbidden, on the slaughter of 6 people in Isla Vista, California at the hands of Elliot Rodgers – a 22 year old with violently misogynistic beliefs, on the rise of the so called “manosphere” – “virulently misogynistic” websites, blogs and forums dedicated to savaging feminists in particular and women, on the devastating gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in India whose bodies were subsequently left hanging from a tree, on the chilling reaction of Indian government minister Mulayam Singh Yadav to the proposed toughening up of rape laws, on the brutal death of Farzana Parveen who, at 3 months pregnant, was stoned to death by her family for marrying a man who has subsequently admitted to killing his first wife, on the heart wrenching ordeal of Meriam Ibrahim who just last week gave birth to a baby girl while shackled to the floor. Meriam has been sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery and to death for apostasy. She continues to be held in prison with her newborn daughter Maya and 20-month-old son Martin.

These cases have carved out a place in my consciousness. But now that I know about these women – who have names, history’s, aspirations, and the same rights as every other person on this planet, but are treated worse than caged animals – how on earth am I, how on earth are any of us, expected to carry on as normal? How do you live without a crushing sadness once you know a pregnant woman has given birth shackled in a prison for no other reason than she exercised a fundamental human right? How do you not spend your days consumed with rage once you know that rape and sexual assault are tolerated by so many? How do you function normally when it’s abundantly clear that women who reclaim their sexuality are so often seen as intrinsically worthless.

And as if all that isn’t enough, as well as these barbaric acts, there is also a layer of constant, low-level misogyny and sexism that pervades our media and everyday interactions. You get a sense of just how all-encompassing it is when you read the #everydaysexism and #yesallwomen hashtags on Twitter.

With many of the stories of sexism and misogyny I’m reminded of my own experiences. It might seem egocentric of me to refer to my past, but I imagine that is what defines many a feminist – that we empathise and relate by connecting back to either our own suffering or the suffering of people we love. It’s overwhelming to know that so many other victims are invisible; without a voice or a platform. I know first hand about invisible victims of misogyny because I grew up in a community where sexism was the status quo, where western education was viewed with scorn and counteracted with a culture of female subjugation, where female sexuality was perceived as deviant and female bodies were controlled. I grew up believing that it was perfectly acceptable for men to phone my father and ask for my hand in marriage, without my consent, as though I were a piece of meat that could be bargained over. I grew up knowing that because I’m female I would one day have to make a choice between my freedom or my family. All this happened in the UK, not in a third world, rural backwater. And as far as I know, no one else from the community I grew up in has publicly denounced the way we were treated.

Justifying feminism

Despite cases of brutal misogyny being made abundantly clear to anyone with a tv, a newspaper, or the internet, I’m often asked to justify feminism. And increasingly I’m finding it hard to articulate a response, not because I’ve a lack of reasons (obviously) but because of the sheer rage that the question induces. Are people blind to what is happening? How…HOW do they not see? And then there are the men (and very occasionally women) who see it as their role to bring feminists down a peg or two, to belittle the issue through smirks and rolled eyes. They remind me gently: things have changed, that I don’t need to get quite so histrionic about everyday sexism because it isn’t actually hurting me and, hey, those women who suffer the worst abuse aren’t even from the UK, so what’s with all the guilt-mongering? And I want to shout out:

  1. There is NO acceptable sexism – just as there’s no acceptable racism
  2. No one should be expected to shrug off sexism – because once you start devaluing the worth and integrity of half the world’s population, you’re careering down a slippery slope
  3. Calling out sexism isn’t dramatic, it’s just having conviction in the belief that women shouldn’t be treated as commodities, nor as figures of fantasy, mockery, or scorn
  4. Misogyny should never be shrugged off through a perceived cultural relativity, because culture is no excuse for abuse and that absurd belief only devalues women with cultural ‘otherness’
  5. There is no relativity when it comes to freedom

What next?

