• A scene from SBS show 'On The Ropes'. (Supplied )
The Muslim women raves I grew up with were the ultimate bachelorette party.
Sarah Malik

20 Dec 2018 - 8:28 AM  UPDATED 30 Jan 2019 - 4:22 PM

Lights flash and scantily clad women gyrate around me. The DJ cranks up X-rated obscenity-filled R&B and pop music, and the crowd goes wild, screaming along to the familiar lines of classic hits.

The music is so loud I can hear the beat thumping inside my skull, my mind slipping into the valley beyond dull headache towards the pleasant blankness of zero spatial awareness. The music is so loud it leaves conversation redundant, relegating communication to the body language of exaggerated gestures, laughs and wild head rolls.

But no one is here for conversation. It’s dance time. Bodies are swaying in the dark, warm with sweat and losing themselves in the heady dream haze of music.

A familiar face emerges from the blur of bodies. Sanya* rolls towards me a wild look in her eyes, screaming with glee as she recognises the beat of American rapper Lil Jon. She shoots her arm in the air as she yells in time to the music:  “To the window, to the wall!”

“Til the sweat drop down my balls,” she screams gesturing at her crotch. “Sweat drops down my balls,” I echo, rollicking my body back and forth in a rapper impersonation.  

We are not in a club. We are two Muslim women in the lounge-room of a McMansion in western Sydney, with a perfectly manicured lawn and polished fence.

In her normal life, Sanya is a polished and buttoned down public servant who wears a full length abaya and headscarf. Tonight she is a character from Girls Gone Wild.

The cat has been safely put in the garage and there is a nearby table groaning with pizza and healthy salads and loaded with hydrating drinks including water with lemon, but sans booze.

“We don’t need to get drunk! We already are naturally,” Sanya exclaims with glee and she clambers on to a large table, her body balancing precariously, her loose hair swinging wildly.    

In her normal life, Sanya is a polished and buttoned down public servant who wears a full length abaya and headscarf. Tonight she is a character from Girls Gone Wild.

It’s a scene that is not unusual in the girls-only parties I grew up with in western Sydney and which is reflected in an episode of ‘On the Ropes’, at the pre-wedding party of Amal, the sister-in-law of central character Amirah Al-Amir.

At Amal's party the women strip off to reveal cocktails dresses and stilettos, and dance with abandon to sultry Arab music and western club hits before slipping back into their cloaks and disappearing into the night.

For many in the west, ethnic gender segregation is seen as a symbol of patriarchy and oppression. While I rigorously oppose unequal spaces - especially in the circles of power like the school, mosque or boardroom -parties are a different story.

And man, how damn fun they could be.   

I remember a feeling of joy and freedom unleashed in the air, a feeling of being released from multiple burdens. 

There is something deliciously subversive and fun about these minority-only spaces, where you are blissfully free from the political tensions of the wider society where one is always armed for battle, negotiating the stresses of an identity that is constantly surveilled and needs to be carefully curated.

The Arab layliyahs, desi mehndis, and girls' chill-out sessions I grew up going to - with women in too much makeup and bling - were strictly a no-men zone. I remember a feeling of joy and freedom unleashed in the air, a feeling of being released from multiple burdens. 

These segregated cultural parties were a kind of unfettered explosion of feminine sexual energy and celebration,  where women could literally let their hair down away from a male gaze. Shedding their headscarves and dupattas like second skins, the women were dressed showgirl-style with bellies and breasts encased in flashy and revealing cocktail dresses.

Yes, this sexuality existed in a private world, but far from the western imagination it wasn’t a repressed world. It was replete with tribal tongue whistling serenades, belly dances, friendly ribbing and lecherous jokes that would make a sailor blush. It was like a female locker room, complete with hoots, screams and loud bodily noises. Some of these antics were not entirely my style, but how could I forget legendary tales from the pre-wedding party of a niqabi woman I know featuring blow-up condoms and pin-the-dildo games? 

I watched shy women who struggled in social settings bloom, cheered by their girlfriends and made brave by music. I saw women who struggled with depression or suffered silently with domestic violence, laugh loudly, their cheeks red with happiness.   

As a teenager, I sometimes felt cloistered by these parties, thinking they were the poor ‘clean’ alternatives for the clubs I desperately wanted to sneak off to. But looking back I don’t think I ever had as much fun as in those parties with girlfriends in the lounge-rooms of western Sydney.

'On the Ropes' screens on SBS on Thursday at 9:30pm. You can catch up on episodes on SBS On Demand


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