In a post I wrote quite recently I set out my fear that our Muslim communities might become demonised because of the Islamic State conflict that we are now involved in. I once spent ten days or so in Saudi Arabia, as a guest of the state, and returned to Australia quite glad that my wife had not been of the party. I did feel that the status of women there was low: a Saudi woman needed to be accompanied in public by a close male member of her family, she had to be dressed completely from head to toe, with only an eye-slit available for her to see where she was going, she could not legally drive a car in Saudi Arabia, and so on.
Saudi men seemed happy to congregate in our hotel to see Western women in the hotel swimming pool; I was not much impressed by the religious police, either, who carried staves and wandered about ensuring that shopkeepers observed the laws about prayer by closing their premises at the ordained times. I did understand that because Medina and Mecca, the two holiest sites in Islam, were in the country, the Saudi regime felt that it had to be extremely correct in its laws and practices. But I felt conscious of repression, which was heightened when I was able to meet Saudi men and women socially in a informal setting, and people wore what they liked — until it was time to leave to go home.
Islam is an extraordinarily diverse religion, and in Australia Muslims have come from at least 70 countries, each seeing ‘Islam’ in its own cultural way. Successful religions learn how to adapt to the local customs in order to attract converts. So we non-Mulsim Australians need to see that diversity, and not imagine that there is one rule that applies to everyone in the faith, or that all Muslim women are repressed and kept locked up, uneducated and there just to breed. That is fantasy stuff, and bad for our society.
Then, a couple of days ago, I chanced on a fascinating exhibition that originated in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney — ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia’. It is about dress, and how a number of Muslim women in Australia felt the need to develop clothing that was modest, respected their religion, and yet was attractive, made them feel happy, and used colour and textiles to catch the eye. I don’t think these clothes would be allowed in public in Saudi Arabia, unless things have changed in the fifteen years since I was there. But they work very well here, as the banner from the exhibition suggests.
Apart from the colour, and the long dresses, the most distinctive aspect of the women in the photograph is the head scarf or hijab, worn by all but one. I saw the exhibition in Wagga Wagga, and was fascinated by it. But you can visit it online at the link above, and I think it is well worth the time spent. You can read interviews from each of the featured designers and models. Here is an extract from one: In my experience things are pretty calm for Muslims in Australia until something happens politically and in the news and then there’s this spike of reactions, generally against Muslim women first, because they are quite visible and the perception is that they are weak. Then after the spike things will go back to normal again, so it sort of follows this heartbeat graph. I think the standard misconception is that Muslim women are this silent oppressed group of people who don’t have a voice and very willingly submit to the men in their life, whether it be husbands and fathers or imams.
And from a second: I felt that if people were allowed in and welcomed into my life, they would better understand how a Muslim lives in Australia and how being Muslim and being Australian are a comfortable fit and that Islam is a part of every aspect of my life.
And from a third: I don’t ever represent myself as the Muslim voice. I’m not speaking on behalf of a monolithic community and I suppose part of my writing is to reinforce the idea that there are many voices within Muslim communities. I also like to challenge people’s idea of what we mean when we say mainstream. Is a Muslim voice seen as some deviation from the norm, or can we accept that Muslim voices contribute to the mainstream space and are part of the mainstream?
As I have written before, I am not religious at all, not a deist, a monotheist, or any kind of ‘believer’. And I am glad that I live in a secular society, where one is free to be a believer or not. Indeed, it would not surprise me if it proved to be the case that Muslims were freer in the expression of their religion in Australia, or in the USA, than they would be in an society in which Islam was the orthodoxy.
The ideas and views that emerge from this exhibition hearten me in my view that our kind of society, which brings in people from different backgrounds, and in time assimilates them through accepting some of of the newcomers’ practices and values, is the model for the world. And as for the head scarf and the burqa, you can see the Virgin Mary portrayed in comparable clothing in Renaissance paintings, and of course in my boyhood I did often see women dressed from top to toe in black with only small part of their face showing. They were called nuns.
It would be nice, in passing, if some of the Australian imams demonstrated the diversity of their faith by coming out strongly against the beheadings and cruelty exhibited by the ISIL fighters. Why should it all be left to Muslim women?