Monday, 1 June 2009

Undercover (3077 words)

Comedy Festival is over for another year! Now while I try and write my Fringe show, here's something I wrote back in 2005. It was going to be published in a magazine but then they chickened out and had me do a different piece on a similar topic instead. All's well that etc.

So this is pretty long, an educational piece abut Islam that came out of me wearing a burqa for a week, and talking to a few converts to Islam. Looking back, it's a little preachy - I can see how much my style has improved in the last four years*, but I hope you like it. Enjoy.

* This means that by 35 I should be upgraded to at least a 'passable' writer. Woo!


I never thought the sight of me buying chicken wings would make a child cry. Well, ok, maybe it’s crossed my mind before, but only during ‘Lisa becomes a large, porcupine-like monster’ daydreams. But apparently there’s a much simpler way to scare the average Australian child: wear a burqa.

Before we begin, a quick note on terminology: most Muslim women in Australia choose only to wear an hijab, a headscarf that covers a woman’s hair and neck. You’ve undoubtedly seen them around. The term ‘hijab’ can also be used, in a broader sense, to mean any modest Muslim dress. A woman who dresses modestly is known as an ‘Hijabi’.

‘Burqa’ is the common term applied to the full Muslim womens’ dress in which only the eyes and hands are visible; it’s a full headpiece that covers a woman’s hair, face, neck and shoulders. There’s a more common two-piece dress, similar to a burqa: a larger hijab (reaching from head to mid-elbow, covering everything but the face) worn with the full niqab, which is a veil for one’s face with a small slit for the eyes. I wore a combination of hijab and full niqab, with a heavy, shapeless black floor-length robe, for a week, to gauge public reaction. And quite an unexpected reaction it was…

A friend once told me about her scapegoat theory. It went thus: A succession of migrant races have been subjected to prejudice in Australia: European ‘Wogs’ in the fifties and sixties, Asians in the seventies and eighties and Arabs since the nineties. So, for every twenty years, there’s a new scapegoat in Australia’s unfortunate tradition of xenophobia. It’s a major ideological problem, but it seems that though white Australians are more accepting today, we still haven’t completely embraced the idea of a multicultural society.

Most migrants from the Middle East are Muslims, i.e., followers of the Islamic faith. It’s difficult to pin down ‘Islamic Culture’ since Muslims come from many different countries. Look at it this way: a Mexican Catholic and an Irish Catholic would have different cultural and social ideas that may affect how they interpret their religion. This is where some of the inaccurate clichés about Muslims start.

Coming from an agnostic family, my knowledge of other religions is superficial at best… or, at worst, downright ignorant, wallowing in a pit of my own stupidity (‘Sure, I know Buddhists don’t have Easter, but they do celebrate Christmas; don’t they? I saw it on The Simpsons!’). Most people I know aren’t much better. We were never taught about non-Christian religions at school, (Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism…) and most of us were christened/baptised for tradition, or as part of a Christian faith we’ve long since abandoned. We may not have religiously diverse social circles, and instead derive most religious knowledge from the media and neglect to seek out a more representative source. Am I just part of an ignorant minority? Well, from things people told and asked me during my week as an Hijabi, I’m thinking no. I guess the majority of people don’t care enough to do their own research. Which is fine, since work is hard and Alias starts in ten minutes. However, I think a little understanding of other Australians’ beliefs would go a long way.

Three months ago, what I knew about Islam could almost fill a post-it note. If the post-it note was freakishly small. My Middle Eastern friends weren’t practicing Muslims, and normally religion doesn’t interest me. (A bad experience at Godsquad during my brief stint as a Christian teenager saw to that). When speaking with friends and family, I found their ideas about Islam were often similar… and inaccurate. While talking to Muslim people about their faith, I found that Islam is like any religion: the followers have varying ideas about the faith and what is ‘right’. Jessie, an Australian Muslim convert, told me that ‘Islam is very much like Christianity’, something I found surprising, but came to agree with as I researched further.

With regards to religious beliefs, the main difference is that while Islam recognises Jesus as a prophet and holy man, Muslims do not believe he is the Son of God. ‘God is not human; he is a divine being. So he can’t have a ‘Son’, because he doesn’t have a wife’ Jessie argues. ‘We also believe there was holy a man after Jesus: Mohammed. He was born around six hundred years after Jesus. His contemporaries were literate and Mohammed’s teachings could be written down, verbatim, as he spoke’ I’m not saying that Islam hasn’t been misinterpreted over the years; far from it. However, their holy book, the Koran, has remained completely unedited and unchanged, since its inception. Quite different from the New Testament, wherein Christ’s teachings were paraphrased several years after His death, by many authors, then reinterpreted for ideological and political benefit over centuries.

There are different forms of Islam: Sunni and Shi’ah (the majority of Muslims are Sunni Muslims). The everyday practices and customs of these two types are basically the same. However, there’s controversy between the two because both believe in a different successor to the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, therefore a different lineage of ‘holy’ or ‘blessed’ people (kind of like a pope). Like Protestants and Catholics, or Simon and Garfunkel, Shi’ah and Sunni don’t get along.

The biggest difference between the average practicing Muslim person and a typical non-Muslim Australian is that the former is, most likely, more religious. Fundamentalist Catholics and Born-Again Christians who follow their religion by the letter are similar to a typical Fundamentalist Muslim, despite the differing beliefs and practices. And, since Catholicism and Islam are both old religions, tenets originally based in common sense and kept to hold society together, are now considered archaic with respect to gender roles and homosexuality. From my research, Islamic ideas can seem dated, and not necessarily something I’d support in contemporary society; but they’re frequently more practical than Catholic ideas on the same issues. Example: Aisha, a Muslim convert, told me that Mohammed said divorce and birth control are seen as ‘the most horrible of accepted practices’. It’s unfortunate when a marriage breaks down, or a couple isn’t able (for health, financial or other reasons) to have children, but what can you do? To paraphrase Mohammed: You gotta be rational, and making two people who can’t stand each other stay together isn’t necessarily the best plan. Fundamentalist Catholics suggest otherwise.

