I was born in Saudi Arabia, but my family is Pakistani. In Saudi, I remember women being present but hidden behind black embroidered burkas. In the 90s women still could not drive in the country or venture out into the world without the accompaniment of a man from her family.
My older sister came of age and was expected to start wearing the burka when she left the house, like my mother. She cried, yelled and slammed doors, insisting that she didn’t want to wear it and that she WOULD NOT wear it! I remember her voice so clearly, but despite how loud she was, it was no use. My parents were more liberal Muslims and sympathised with her, but as migrants working in the country they had no choice. The edict came from the regime’s pervasive religious police who surveilled the streets and policed women who strayed from their hardline Wahabbi interpretation of the faith.
This experience stayed with me and shaped my understanding of what it meant to be a girl. It meant - do the right thing, be nice and don't make a scene - there was no point.
Fast forward to age nine and our family had moved to Australia. I remember standing in line at assembly in Parramatta West public school. A female teacher stood up and addressed us. She spoke with authority and conviction. I remember being in awe at her presence and the power of her voice. In Australia there were women everywhere, walking around freely, expressing themselves and dressing how they wanted to. This made me feel safe and valued in a way I never felt before.
When I had my daughter Aysha, I found my own childhood bubbling up to the surface. Raising a girl with her own mind and with her intuition intact has always been very important to me. Even in those moments where Aysha is telling me how she feels and it completely does not work with what I had in mind, I have learned it is so important to honour her voice.
Recently Aysha and I stumbled upon the “Goodnight stories for Rebel Girls” podcast. The podcast features incredible stories of brave women from all over the world creating change, owning their truth and inspiring others. On our drive to school we heard about the lives and journeys of Mexican artist and feminist Frida Kahlo, Syrian Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, Indian Olympic boxer Mary Kom and African-American freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. These rebellious, world-altering women were incredible. I would find myself in tears as we pulled up to school, listening to all they overcame and had to face.
It became a daily ritual for us, opening the door for ongoing conversation. We talked about the hardships these women overcame, what they were passionate about and how they fought for their voices to be heard. One thing these inspiring women had in common was that they listened to their own truth and walked their own path, despite opposition. I found myself wondering what stops the rest of us from doing the same.
I know for me, I have had to unlearn a lot of what I grew up with in my early childhood. My adult experiences of speaking out when I have been hurt, asking for change in workplaces and setting boundaries in friendships was always tinged with a great deal of discomfort. The fear of upsetting other people often felt like the end of the world. Standing up for my myself has been a muscle I have forced myself to exercise.
Despite suffering the disease to please, each time I stood up for myself and spoke out, I became stronger. People were finally able to know the real me, even if they did not like it very much. And I became OK with not being liked, as long as I liked and respected myself.
In the heartening words of my favourite author and teacher, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “If you have ever been called defiant, incorrigible, forward, cunning, insurgent, unruly, rebellious, you’re on the right track... If you have never been called these things, there is yet time.”
This is why I am teaching my girl to be loud and proud and fill her world with the stories of amazing rebellious women, so when it’s time for her to stand up, it will be as natural as breathing.
Maryam Johnson is a freelance writer. You can follow Maryam on Instagram @featherandfable.
This article is part of SBS Voices emerging Muslim women writers’ series. If you have pitch, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.