Years ago, author Geraldine Brooks embarked on an ambitious adventure to make sense of the lives of Muslim women, despite not being Muslim herself, nor having any discernible investment in how they live. The final product was the now-(in)famous book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden Lives of Islamic Women, which saw Brooks navigate, often with frustration and puzzlement, the world of Muslim women across the Middle East and beyond.
Her desire to understand other women’s lives seemed intellectual rather than emotional, and whether she intended it or not, she exhibited in her writing a sense of superiority over the Muslim world she temporarily inhabited. It may well not have been Brooks’ purpose, but if she had intended a softer, more respectful approach, something was lost in the process.
Curiosity about the Muslim world – a limiting term given its expansiveness – has arguably only grown in the last 15 years. The events of September 11 in the US seemed to prompt a flurry of similar works to Brooks’ – Muhajababes, Excellent Daughters and The Veiled Lands to name a few.
But the interest in Muslims created by 9/11 is telling: it wasn’t enough to view Muslims – and by extension, Arabs – as simply an ‘other’ to be feared. At least for the women venturing in to the Middle East, there was a desire to understand them.
When you are investigating someone’s faith, and by extension their culture, you are peering in to a part of them that - despite being available to the masses - feels deeply personal.
Years after its release, I still remember Brooks’ book, and the numerous others written by other Anglo women from the “liberated” west who felt compelled to investigate the lives of women that seemed counter their own. What bothered me when reading their accounts wasn’t their curiosity, it was the layer of judgment within them; the sense that they somehow had life ‘right’. They wanted to feel better about Muslim women’s lives, and perhaps, subconsciously, their own.
Given we humans are such curious beings, is it possible to seek to understand something different to our own realities, if any interest at all can be labelled exploitative or condescending?
I’d argue that it doesn’t have to be either. The spirit of investigation can be entirely inquisitive and even a product of co-creation.
I’m currently up to my ears in stories told to me by women of Arab heritage, both in Australia and the Arab world. They have opened up their hearts and minds to me, over many hours, to talk about what drives them, how their experiences have shaped their beliefs, and their approaches to life. It wasn’t difficult getting women to do this; many people, given the chance, want to express themselves and share something of their lives with others.
That I am of Arab-Muslim heritage myself wasn’t, as I expected, the most important factor for these women. It was my approach and the respect I showed them in doing so. When you are investigating someone’s faith, and by extension their culture, you are peering in to a part of them that - despite being available to the masses - feels deeply personal. Even if you purport to share the same beliefs and culture, you are not by default someone trustworthy. And giving people access to your life is a tricky thing to do, especially when their motivation is to understand something you live.
We look at religion as a series of motifs, rather than genuine, heartfelt, lived experiences, particularly in the case of non-western traditions.
Quite often we look at religion as a series of motifs, rather than genuine, heartfelt, lived experiences, particularly in the case of non-western traditions. As a Muslim, my religion is diluted and broken down into basic ideas. We want to limit Islam to appearances – easily identifiable motifs of the woman in a headscarf and the bearded man, mad-eyed and broken; of restriction, not faith or faithfulness.
Once in a while people try to get it right, or at least lighten the intensity around religious thinking. Such people, like comedians and journalists, have a desire to investigate what they don’t know or understand because they have a reason to, such as co-existence in a multicultural state. When John Safran tackles religion, no one is safe; he’s an equal-opportunity mocker, which arguably makes him more harmless. His neutrality is disarming for some (I can’t say I’m a fan but I’m not a critic either). Anthony Bourdain uses food as a vehicle to open up his world, caustic humour and all, putting on display the fascinating diversity of cultures and faiths in the world. Shaun Micallef’s Stairway to Heaven: Gods, Gurus and Ganges, exhibited his trademark humour in a warm and welcoming way, though someone of Indian heritage is far more qualified than I to offer an informed opinion as to its qualities, respectful or otherwise.
Ultimately, it’s not a bad thing to explore other faiths. But to avoid exploitation of them, having a clear purpose, and understanding people are made up of many beliefs and not necessarily limited by them, will make all the difference.