Un­cov­er­ing cross-cul­tural com­plex­i­ties

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic Matthew Clay­field

Sev­eral years ago I at­tended the Syd­ney Eye Hos­pi­tal. The two women on the front desk were both wear­ing head­scarves. For a mo­ment I thought, “Hmmm, jobs for the girls ...” be­fore dis­miss­ing it as un­fair. I might have thought the same if both had Chi­nese fea­tures, or it had come out in con­ver­sa­tion that both had at­tended the same high school. I also didn’t think twice when the ABC news would cross to the Malaysian stock ex­change and its reg­u­lar talk­ing head — a fi­nance jour­nal­ist — wore a head­scarf. Of course she would, it’s Malaysia.

Later I wrote a well-re­ceived phi­los­o­phy pa­per de­fend­ing French pol­icy on veil­ing in pub­lic spa­ces, ar­gu­ing against one of my he­roes, Seyla Ben­habib. I hoped to trans­late it into a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle, as se­ri­ous food for thought in pub­lic de­bate.

Oh, those bliss­fully naive days, be­fore the rise of Is­lamic State and be­fore the ubiq­uity of im­ages of forced se­ques­tra­tion in­side black or blue burkas. The days when women in so­phis­ti­cated cities across the Middle East could choose whether to cover their heads, in an act of de­vo­tion or political sym­bol­ism, or not.

I wouldn’t dream of pub­lish­ing my pa­per now and giv­ing com­fort to Is­lam­o­phobes. And one can no longer look at a woman with her head cov­ered with­out feel­ing one’s mer­est glance loaded with political sig­nif­i­cance. But I keep a pic­ture in my file of three hap­pily smil­ing univer­sity stu­dents, bare­headed in the sun, in Kabul in the mid-1970s.

While I couldn’t care less if an Aus­tralian woman wore a head­scarf, I do feel very un­com­fort­able at the sight of a fel­low ci­ti­zen, who shares my le­gal rights and free­doms, en­shrouded from head to toe. What ac­tu­ally en­rages me is the sight of her hus­band strut­ting about in shorts and thongs, gut hang­ing out. At least in Saudi Ara­bia, men dress as mod­estly as women. They cover their heads too.

As ten­sions in Western coun­tries rise, a non-Mus­lim woman even dis­cussing th­ese is­sues is open to crit­i­cism — for ap­pro­pri­a­tion, for con­de­scen­sion, for ig­no­rance. And yet, one does have a right to hold an opin­ion on any­thing, es­pe­cially when that any­thing ar­rives on one’s doorstep. The dis­cus­sion then be­comes more prox­i­mate, less the­o­ret­i­cal. It’s com­pli­cated. Shakira Hus­sein’s From Vic­tims to Sus­pects: Mus­lim Women since 9/11 is a wel­come ad­di­tion to the de­bate. An Aus­tralian aca­demic, Hus­sein has the knack of bring­ing eth­i­cal dis­cus­sion alive. A fre­quent com­men­ta­tor and flu­ent writ- the book’s more meta or in­tro­spec­tive pas­sages the feel­ing of an on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion with them.

She con­sid­ers travel, like read­ing and writ­ing, a way of mak­ing sense of the world, a sen­ti­ment that dove­tails nicely with her mus­ings on re­li­gion, which, given the na­ture of the coun­try she’s writ­ing about, take up many pages of the book. In­deed, af­ter Bryson and her hus­band, Peter, God — in any num­ber of the forms he takes in Brazil — is prob­a­bly its most re­cur­rent char­ac­ter. (One gets the im­pres­sion that Bryson, to para­phrase Ju­lian Barnes’s Noth­ing to Be Fright­ened Of, doesn’t be­lieve in God, but misses him.)

