In a small, unremarkable room, a group of women sat with their legs folded beneath them, all of us veiled, some more elaborately than others. There is hijab, and then there is hijab, and the length of the fabric is, at a basic level, a decent indicator of how religious a woman is, or encouraged to be.
I had somehow landed in this place I quickly realised I didn’t belong. It was a religious camp for Muslims, but I had signed up to join some friends who, while more devout than me in some ways, were by no means your classic ‘fundy’ type (aka fundamentalist, as we affectionately termed it).
Behind a curtained space sat a cleric, who intoned rules about daily life for women. He was stern, cold even, and I found it difficult to concentrate and connect to his sermon. Outside, the summer heat beat down on the land; we were surrounded by bush and the pools were off limits to females because they were outdoors and there would be a risk of men seeing us.
The stern sheikh wasn’t a huge surprise to me. I had encountered many like him throughout my life. I come from a conservative family, but my parents were never this type of religious; the hell-and-brimstone kind. If there is a barometer of this kind of ‘scary’, they would sit low on the spectrum, though childhood was a difficult and rocky pathway to navigate as a woman straddling extremely different worlds, both in cultural and religious terms.
We Muslim girls grew up hearing everything as a shrouded warning, or a reminder, that society is not kind to females
I had understood from a young age how men could dominate any space and conversation; how masculine religious thought is, and how it shaped the lives of all, with the greatest impact on females. It wasn’t uncommon to be reminded, in casual tones, how men were responsible for women, and how religion “teaches us” that men are stronger than women, ascending them to a lofty state of guardian who is charged with protecting women from, well, other men.
We Muslim girls grew up hearing everything as a shrouded warning, or a reminder, that society is not kind to females, and rather than root out the cause, we must capitulate to stay safe, to preserve our reputations, to diminish ourselves so as not to threaten others. It is not said so explicitly; it is expressed through subtext: “You’re a girl, so you can’t do that’; ‘That is inappropriate’; and of course, ‘You can do that when you’re married’.
So the cleric was not a surprise. It was, rather, the next set of lectures that truly threw me. Three women, their veils down to their knees, sat at the head of the restless group, discussing how to be a good wife.
I was extremely single and naïve at the time. My idea of love was fanciful and chaste. I was the good Muslim girl who would find love in my parents’ living room. If I followed the rules, I would be rewarded. I would never be hurt, and I would never hurt anyone by wanting things, by having desires, by embracing my womanhood.
But as I listened to the women speak, it became clear to me how ‘womanhood’ evolves in conservative circles. Devout followers of a religion will always centre God, and yet, here we were, worrying about men and their feelings.
I find myself managing a balancing act. How to tell the truth about being a woman of Arab-Muslim heritage, while not fuelling racist, hateful criticism
I have fragments of memory about what they said: the way you should look, behave and feel around your husband, particularly when he comes home from a hard day being the breadwinner. It was like a 1950s ‘How to be a Good Housewife’ guide without the modern irony. But I remember more vividly the delivery of the information. One woman read off a sheet of paper (the talk had been written by a man), and occasionally she would pause to offer an invocation to God as a form of praise. She was reflecting on the truth of it all, of how women were their own worst enemies.
Years later, as I canvass questions from audiences at festivals on the back of my book about the lives of Arab women, I find myself managing a balancing act. How to tell the truth about being a woman of Arab-Muslim heritage, while not fuelling racist, hateful criticism. Because everyone is suddenly a feminist when it comes to Muslim women.
And it was at a recent event that my own occasionally muddied thoughts clarified: we spend so much time talking about the systemic prejudice against women, we don’t stop to question what role women play in upholding or further entrenching unfair rules for females.
It is women who hold a true position of power in how they shape female experiences. It is women who have most held me back, tried to oppress me, shun me, silence me or modify my womanhood. It is a woman who tried to shoot down my dreams of being a journalist, who apologised with the proviso that she “just wanted to make sure I knew what my boundaries were”. It is women who gather other women in circles to reinforce male-centric rules; it is women who have a role in shaming other women for their behaviours, liberally calling them sluts, trash and whores.
It is women who have pulled me aside to ‘gently’ scold me for something I was wearing; for the nail polish. It is a woman who warned a room full of women of the sin of plucking eyebrows unless it is for the pleasure of a husband. It is women who abandoned me the moment I took off the headscarf because they were so confronted by anything outside of their personal experience. It is women who shush others who wish to speak out against domestic violence and abuse in the name of unity against a racist population.
The veil is an easy objection to make, and yet it is not the greatest challenge to women who must navigate their own feelings about veiling
All of this came roaring to mind as I devoured this excellent piece by Sarah Jones in The New Republic in which she reflects on the conservative females of fictional world Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. In it, Jones recounts her own religious days where, she says, “I commended myself to Gilead, or something like it: I attended a religious university that controlled almost every aspect of my daily life and behaviour.”
She goes on to note: “But The Handmaid’s Tale does more than present a possible future: It asks us to consider how we’d end up there. A form of feminism that celebrates power for power’s sake, instead of interrogating how it is concentrated and distributed, will usher us into fascism. Feminism means something. Some choices oppress the women who make them, and some beliefs, if enforced, would oppress everyone else, too.”
We could try to explore the place of religion in society in general. But realistically, religion as a social construct has existed since the dawn of time. And so we must instead interrogate religion and culture as mechanisms: how they are used to empower and repress, because as humans, thirsty for tribe, we are well-skilled in both.
I am often asked about the headscarf when talking about my book. It’s easy to understand why this is such a pertinent point for people (not just women, as men ask me about it, or rather, demand answers, too). It is such a statement, an identifier of belief, designed to declare a state of faith, and it can create a negative response in those who see it as oppressive or harmful to women.
But it is a siloed criticism. The veil is an easy objection to make, and yet it is not the greatest challenge to women who must navigate their own feelings about veiling. These pathways are complex, but listening to many women, it is simple.
When asked about patriarchy, I offered a revised consideration: yes, we are dealing with systemic troubles and a history of oppression of women. But we generally spend more time with other women. We are for the most part raised by women. What we teach other females, what mothers tell their daughters, what images we choose to utilise for ourselves – all of these matter and contribute to the world we navigate as women.
SBS will air the double-episode season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale at 8.30pm Thursday 6 June, with episodes 1-3 available on SBS On Demand. New episodes will then air weekly on SBS, moving to the 9:30pm time slot from Thursday 20th June. All episodes will be available to stream weekly on SBS On Demand.
Introducing our new dedicated Handmaid's Tale podcast, Eyes On Gilead
A weekly conversation delving into the latest episode of The Handmaid's Tale, season 2. There are spoliers aplenty, so watch the episodes and then listen in to help work through your thoughts.