I’ve been so swamped by anger recently that I had to pull down the shutters. I distanced myself from all the low-level, socially ‘acceptable’ sexism that I would normally challenge. I stopped reading books on cultural misogyny because I found myself a weeping, exhausted mess, unable to stop reliving my own traumas. I’ve been ‘copping out’ (at least that’s what it feels like) by taking refuge in my other ‘mummy’ blog, a place of relative calm and happiness. I’ve had to acknowledge my limitations, because while I want to make a difference and vocalise my rejection of misogyny, I need time for myself and my family, time in which my mind isn’t consumed by injustice. I’m having to compartmentalise my identities so that my anger doesn’t impact on every other part of my life.

I’m trying to understand how other people move forward and beyond just feeling sad and angry, how they apply their rage so that it isn’t immobilising. I’m taking small steps, by writing this blog, by trying to organise a screening of the Honor Diaries in my local area (something that’s proving to be a painfully slow process), by reflecting on the work of activists like Jasvinder Sanghera, and next month I’ll go to BritMums Live, a conference for bloggers which will reflect in part on women’s voices in the media and becoming an advocate for change. Small steps.

The fact is misogyny will continue to wreak havoc on lives and sexism apologists will continue to patronise the efforts of feminists. I can’t let either of these things consume me, nor can I ignore my social responsibility. Somehow I need to find a balance that allows me to make a difference and live a life in which I’m happy and present for my family.

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Inverted honour

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I’ve just finished watching  a film that’s left me feeling shaken and raw and so angry that hashing together a lengthier blog at this moment in time would be a bad idea, suffice it to say I intend to write one very soon. In the meantime the above, frankly awesome, piece of art encompasses the words I can’t fathom right now.

What I will say is, please watch Banaz A Love Story. In the words of the synopsis: it’s a documentary film chronicling the honour killing of Banaz Mahmod, a young British woman in suburban London in 2006, killed and “disappeared” by her own family, with the agreement and help of a large section of the Kurdish community, because she tried to choose a life for herself.

I’ve embedded it here for you:

Deeyah Khan has created an incredible film, not least because of the power it has to change lives and communities for the better.

Women all over the world are being taught that their bodies are simply vessels for preserving ‘honour’, their futures are manipulated and their opportunities stunted. In extreme cases they are beaten and murdered for failing to preserve the ‘honour’ of their families and communities. Education is fundamental to changing this barbaric misogyny. Please take a look at Karma Nirvana and Honor Diaries for more information. I will be back with my thoughts on this once I can see through the red mist.

Going it alone

Disownment -
The refusal to acknowledge as one’s own, renunciation, repudiation, rejecting, or disclaiming as invalid

Disownment. It’s not a word I use lightly. In fact, before this week I don’t think I used it at all. At one point all I knew about disownment was what I’d read in the press or seen on tv. It seemed a cruel, reactionary behaviour and I felt sad for those affected. But as a naïve, self-absorbed teenager, they were the ‘other’ – people you pity from afar before getting on with your life. And then, one summer, 14 years ago, I was disowned.

Change

During my teenage years my parents converted to a strict form of Islam and within months my life changed beyond recognition. When the shutters first came down I tried to kick and plead my way out. It did nothing. So after a while I stopped resisting, because it’s soul-destroying to beg for help and be met with silence. I was quiet, obedient, I knew I had to bide my time, and that university would be my escape. And it was. In my first term I met my husband and I was issued a predictable ultimatum – leave my non-Muslim boyfriend, or leave my family. The thought of walking away from my mother who’d been my best friend, and my 5 younger siblings was horrific, but I knew I’d have to leave sooner or later. The day after the ultimatum I kissed my youngest siblings goodbye and walked away from everything I knew and into a world I was frighteningly unprepared for.

