Event review: Women and Freedom in the Islamic World, Asia House, London

Left to Right: Samira Khan, Kamin Mohammadi, Haifa Zangana and Elif Shafak [My own photo]

Left to Right: Samira Khan, Kamin Mohammadi, Haifa Zangana and Elif Shafak [My own photo]

Women, Freedom and the Islamic World – The Asia House Festival of Asian Literature 2013

The diversity and eloquence of this all-female panel gave a fascinating insight into what female freedom means in Muslim states today

This post first appeared on the Asia House website here

Asia House is no stranger to distinguished figures discussing complex issues, and this, the second event in this year’s Festival of Asian Literature, was no exception.

Although technically a pre-event (the festival proper begins on May 7th, with guest Michael Palin, no less) the guests were just as renowned and the topic just as wide as if a central element of the festival itself. Women, freedom and the Islamic world – one could hardly have chosen a more expansive, nebulous discussion, and yet the writers on the panel addressed the idea with characteristic thoughtfulness and poise.

Chaired and led by journalist and presenter Samira Ahmed, the panel included Turkish author Elif Shafak (The Bastard of Istanbul; Honour), Iraqi political activist and author Haifa Zangana (Dreaming of Baghdad) and Iranian journalist and self-professed “memoirist” Kamin Mohammadi (The Cypress Tree). Having each left their own countries, either voluntarily or under violence, the women explained how their positions as writers have influenced their views on the meaning of female freedom, in the context of states that could be seen as nightmarish societies for women by many in the West.

Firstly, they were keen to point out that the ‘Islamic World’ is by no means homogenous. Elif Shafak called the idea “problematic”, especially in relation to women’s freedom. A feminist movement has existed in Turkey for decades, she pointed out, explaining that her novels deliberately incorporate people from different parts of society or backgrounds (Armenians and Turks, for example) because the cultural landscape of Islamic states – and their views towards women – is rarely straightforward.

Her books rarely try to dictate one view or another, Shafak explained, and prefer to examine the issues subtly, on the understanding that women raised in patriarchal societies can often become strongly “matriarchal” and “actively participate in their own repression” and that of others. Her writing, she added, also tries to question masculinity and its role in shaping Islamic gender relations.

Mohammadi was also keen to show that the concept of freedom is rarely simple.

“Our cultures are group cultures, and not geared towards the individual,” she said.

And yet, the discussion then turned personal, discussing the idea that writing honestly about potentially difficult – or sensitive – topics, can be especially difficult for family-centric, Islamic women. All panellists agreed with this, and admitted that they had struggled with sexual elements of their books, worried about what their family and communities might think. This, too, they said, was about female freedom.

Shafak admitted that when you write about sex, “people always think it’s about you”, which makes it even more difficult. Mohammadi also wrestled with writing about personal issues, and said that eventually, she had made the decision to just be honest, however hard for readers known to her. Zangana was certain that writing about sex is much harder for women than men.

All writers agreed that gender was undeniably a factor in how free Islamic women’s writing can be. In the words of Shafak: “If a man writes something you think of him as a writer foremost, if you write as woman, you’re seen as woman foremost.” In such a patriarchal culture, sensitive issues are especially affected.

The panellists talk to audience members and sign books after the event [My photo]

The panellists talk to audience members and sign books after the event [My photo]

And yet, when I spoke to her during the book signing immediately after the event, Mohammadi admitted that despite such difficulties, writing her book The Cypress Tree was almost cathartic – a way for her to deal with her country’s turbulent history as well as her own story. “It allowed me to get some distance from it,” she said, “and say to people, here, this is my story, this is my past.”

In fact, perhaps it is this positive association with writing that made the panel so keen to address the so-called “Islamic women’s misery memoir”. Not only did Zangana lament the “shocking” lack of literature by Islamic women – claiming that in 100 years, they have only written 400 books compared to the 100,000 written by women in the West – Shafak argued that even if they do manage to write something, two thirds of female Islamic writers’ books will inevitably show miserable, veiled women on the covers. “Why not show joy as well as sorrow?” she asked.

Mohammadi agreed, saying that Islamic literature – and by extension, female freedom of expression – would benefit from telling as many stories as possible. “It’s a case of the market maturing,” she said. Referring to Malala Yousafzai, the Iraqi teenage girl shot in the head by the Taliban, who has since reportedly signed a $3million {£1.9m) book deal for her story, Mohammadi added: “That’s all fine and good, but it’s just one side. Why not show the others as well?”

Also discussed, although briefly, was the effect of the Arab Spring.

Elif Shafak suggested that the upheaval has potential to deliver changes for women and allow them to break free from their hitherto-hidden communities. “Perceptions of Middle East are changing,” she said. “People assumed [these states] were static, but the Arab Spring was unexpected. We now begin to understand,” she added.  And yet, she still felt that there was a danger of women’s rights being forgotten as new societies are forged. “Often ‘women’s problems’ seen as able to be postponed, despite being central to wider issues,” she said.

And yet, while some may have seen the Arab Spring has been a great springboard for freedom, Mohammadi admitted that since the 2009 political crackdown, and “loss of hope” in Iran, she has found herself unable to write about it.

But all hope is not lost, argued Zangana, whose work with women in arguably the most-oppressed Islamic state (although it should hardly be seen as a competition), Saudi Arabia, has shown her that feminism, and an awareness of women’s issues, can be apparent no matter how outwardly restrictive the veil.

“They are strong women in subtle ways,” she said. “We have to challenge misconceptions.” Mohammadi agreed, arguing that in the West, we tend to equate lack of freedom with the veil, “because it’s an obvious symbol”. In Iraq, the panel agreed, “it’s the last thing they think about.”

It is testament to the panellists’ honesty and eloquence that the book signing immediately after the event was awash with fascinated audience members, asking for more insights from this varied and talented line-up. As is usual at Asia House events, many were from the countries directly mentioned, adding a genuine, meaningful atmosphere to an evening that, in less skilful hands, could have drowned under its own rhetoric.

In fact, what emerged was a genuine, thoughtful discussion, more of hope than of hopelessness, and in full appreciation of the freedom and catharsis that writing – and reading – can bring. ‘Freedom’ as a concept may have some way to go in the Islamic world when measured through Western eyes, but this event proved that Islamic women are beginning to stand up for their own ideas, and that far from being an alien concept, feminism and expression are central to the identities of the changing, varied, growing and jostling Islamic world – and as much part of its past as its uncertain future.

See the tweets from this event, and follow the rest of the festival on Twitter, using the hashtag #FAL13.

This post first appeared on the Asia House website here

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