Saturday was International Women’s Day – an annual, global event encouraging us to think about the social, political and economic achievements of women. When I saw that Lucy was hosting a link up for bloggers to write about women who inspire change I knew I needed to get blogging. I’m a proud feminist so it goes without saying that I support anything raising awareness of female experiences. But while I knew I wanted to write something, I wasn’t sure what. I thought about blogging generally about women’s rights issues, but after reading lots of personal reflections over the last couple of days I’ve decided to talk about my experience of being inspired to resist sexism. Mine is an experience shared by other women, but it’s rarely spoken about, probably because of a skewed sense of political correctness and some very justified fears. But lasting change is impossible without dialogue. So here is my story, or at least a tiny part of it – about how I was controlled, marginalised and made vulnerable by religion. And about two feminists who inspired me to change my life for the better.
My experience of sexism began during my teenage years, after my parents converted to a fundamentalist type of Islam. After the conversion my gender became my defining feature. I was restricted from experiences I’d previously taken for granted. I was told what I could and couldn’t wear and who I could be friends with. I had to move schools so that I’d be surrounded by ‘like-minded’ people (girls). I listened passively (there was no room for debate) as I was told that women should never be leaders (they’re too emotional), that marital rape and domestic violence are grey areas, that the education system is a dangerous place encouraging destructive freedoms, that women should walk behind their husbands, that unmarried women shouldn’t leave the house unaccompanied, that my body and my sexuality made life dangerous for me, and that gender equality was a fallacy invented by the West.
I kept my head down and focused on going to university and the freedom it would bring. A few months after going I was estranged from my family for starting a relationship with my now husband. Forging an independent life after being so controlled was terrifying, it didn’t help that the irrational beliefs I’d been forced to embrace had left their mark. Amongst other things I’d been taught that my body was my downfall and that it needed to be covered for everyone’s sake. It’s impossible to change that kind of thinking overnight, so for a long time I felt ashamed and painfully self-conscious.
Much of the sexism I was subjected to was linked to my my body. I was forced to cover my hair; something I felt intensely uncomfortable about, but when I questioned the demands to cover up I’d get one of two responses – either saccharine nonsense about my ‘beauty’ needing to be preserved and not being for public consumption, or the classic (and surprisingly convincing when you’re vulnerable) argument that I’d burn in hell if I didn’t conform. Back then I had no outlet, no blog or voice that was listened to. I was being dictated to by aggressive men who thought my opinion was irrelevant. It was dehumanising, isolating and frightening. And I wasn’t alone. I know other women who were forced to wear the hijab, sometimes with threats of violence, but mostly through emotional manipulation.
I should state a couple of things here. The hijab is a deadweight; loaded with cultural, political and religious ideology about female autonomy. It’s a topic so huge I could never do it justice in this post. So, just to be clear: I’m not debating the ethics of religious dress. I’m just reflecting on my experience.
There are of course women who assert that their hijab is a statement of choice, liberation, and freedom. And who am I to judge? If a woman feels the it frees them, empowers them, or in some way adds to the quality of their life, then more power to them. I will always respect the rights of women to dress how they want. But that was not my experience. I felt suffocated by what I see as the obsessive sexualisation and objectification of the female body. My choice and agency was systematically stripped from me. And I wasn’t alone. There are girls and women everywhere who are made vulnerable by religious sexism. They are made to feel ashamed of their bodies. Their opportunities are stunted in order to satisfy the demands of men. And as far as I see it, they have little chance to escape the oppression they’re subjected to. I was one of the lucky ones.
The women who inspired me to reclaim my body
As well as developing an unhealthy body image I internalised the prejudices and fundamentalist rhetoric I’d been exposed to – that women and non-Muslims were inherently flawed. I’m ashamed to admit that for a long time I found it very hard to connect with non-Muslims. I was indoctrinated to believe that the worth of a person’s experience and advice was inextricably linked to their religious belief. I hate that I allowed this to happen, but from what I saw all those years ago it’s a common (if taboo) prejudice.