Fallout

The subsequent emotional fallout taught me a lot about my coping mechanisms. After the disownment I switched to self-preservation mode, my mind sifted and sorted through the emotional debris. It was a quiet process, quite detached from my consciousness. While I focused on living, surviving, my subconscious had a de-brief (I’m imagining copious amounts of tea and biscuits and quizzical scratching of heads within heads) and identified what I was capable of dealing with. For a long time the head within my head decided I wasn’t strong enough to acknowledge that I’d been disowned. So that little tapered corner of my identity was folded over and left for years. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fast forward 14 years and life is good. So good! I’m married, with my own family and a career. I’ve worked hard, too hard (to the point where my self-esteem and self-worth took a regular battering) to reestablish contact and relationships and to redefine myself. Not everyone in my family is back in my life but the current situation is of my choosing, rather than a cruel punishment. And now my disownment is an odd memory from a life that doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. If it weren’t for the scars that flare up every so often I would struggle to believe that chapter was anything but an odd nightmare. But it’s not been easy. I got here through trial and error; a method I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Re-establishing my identity has been a messy, drawn out process. I count my blessings that I had friends and a boyfriend who led me through that time, picking me up and setting me straight when the feelings of worthlessness pushed me towards self-sabotage. I’ve screwed up, broken down, dusted myself off and started again. Over and over. It’s been repetitive and exhausting. And lonely. The only person who knows about my lowest points is my husband. But despite the turmoil of the last 14 years it’s only recently that I’ve made the so-obvious-it’s-painful connection between being abandoned and my emotional trauma.

But the thing is it’s difficult to deal with something for which you’ve no precedent. To move beyond abandonment you need support and guidance. But historically disownment has been tiptoed around by those with a voice. I get the distinct impression it’s ignored because of a skewed sense of political correctness and cultural ‘tolerance’. The knock-on effect is that there is little social awareness of the issue and a dearth of resources to support those abandoned by their families.

Reclaiming my voice

I’ve been writing about my experience for the past year now, but only tentatively. Back when it happened, I didn’t think to blog or reach out for support because I felt responsible and terribly ashamed; ashamed that I’d left the faith (although I’d never actually joined), ashamed that I’d ever been part of such a controlling culture, ashamed that I was different from everyone else with their comparatively ‘normal’ lives, ashamed that I’d been abandoned. And there are other reasons I’ve been apprehensive about sharing my story. I know some feel I should let go and move on, rather than dredging up the past and pouring salt into old wounds. At one point I would have conceded that communicating such painful, private moments in public was unnecessary and narcissistic. But that was back when I thought I was alone, back when the shame and humiliation of being abandoned was so intense that discussing it seemed an irrelevant and unnecessary burden for everyone.

But the truth is there are other people facing rejection for not conforming to cultural or religious expectations. And the thought that they might feel as alone as I did is just too much to bear. Living in fear of abandonment is oppressive and inhumane. A support network and honest communication is essential if we are to help. To remain silent about this issue through a misplaced sense of responsibility to religious or cultural communities or even parents and families, is to reinforce the message that some people are more worthy of freedom and opportunity than others.

One person

This is what I know:

After being disowned you will often feel alone. You might be in a roomful of smiling people, but you will feel alone. No matter how hard or unsustainable the dynamic and relationships were within your family, their rejection will shake you to your core. You will question your worth, every second of every waking minute of every day. You won’t believe that people like you, you will try to sabotage relationships with people who say they love you. And you will do this because deep inside you are alone, and that’s not how we are meant to be.

Here’s something else I know:

All it takes is one person to change your situation. Their words will chip away at the shell of hurt and shame that is isolating you, making you so fragile and setting you apart from the rest of the world. Tiny chinks of light appear and you will notice everyone else and that they’re not so different from you. It becomes possible to see a future, to make plans and to regain the self-esteem that’s eroded by cruel rejection. And that’s why I’m writing this – because for me it’s not just about catharsis anymore, this is far bigger than my story, it’s about reaching out.

Help

About a week ago I stumbled across Maha’s blogs (here and here) which are full of invaluable advice for those coping with disownment. They floored me. I was disowned 14 years ago, I’ve since built a new life and I’m in a good place. But I read her piece and I crumbled. Every word resonated. All I could think about was how naïve and vulnerable I’d been, how it could have ended so badly and how I wish I could have read her words when I needed them, years ago. What a difference it would have made. So much heartbreak could have been avoided. The guilt and loneliness would have dissipated far quicker if only I’d known there were others like me.

The reality is I can’t change my past. I’ve walked my path and while I wouldn’t choose to do it again, I’m stronger for it. My hope is that something positive can come from my story. People should know it’s only right to reclaim what was always theirs – voices, body’s, futures. Choice, freedom and autonomy are human rights, not privileges for those lucky enough to be born into accommodating cultures, religions, or families. We mustn’t live our lives in fear, contorting our aspirations, our psychologies or our spirit to conform to the expectations of those who desire only to control. We must be free.

