So many Australian–Arab women are like snow in the desert. Growing up, at least, we’re almost completely at odds with our environment, expected to exist and thrive under antagonistic circumstances.
In some ways it isn’t a challenge, especially if you are surrounded by people in the same situation. But at other times, differences matter. A realisation began to brew in my mind a while ago: that although being a woman in the Arab world has major challenges, including religious practice, cultural identity is not one of them.
The Arab women I met [when I travelled throughout the Middle East] were simply of Arab heritage, not entrenched in labels. Arguably, Arabs don’t wrestle with their place in society as Arabs. There is, in fact, a lot of pride. The questions are around class, lifestyle and religion, all of which inﬂuence how they live and see themselves. And in these respects, there can be very clear markers of division, though not necessarily conﬂict.
Arguably, Arabs don’t wrestle with their place in society as Arabs. There is, in fact, a lot of pride.
…So the women I spoke to in the Arab world may have experienced their hardships, but they knew who they were, even if they didn’t always like who they were expected to be. If they were ﬁghting for justice or equality or feminism, their battles were clear – corruption, societal expectations and misogyny.
In Australia, however, many of the women I met with were very conﬂicted culturally, personally and sometimes religiously, or at least had been at some stage of their lives. The difﬁculties of understanding or stepping into your place in society, discovering purpose or your role in life, and ascertaining what you truly believe were all ampliﬁed. Many of these women were conﬁdent and self-assured, even change-makers in their chosen professions. But they had also been battered by years of mistrust, discrimination, uncertainty about where they belong, and conﬂicting expectations from their families and wider societies.
A need to belong
…Life coach Hanan told me that a primary reason younger Arab women enlist her services is because they struggle when it comes to belonging – women who were either born in Australia or ‘moved here late’.
“I can deﬁnitely resonate with that on many aspects,” [Hanan said]. “For example, I struggled with belonging for a while because. . . I wore a headscarf so I looked different.
“I look Middle Eastern, I pray ﬁve times a day, I have an accent. I don’t belong to the mainstream society or community. But then on the other side, I also don’t belong to the Muslim community and I ﬁnd it very difﬁcult to ﬁnd good friends that I could belong to. So that was also another challenge. I didn’t belong here and I didn’t belong there and I deﬁnitely didn’t belong back home.
“The belonging was one of the biggest challenges that I have. And sometimes you go to places, you see people, but you don’t really actually belong.”
So that was also another challenge. I didn’t belong here and I didn’t belong there and I deﬁnitely didn’t belong back home.
Hanan eventually made a discovery: “that belonging doesn’t have anything to do with the culture or religion or where you come from or what’s your mother tongue. It has everything to do with what’s in your head and who can actually talk to you from the head that makes you feel like “we bond here”. It has nothing to do with culture”.
“It’s very nice to have a cup of coffee with a friend and you just pour your heart out and you know that it’s in a sacred place. You can do that. That was one thing. And I also have two mentors [who are] Aussie to the core.”
Hanan’s approach is similar to mine. It’s taken me years to reach the point where I feel comfortable being a multitude of ideas, beliefs; to feel attached to culture and religion but not be deﬁned by them. It’s a place you reach when you ﬁnd yourself and realise that the relationship you have with yourself is the most important one you’ll ever have. That the gaps don’t have to be ﬁlled by anger and rage as an antidote to the hate others feel for you.
I know what it’s like to wear your identities like armor, oddly proud and defensive even as you search for personal meaning. It never bothered me when people asked me where I was from. In fact, I tended to proudly proclaim my heritage growing up.
...belonging doesn’t have anything to do with the culture or religion or where you come from or what’s your mother tongue. It has everything to do with what’s in your head...
…But some consider such enquiries and conversations distasteful because the curiosity can seem like an insinuation, or an afﬁrmation, that you’re from somewhere else and therefore not really an Australian. If it’s a power play, and often it is, it can be problematic.
This is why I understand but don’t subscribe to the manic identity politics so many people are latching onto at the moment. For every proud Australian-born ‘person of colour’, there is a racist Australian ‘reclaimer’ who doesn’t think you belong in the sun-drenched land of Oz.
Of course, racism in Australia is embedded in its history, but the way in which migrants have experienced it has shifted over the years. A new generation of post-9/11 youth is pouring its anger into poetry slams, academic writing and opinion pieces. The rise of identity politics has seen a remarkable change in how we address racism. People are angry, and it’s breeding more rage. I understand it: I may have white skin, but years of wearing a hijab and having an Arab name have exposed me to some insidious racism, and for most of my life, being subject to this racism deﬁned me.
The rise of identity politics has seen a remarkable change in how we address racism. People are angry, and it’s breeding more rage.
So I can appreciate the relief that comes with clutching your identity labels as a way to feel safe, in order to claim a sense of belonging. Indeed, in some cases I think marking a clear identity is important. No one should have to deny parts of themselves. But a damaging side effect is that in the name of defending a community, other important issues can be overlooked.
In Australia, for example, Arab women might neglect internal community issues for the sake of unity against a nationalist antagonist, invoking the very labels that in some ways constrict them, to address backlash.
So I no longer see it as helpful or useful to be too ﬁrmly entrenched in identity politics, which can make you sound as racist as the people who are trying to oppress you. Whether the devotion to such politics is driven by a desire to stem personal confusion or it is a reaction to discrimination, in my experiences it can be more harmful than helpful. It’s not always a mentality that is interested in creating a new way forward.
The article above is an edited extract from Amal Awad's new book, Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women - published by Penguin Random House Australia - is available in bookstores and online now. RRP $34.99.
Her book was supported by the Australian Government through the Council for Australian-Arab Relations. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Commonwealth of Australia or those of the Australian Government.