During my Master’s year at university, I attended a movie screening at one society or another, at the behest of one of my classmates. I knew the types that were likely to attend; people who were all about freedom, and I’ll leave you to decide what kind of freedoms they were interested in. They were screening an Afghan movie that had English subtitles from the Farsi language. I didn’t know anything other than the fact my classmate wanted to see it, and it was about a culture and a people that I was very much interested in.
Lights dimmed, popcorn ready, and the opening credits blinded us. Though Afghanistan is never actually mentioned, we come to see it being set in a Taliban-esque jihadi stronghold and we follow the life of a woman who looks after her husband who is in a vegetative state as a result of a bullet to his neck. She begins to narrate to him all the things she couldn’t say to him in the many years of their marriage, from childhood memories to her feelings towards him, her desire to be free and her sexual activities that he knew nothing of. Keep in mind that the movie depicts her wearing the full veil covering at all times, and there were many times where it talked about Islam and the fundamental values at the core of the faith.
Needless to say, I was uncomfortable and being the only one in hijab in the room, I knew how it would look if I excused myself and never returned. I also knew that this meant a lot to my classmate, so I sucked it up and waited for it to all come to an end. The lights came on, and a few fumbled to wipe away tears (which I just didn’t understand).
“So what are your thoughts? Why is this something that should win awards for the best international movie this year?”
Everyone rushed to explain how beautiful it was for her to be able to finally express herself and to speak of her woes, and I agreed on that part. It was beautiful to see her eloquence, the deep heart-wrenching pains that she could finally speak of to her abuser (was it fair to call him that?) I nodded along and sipped my coffee. The discussion was interesting, infused by the experiences of people from all walks of life and those who had many differing outlooks on life. One of these interesting concepts came from a young lady with a million tatts and piercings, a punk hairstyle, grungy clothes and a luminous LGBT t-shirt under all the leather.
“Ugh, it was amazing. Nothing spoke to me more than her defying all odds and lifting her veil up to feel the rain on her skin, and when she began to enjoy all the sex she possibly could, without any care for what others thought, especially the man who doesn’t deserve the care she gives him.”
Fervent nodding all around.
“I wish every Muslim woman could learn to be like her and to truly liberate themselves from the oppression of their religion,” she continued, giving me a side-glance.
“So how do you define liberation?” I asked her a feigned casual tone.
“You know, being able to wear what you want, eat what you want, sleep with who you want, that kind of thing.”
“So liberation becomes the lifestyle options which you define to be appropriate, and anything else just doesn’t add up?”
“Of course, I get to decide and no one else can. No minister, no parent, no one but me. You should try it some time.”
I was gobsmacked. How had this just turned on me? Naturally, all the eyes in the room were ping-ponging from me to her during our exchange, and they now rested on me. They wanted a catfight. They wanted me to come out guns blaring and if I think about it, they probably half wanted me to jump out of my seat and shout “God is Great,” just to justify what they thought every Muslim was like.
“So the only way for me to be liberated is to walk around half-naked, to spread my legs to every Tom, Dick, and Jenny, in your case, and to be so liberal that my inner compass points inwards rather than North? Why do I have to define what I feel is liberal by your standards? What makes you better than me? You act as though my headscarf prevents me from truly educating myself, when, I’ll have you know, I’m applying for PhD scholarships all around the country? The definition of ignorance is defending your own ideals and refusing to accept the lifestyle choices of others.”
Should I have shouted “God is Great”, as I stomped out of the room at that point?
Thankfully, someone stood up and thanked everyone for the riveting conversation and asked us all to sign up for updates on the next event. I knew I wasn’t ever going to show up again, especially with the girl throwing me daggers on my way out.
That was the day I understood that people were obsessed with the idea of liberating Muslim women. We needed to be freed from the shackles of the lifestyle choices we have made ourselves, so we are as “free” as the Western depiction of the perfect Muslim woman (did I mention that the director of the movie was French? Go figure…) People wanted to see Muslim women more, but they wanted to see them on their own terms.
And thus was born a keener eye into world politics. Yes, it had been 10 years since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan at that point. Yes, the world’s eyes were turned in the direction of the East. Yes, the Arab Spring was in full swing then, and tyrants were being toppled left, right and centre.
But this was just the beginning of the fetishisation of Islam and Muslims.
And it was only going to get worse.
(This is the first installment of a two-part analysis into the fetishisation of Islam)