Each month, we interview an Australian writer about feminism, writing, and the connections between the two. In our first Q&A, we speak to Sydney-based writer and journalist Amal Awad, whose latest book is Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women.
What does feminism mean to you?
What it means to me first and foremost is self-determination as a woman, not being subject to masculine and patriarchal concepts of a woman’s place or role in society. It’s easy to get lost in an equality debate – refuted by so many with the idea that women and men are different and therefore equality is impossible. But inequities abound. Feminism is a necessary force.
Feminism is very much symbolic and energetic to me. There are so many ways to embody feminist ideas and beliefs. I am a feminist but I don’t call myself one because I feel it can be limiting and definitive in a time when I’m already tagged with labels – Arab-Muslim-Australian, writer, etc. I try to embody it. I want to normalise it so that it’s evident in my actions, rather than as something I have to talk about.
I don’t mind being called a feminist, but I choose not to use it as a point of difference. I think it should be very evident from my writing that I am a feminist.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism or gendered cultural expectations?
One event in particular made me realise how uncomfortable I was with the disparities between the sexes, in this case in Muslim communities. It was at an event where men and women were strictly segregated. On a hot day, the women were informed (all of us in headscarves – I used to wear hijab) that we couldn’t swim in the pools because there was no privacy. But the men were allowed to swim because they don’t have the same modesty requirements. Something in me shifted that day as I watched the men nonchalantly swim in the pool and dry off their sons. A sense of unfairness enveloped me and it led to a profound personal shift.
I think an interesting thing – but also a challenge – is how feminism can be reflected in any action if the choice being made is yours. Some women, for example, see veiling as feminist. But popular thought would not support that because of the modesty aspect of covering up (i.e. it’s linked to how men perceive women, and not drawing the men into temptation). Seeing the complexity in people is important in order to understand how veiling can be radically feminist for one woman, and a complete affront to another. To me, personal freedom is more significant than groupthink, but the veil cannot be simplified. I get frustrated by some of the offhand remarks made by women who wear it, and equally by those against it. Why are we telling people how to dress at all?
I used to wear hijab and when I took it off, in my mind it wasn’t a feminist act. I did that as a person who no longer felt comfortable with it. It was completely a personal choice.
What motivated you to write your new book, Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women?
I felt like Arab women, both in the west and abroad, are spoken about, pitied at the same time as they’re exoticised, and not given consideration as fully-functioning human beings with the capacity for self-determination or the courage and capacity to foster change in their communities and societies. They are also defined by the image of the veiled woman, usually in a desert in some unidentified Middle Eastern land. Yet not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are practising or even religious at all.
I have written two novels with Arab-Muslim ‘heroines’ and I hoped that by the end of each book, the reader would be invested in them as women, people with whom they have much in common. But the media, the literary world and more broadly pop culture have not been fair or complex in their portrayal of Arab women, who are so often seen as victims, or props for men.
We’re capable of telling our stories and being clear, so why is there practically a genre featuring white women travelling to the Middle East to peel away the layers, only to see it through their lens and tell their version of another’s story? When I wrote this book, I didn’t speak on behalf of any of my interviewees – their voices are genuine and powerful and they speak for themselves. My book is an offering. A co-creation in a way, with stories that show the complexity of life as a woman who happens to be Arab.
Did you face any unexpected challenges while researching and writing the book?
The book was a deep-dive into my life and personal experiences as a woman in the diaspora, brought up as an Arab-Muslim-Australian, and not always being in sync with these aspects of my life.
It was a difficult book to write, but I don’t say this to suggest it was in any way a burden. Rather, I felt the weight of the responsibility of transmitting so many women’s stories without judgment. It wasn’t my role to retell their stories through my lens, but to share these voices and experiences to demystify Arab women.
As for the personal element, that did involve some deep inner work for me that helped me to unpack and make sense of certain aspects of my life and how I see the world.
Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?
Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero just floored me. It’s an exceptional book about freedom, about womanhood, the power dynamics in society and what they mean. Very importantly, she shows how a woman’s power threatens. She is famous for writing in this book: “They said, ‘You are a savage and dangerous woman.’ I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”
In fiction, two writers I feel great admiration for, not only for their mastery as storytellers, but for the female characters they write, complex stories and all, are Amy Tan and Isabel Allende. They write searing, beautiful, heartbreaking stories that have so much power and humanity in them, and always these amazing, multi-layered female characters. I love that their stories plug into their heritages and cultures, the troubled lives of women in the diaspora but also in their ancestral histories.
What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?
I would say: Don’t be afraid to not be tribal, to belong to you when you write. I feel like society in general does not approve of or encourage individualism, which is why so many people who don’t subscribe to a particular ideology or group are maligned and seen as weird or uncaring, no matter how much they contribute to society.
But for all the importance of community, and the benefits of having a tribe of any kind, the other end of that pendulum is toxic nationalism, pressure to conform and an imprisoned mind. You see it every day on social media – you’re bullied for your opinion. It’s worse to be a conformist who is trapped in others’ ideas.
So, in being a writer, you are being someone who is curious and open to ideas, not a vehicle for judgment. Don’t be afraid to truly think, to question and wonder, rather than prescribe. You don’t have to have the answers; it’s about being an explorer in a world of ideas and possibilities.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based writer, journalist, author and public speaker. Amal is a regular contributor to SBS Life, a casual producer for ABC Radio National, and has written for ELLE, Frankie and Daily Life and others. She contributed to the anthology Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia, and her books include The Incidental Muslim and two novels, Courting Samira and This Is How You Get Better. Amal’s new book is Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women, a work of non-fiction that explores the lives of Arab women both in Australia and in the Arab world. amalawad.com / @amalmawad