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. I’m a proud feminist so it goes without saying that I support anything raising awareness of female experiences, so 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.
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 starting my degree I was disowned for being in 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.
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.
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 realise I don’t speak for all women. There are 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 the obsessive sexualisation and objectification of my body. My choice and agency were 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 can see, 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 a persons worth is 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 others 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’ve been nervous about causing offence, so until now I’ve said nothing. But as time goes 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 suppressed. Fear is being used as a method of control. People wishing to be part of the debate about 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. 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 demanding that a single voice or story should reign supreme; surely it’s the bedrock of all misogyny?
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?
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.