If you have any practical or emotional advice about coping with disownment please get in touch. Maha has offered suggestions about where to go for help in the US, and she is now trying to create a resource guide for places like the UK and Canada. If you’d like to contribute with resources you think might be helpful (shelters, counselors, job boards, etc), please contact her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/Mookers.

ee cummings

International Women’s Day and the feminists who inspired me to reclaim my body

A post I wrote just after International Women’s Day 2014…

Saturday was International Women’s Day – an annual, global event encouraging us to think about the social, political and economic achievements of women. When I saw that Lucy was hosting a link up for bloggers to write about women who inspire change I knew I needed to get blogging. I’m a proud feminist so it goes without saying that I support anything raising awareness of female experiences. But while I knew I wanted to write something, I wasn’t sure what. I thought about blogging generally about women’s rights issues, but after reading lots of personal reflections over the last couple of days I’ve decided to talk about my experience of being inspired to resist sexism. Mine is an experience shared by other women, but it’s rarely spoken about, probably because of a skewed sense of political correctness and some very justified fears. But lasting change is impossible without dialogue. So here is my story, or at least a tiny part of it – about how I was controlled, marginalised and made vulnerable by religion. And about two feminists who inspired me to change my life for the better.

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My story

My experience of sexism began during my teenage years, after my parents converted to a fundamentalist type of Islam. After the conversion my gender became my defining feature. I was restricted from experiences I’d previously taken for granted. I was told what I could and couldn’t wear and who I could be friends with. I had to move schools so that I’d be surrounded by ‘like-minded’ people (girls). I listened passively (there was no room for debate) as I was told that women should never be leaders (they’re too emotional), that marital rape and domestic violence are grey areas, that the education system is a dangerous place encouraging destructive freedoms, that women should walk behind their husbands, that unmarried women shouldn’t leave the house unaccompanied, that my body and my sexuality made life dangerous for me, and that gender equality was a fallacy invented by the West.

I kept my head down and focused on going to university and the freedom it would bring. A few months after going I was estranged from my family for starting a relationship with my now husband. Forging an independent life after being so controlled was terrifying, it didn’t help that the irrational beliefs I’d been forced to embrace had left their mark. Amongst other things I’d been taught that my body was my downfall and that it needed to be covered for everyone’s sake. It’s impossible to change that kind of thinking overnight, so for a long time I felt ashamed and painfully self-conscious.

My body

Much of the sexism I was subjected to was linked to my my body. I was forced to cover my hair; something I felt intensely uncomfortable about, but when I questioned the demands to cover up I’d get one of two responses – either saccharine nonsense about my ‘beauty’ needing to be preserved and not being for public consumption, or the classic (and surprisingly convincing when you’re vulnerable) argument that I’d burn in hell if I didn’t conform. Back then I had no outlet, no blog or voice that was listened to. I was being dictated to by aggressive men who thought my opinion was irrelevant. It was dehumanising, isolating and frightening. And I wasn’t alone. I know other women who were forced to wear the hijab, sometimes with threats of violence, but mostly through emotional manipulation.

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I should state a couple of things here. The hijab is a deadweight; loaded with cultural, political and religious ideology about female autonomy. It’s a topic so huge I could never do it justice in this post. So, just to be clear: I’m not debating the ethics of religious dress. I’m just reflecting on my experience. 

There are of course women who assert that their hijab is a statement of choice, liberation, and freedom. And who am I to judge? If a woman feels the hijab frees, empowers, or in some way adds to the quality of her life, then more power to her. I will always respect the rights of women to dress how they want. But that was not my experience. I felt suffocated by what I saw as an obsessive sexualisation and objectification of my body. My choice and agency was systematically stripped from me. And I wasn’t alone. There are girls and women everywhere who are made vulnerable by religious sexism. They are made to feel ashamed of their bodies. Their opportunities are stunted in order to satisfy the demands of men. And as far as I see it, they have little chance to escape the oppression they’re subjected to. I was one of the lucky ones.