The book has two ma­jor draw­backs. The first and most an­noy­ing is Bryson’s ten­dency to com­pare ev­ery­thing she en­coun­ters in-coun­try — and I do mean lit­er­ally ev­ery­thing, to the point that it takes on the char­ac­ter of a tic — with its Aus­tralian coun­ter­part. This oc­ca­sion­ally makes per­fect sense: her com­par­a­tive read­ings of the his­to­ries of Brasilia and Can­berra as planned cap­i­tals, or of the for­mer Euro­pean colonies’ sim­i­lar records of geno­cide, are well-con- er, she mixes names such as Jac­qui Lam­bie and Meena Kesh­war Ka­mal, Imran Khan and Bron­wyn Bishop, with ease.

This is not vir­gin ter­ri­tory. Last year, three books on veil­ing came out: Mona El­ta­hawy’s bril­liantly fiery and ter­ri­fy­ing polemic Head­scarves and Hy­mens; Yas­min Alib­hai-Brown’s calmer can­vass­ing of the same is­sues in Re­fus­ing the Veil; and Syd­ney Univer­sity aca­demic Sa­har Amer’s What is Veil­ing, a non­par­ti­san his­tor­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal primer.

Hus­sein’s pro­ject is to trace the mu­ta­tion of pre­vail­ing Western memes about Mus­lim women who cover their heads, from the need to pro­tect them to open ag­gres­sion against them. The sec­ondary jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the war in Afghanistan, af­ter fight­ing ter­ror­ism, was to pro­tect Afghan women sys­tem­at­i­cally re­pressed by the Tal­iban. It was used widely, even in sup­port of shift­ing the war to then sec­u­lar Iraq less than 18 months later.

To­day, Mus­lim women face at­tack — not the hor­rors of fun­da­men­tal­ist regimes, ob­vi­ously, but ver­bal abuse, spit­ting, mi­nor as­saults such as pulling head­scarves off — on the streets of the lib­eral democ­ra­cies in which they grew up or where they took refuge. Of­ten with small chil­dren in tow, they are ha­rassed as sym­bols of the very world view that is pre­sumed to sub­ju­gate them.

And such be­hav­iour is not re­stricted to ex­trem­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Re­claim Aus­tralia, Hus­sein writes: “Mus­lims are told by all con­cerned that they must de­ter­mine where their loy­alty lies, and act ac­cord­ingly.”

The unan­swer­able ques­tion, of course, is: how? By giv­ing up their re­li­gion, dress­ing like Lady Gaga and go­ing on al­co­hol-fu­elled night­club binges? It can’t be as sim­ple as re­mov­ing sidered and il­lu­mi­nat­ing. But we also get para­graphs on the dif­fer­ence be­tween Brazil­ian and Aus­tralian crowds and the noises they make, on the dif­fer­ences be­tween Brazil­ian hot dogs and those at Flin­ders Is­land fundrais­ers, and so on. This has the ef­fect of lim­it­ing the book’s au­di­ence — none of my con­cern, per­haps, but still — and of mak­ing one won­der what coun­try one is sup­posed to be read­ing about in the first place. It’s a nat­u­ral, lat­eral way of think­ing, but of­ten comes across as parochial.

The se­cond prob­lem is more sub­tle. As one pro­gresses through the book’s four parts, the ab­sence of Brazil­ian voices be­comes in­creas­ingly pro­nounced. Bryson’s ti­tle may be a homage to Chatwin, whom she refers to at one point as one of her he­roes, but there is noth­ing here that re­sem­bles In Patag­o­nia’s long, re­veal­ing con­ver­sa­tions with the peo­ple the older writer met on his trav­els. The Brazil­ians we do hear from (other than quoted au­thors) tend to be ei­ther taxi driv­ers or guides at the count­less mu­se­ums and memo­ri­als the au­thor vis­its. (This is also a prob­lem. One can only read about so many mu­seum vis­its, so many religious fes­ti­vals and the head­scarf, be­cause that leaves the per­va­sive, of­ten un­think­ing, insults that Mus­lim women who don’t cover their heads will suf­fer daily. Not to men­tion that while peo­ple with a Mus­lim her­itage are free to not prac­tise their faith in this coun­try, in eight oth­ers apos­tasy is still pun­ish­able by death.