Over the years I’ve learnt the art of self-analysis. I now realise how limiting my prejudices were and I’m free to see inspiration everywhere. A few years after leaving home I stumbled across several writers who helped me to reconnect with who I am. I can’t tell you what a relief it was in those early days to discover that people were shouting angrily about the sexism and fear perpetrated by fundamentalist religion. It was life changing to know that there were people who believed I was entitled to freedom of choice and a voice. Two of the writers I had the good fortune to read about were Mona Eltahawy and Fatima Mernissi – Feminist Muslims whose writing shone a light in some of my darker moments. Reading Mernissi’s book The Veil And The Male Elite and Eltahawy’s articles gave me hope. I realised I wasn’t alone. I learned that the controlling behaviour I’d experienced wasn’t unique to me, that I was justified in wanting to resist it, and that the guilt and shame I felt was merely a symptom of the sexism I’d suffered.
After the sexism
Since walking away from institutionalised religion I’ve existed in a strange limbo. On one hand I’ve a relevant story to tell having experienced fundamentalism from the inside, but my voice is trapped in a void between two cultures. I’m nervous of saying too much or offending people, so in the past I’ve opted not to say nothing. But as the years go on I’m noticing how overt the control over women’s voices is. I’m noticing the culture of intolerance and bullying that skews the narrative of women in Islam. Voices that should be entitled to a platform are being oppressed. Fear is being used as a method of control. People wishing to be part of the debate on women in Islam are being silenced and derided, often for being too feminist, too liberal, or too white. I’d fall into all three of those categories but I don’t see how that diminishes the significance of my experiences or my opinion. I find this collective silencing technique obnoxious. It’s what I had to put up with for years from men. Patriarchy is partly sustained through this grand-scale selective hearing and I hate it – the enforced silence, the fingers in ears, the sheer arrogance of believing that one voice reigns supreme; surely it’s the bedrock of all misogyny?
I could just creep around in the shadows for the rest of my life, raging every so often at the injustice of it all, but women like Fatima Mernissi and Mona Eltahawy inspire me to be braver and to embrace my social responsibility. If I’d found a post like this while I was trapped between the rock and the hard place of teenage vulnerability and religious control, I would have cried with relief. Education was my ticket to freedom, but some girls don’t have that opportunity. The only escape from sexism is to know that there is another way: equality, and to feel an entitlement to that equality.
But what now? How can we improve the situation for girls and women trapped in misogynistic cultures or religions?
1. It’s essential that we talk about religion and women, and about the associated cultural practices that limit the female experience. We need to stop feeling so terrified of offending, because it only serves to maintain the inequality. Presenting my story and my belief that women should have complete autonomy is not an attack on Islam, it’s a legitimate demand for equality and a necessary calling out of injustice.
2. We must think carefully about whether our choices are truly free. I’m no longer threatened by physical or overt emotional manipulation, but socially conditioned sexist behaviours aren’t so easy to identify. As far as I’m concerned we women (with the physical and emotional freedom to do so) have a responsibility to check our freedom, to think about the choices we make and to ask – why am I doing this? who is it pleasing? who is it empowering?
International Women’s Day is a fantastic reminder that challenging sexism is a life-altering process. You only need to take a look at the website or the Twitter feed to feel inspired by the huge number of people and organisations ‘challenging the status quo for women’s equality and…inspiring positive change’.
The path to feminism is unique for everyone. We all have a story that taught us about the disparity of opportunity between men and women and we can, in our own way, make a difference. My hope is that through writing and dialogue we can redefine the archaic ideas of modesty, shame and honour that ground women in cultures across the world to a halt. I want all women to realise they must never be weighed down by the burden of collective male guilt. They must never be physically or emotionally coerced into someone else’s idea of acceptability. They must always have a voice, freedom of choice and complete autonomy. Because these are our bodies and our minds, and only we have legitimate claim to them.