The women who inspired me to reclaim my body

As well as developing an unhealthy body image I internalised the prejudices and fundamentalist rhetoric I’d been exposed to – that women and non-Muslims were inherently flawed. I’m ashamed to admit that for a long time I found it very hard to connect with non-Muslims. I was indoctrinated to believe that the worth of a person’s experience and advice was inextricably linked to their religious belief. I hate that I allowed this to happen, but from what I saw all those years ago it’s a common (if taboo) prejudice.

Over the years I’ve learnt the art of self-analysis. I now realise how limiting my prejudices were and I’m free to see inspiration everywhere. A few years after leaving home I stumbled across several writers who helped me to reconnect with who I am. I can’t tell you what a relief it was in those early days to discover that people were shouting angrily about the sexism and fear perpetrated by fundamentalist religion. It was life changing to know that there were people who believed I was entitled to freedom of choice and a voice. Two of the writers I had the good fortune to read about were Mona Eltahawy and Fatima Mernissi – Feminist Muslims whose writing shone a light in some of my darker moments. Reading Mernissi’s book The Veil And The Male Elite and Eltahawy’s articles gave me hope. I realised I wasn’t alone. I learned that the controlling behaviour I’d experienced wasn’t unique to me, that I was justified in wanting to resist it, and that the guilt and shame I felt was merely a symptom of the sexism I’d suffered.

After the sexism

Since walking away from institutionalised religion I’ve existed in a strange limbo. On one hand I’ve a relevant story to tell having experienced fundamentalism from the inside, but my voice is trapped in a void between two cultures. I’m nervous of saying too much or offending people, so in the past I’ve opted not to say nothing. But as the years go on I’m noticing how overt the control over women’s voices is. I’m noticing the culture of intolerance and bullying that skews the narrative of women in Islam. Voices that should be entitled to a platform are being oppressed. Fear is being used as a method of control. People wishing to be part of the debate on women in Islam are being silenced and derided, often for being too feminist, too liberal, or too white. I fall into all three of those categories but I don’t see how that diminishes the significance of my experiences or my opinion. I find this collective silencing technique obnoxious. It’s what I had to put up with for years from men. Patriarchy is partly sustained through this grand-scale selective hearing and I hate it – the enforced silence, the fingers in ears, the sheer arrogance of believing that one voice reigns supreme; surely it’s the bedrock of all misogyny?

#lastingchange

I could just creep around in the shadows for the rest of my life, raging every so often at the injustice of it all, but women like Fatima Mernissi and Mona Eltahawy inspire me to be braver and to embrace my social responsibility. If I’d found a post like this while I was trapped between the rock and the hard place of teenage vulnerability and religious control, I would have cried with relief. Education was my ticket to freedom, but some girls don’t have that opportunity. The only escape from sexism is to know that there is another way: equality, and to feel an entitlement to that equality.

But what now? How can we improve the situation for girls and women trapped in misogynistic cultures or religions?

1. It’s essential that we talk about religion and women, and about the associated cultural practices that limit the female experience. We need to stop feeling so terrified of offending, because it only serves to maintain the inequality. Presenting my story and my belief that women should have complete autonomy is not an attack on Islam, it’s a legitimate demand for equality and a necessary calling out of injustice.

2. We must think carefully about whether our choices are truly free. I’m no longer threatened by physical or overt emotional manipulation, but socially conditioned sexist behaviours aren’t so easy to identify. As far as I’m concerned we women (with the physical and emotional freedom to do so) have a responsibility to check our freedom, to think about the choices we make and to ask – why am I doing this? who is it pleasing? who is it empowering?

International Women’s Day is a fantastic reminder that challenging sexism is a life-altering process. You only need to take a look at the website or the Twitter feed to feel inspired by the huge number of people and organisations  ‘challenging the status quo for women’s equality and…inspiring positive change’.

The path to feminism is unique for everyone.  We all have a story that taught us about the disparity of opportunity between men and women and we can, in our own way, make a difference. My hope is that through writing and dialogue we can redefine the archaic ideas of modesty, shame and honour that ground women in cultures across the world to a halt. I want all women to realise they must never be weighed down by the burden of collective male guilt. They must never be physically or emotionally coerced into someone else’s idea of acceptability. They must always have a voice, freedom of choice and complete autonomy. Because these are our bodies and our minds, and only we have legitimate claim to them.

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