The book ranges wide in time and place, too wide to pre­cis here. One of the most in­volv­ing dis­cus­sions, how­ever, is about “fem­i­nist” sup­port for Mus­lim women. Hus­sein her­self iden­ti­fies as a fem­i­nist, but she digs deep into the psy­chol­ogy and mo­tives of Western women who want to “res­cue” their sis­ters.

She com­pares, for ex­am­ple, the sym­bol­ism of the “un­flinch­ing gaze” of the green-eyed girl who fa­mously dig­ni­fied the cover of Na­tional Geo­graphic when the Sovi­ets were wag­ing war in Afghanistan to that of the blue mesh that hides the eyes of all women un­der the Tal­iban. In in­ter­views with Afghan women who sought refuge in Pak­istan, she found the is­sue of the burka less press­ing than non-gen­der-spe­cific prob­lems such as the loss of in­come and the death of fam­ily mem­bers.

“When they did talk about the burka, they used quite dif­fer­ent lan­guage to that de­ployed by their self-ap­pointed Western saviours,” she writes. “Low-in­come women com­plained about the eco­nomic bur­den of pur­chas­ing an ex­tra gar­ment, or the fact that if a house­hold could not af­ford a burka for each of the women, they could not all go out at the same time.” But who wouldn’t place be­reave­ment and watch­ing one’s chil­dren cry with hunger ahead of a dress code? And why would a poor, pre­sum­ably un­e­d­u­cated, woman talk fem­i­nist the­ory?

That doesn’t stop me squirm­ing with claus­tro­pho­bia-tinged em­pa­thy to see those anony­mous women un­able to show their iden­tity in pub­lic, in thrall to fa­thers, hus­bands or brothers, es­pe­cially when we hear about the rates of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in Afghanistan (the UN es­ti­mates 87 per cent of Afghan women have ex­pe­ri­enced vi­o­lence) and how groups such as Is­lamic State have segued a fun­da­men­tal­ist read­ing of Is­lam into the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of women as ra­peable, saleable ob­jects. And should a non-Mus­lim woman stay silent when she sees abuse of women any­where? Imag­ine if Westerners hadn’t restarted the de­bate about foot-bind­ing in China af­ter the anti-foot-bind­ing Taip­ing rebels failed.

From Vic­tims to Sus­pects changes tack fre­quently, keep­ing the reader off bal­ance. It raises more ques­tions than it an­swers and one can’t help think­ing, “But hang on, Shakira ...” at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. Some might call that in­con­sis­tency. But it’s also the mark of a clicheav­oid­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing book grap­pling with con­found­ingly dif­fi­cult cross­cul­tural prob­lems.

is a writer and critic. their pro­fane coun­ter­parts, be­fore the book be­gins to feel both repet­i­tive and rote, as though the au­thor is tick­ing things off a bucket list like any other tourist or back­packer.)

A soli­tary trav­eller by her own ad­mis­sion, Bryson never seems to get in­vited into Brazil­ian homes or make any Brazil­ian friends (or at least none whose pri­vacy she might feel in­clined to com­pro­mise by in­clud­ing them in her book). Brazil through Bryson’s eyes is fas­ci­nat­ing, but we hear very lit­tle from those who ac­tu­ally live there and know what’s go­ing on.

Nei­ther of th­ese prob­lems is a deal-breaker, of course, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that it’s the writer’s first out­ing. There re­mains a lot to ad­mire here. One looks for­ward to Bryson’s next book — with more than 70 coun­tries re­port­edly un­der her belt, she has a lot of ma­te­rial to choose from — in the hope that this vol­ume’s short­com­ings will be ad­dressed. Bryson has the po­ten­tial to be­come one of the coun­try’s great wan­der­ers. She may give her name­sake a run for his money yet.

is a writer and critic.

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