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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Losing faith

It seems apt to open my new blog with this poem I wrote many moons ago, when I was at uni. I wasn’t confident enough to refer to Islam, so I used the guise of Christianity. All these years later and the feelings associated with waiting and biding my time in the cage are still so vivid.


Losing Faith

Jessie fans herself with the Lord’s book.
I detach my clammy arm from hers.
My top clings to me
In this house of God
I am obscene.

The vicar shouts,
“Jesus healed the man with the withered hand!”
And we cry out
as if we are happy.

I have edged towards the back of the room
through the years
the summer sun cooks my shoulders.

We sit here with our withered hands
and bodies and souls,
flapping in the heat.

The vicar screams his outrage
and we wait restlessly,
like animals in a cage.