Traditional Muslims pray five times a day. ‘Some people think it’s excessive, they ask us why we pray so much,’ Aisha says. ‘It’s based in trying to keep Allah (God) in one’s every day life. I mean, it’s easier to stray, or to not follow [Islamic practices] if you’re acknowledging Allah only once a week, or less’.

‘Most of the guiding principles in Islam grew from ideas that are just common sense.’ says Jessie. ‘Like Jewish people, we don’t eat pork, because pig meat isn’t as healthy, and is more prone to disease than other meats. We eat Halal meat because meat prepared this way [bled completely, and that hasn’t come into contact with any other meats] is just healthier.’

* * *

The first day I wore my Hijabi outfit, I was a little anxious. What if shop assistants refuse to serve me? I thought. That was my first misconception to be dispelled. A recurring trend I noticed was that all shop assistants were extremely helpful and friendly towards me. Well, except the Coles checkout chick, who’s always there. She just disaffectedly looked straight through me like she does everyone; bless her overworked clerky heart. It made for a nice rest from the staring.

Usually I was treated like big-spending Mr. T in a ‘Chunky-Gold-Accessories R Us’ store. Even at a certain store I often frequent, the surly cashier was transformed from her default ‘bothered by the presence of customers’ to ‘bubbly, “may I help you?”’ type. Aisha also notices this while shopping. ‘It’s so strange!’ she says of the consistency of the response. ‘Perhaps it’s the shop assistant’s way of letting you know they’re ok with you, and your religion? I’m not sure.’ I was commenting on this phenomenon to a friend, who thought about it and replied, ‘aha! They [shop assistants] must think you’re an Afghani migrant, and that you come from a wealthy oil family!’ I inwardly cringed at the underlying bigotry and disregarded my otherwise-intelligent friend’s theory. Not just because it brought up the problem of religion verses culture again. I just don’t think the shop assistants care how wealthy you are if you’re buying a scone at Baker’s Delight.

So shop assistants were friendly. Not so with other shoppers. They had a slightly more colorful reaction…

I live above my mother’s jewelry store in a busy shopping district. During business hours, the only exit is through the shop. So I spend time in the shop with her almost every day. As I walked into the shop on the second day of my project I noticed two women examining a ruby ring, Mum pointing out its qualities while one of the women tried it on. ‘Mu-um, I need safety pins; tell me you have some? The stupid one I had broke and I can’t find any more!’ I whined. The women looked up at me and did a double take before smiling politely at Mum, handing her the ring and quickly walking out. ‘Weird,’ I said as mum re-polished the ring she was ‘this close to selling’. She thought I’d scared off her prospective customers.

We were laughing about this, Mum behind her desk and me leaning on the other side of the counter near the door. Then, while talking about the previous night’s episode of Friends, we noticed the shop had been awfully quiet. Mum pointed out three people hovering at the front window, looking at the stock but not coming into the shop. Many people just browse the front window while waiting for the tram, etc, but these particular people kept peering into the store, then idly scanning the front window again. They looked like they were waiting for something. ‘Hey,’ Mum asked, ‘can you get me some coke from the kitchen?’ I went to the room behind the shop, and sure enough, as soon as I disappeared, the group came in. I retrieved Mum’s drink and went back into the store, whereupon the people, who were quizzing Mum about the price of a bracelet, quickly thanked her and left. Mum looked at me. ‘I love you; but you’re bad for business at the moment. Leave now’ she instructed. I went upstairs and hid in my room until my friends came to pick me up for Uni.

Another fear: What if people abuse me? This fear wasn’t as much mine, as my father and brother’s. Being the typical overprotective, melodramatic father, the first time my dad saw me as an Hijabi, he sighed deeply and looked at me as if I was killing him. He moaned something about me getting ‘stabbed by a crazy in the street’. He thought my obvious Islamic appearance would instigate rage in some psycho, and it would have a stabby/bloody conclusion. But this is coming from the man who worries about me walking the four metres from a taxi to my front door at night, so it was to be expected. It’s his job to worry; he loves me. I’m not sure if the same goes for my little brother, though…

My brother Kane is eighteen months my junior. And he wouldn’t have a piece of my experiment. I mean; he wouldn’t even talk about it. When Mum told him about it, he just said, ‘No. This is stupid. She’ll get spat on. This will end badly’ and left it at that – a silent protest towards me putting my safety in jeopardy. I think the protest evolved to simple stubbornness, though, because even long after I finished the ‘practical’ part of the experiment, he still wouldn’t have a bar of it. I used all sorts of sly tricks to slip it into the conversation:
‘Hey Kane, something funny happened to me at work – ’
‘Were you wearing the Muslim thing?’
‘Yeah, but – ’
‘Nope.’ he would bark, turning back to the TV.

Why did my father and brother automatically assume people would take me so badly? During the week, I was never openly abused, or treated with too much hostility. However, I did get quite a few suspicious looks. Why are there more negative feelings towards Muslims than, say, practicing Catholics? If they are so similar, why this hysterical fear in the media about Muslims and Arabs? Is it that dreaded ‘T’ word, ‘Terrorism’? Paedophiles in the Catholic Church are in the extreme minority. We know that, despite the funny-but-so-very-wrong jokes we make. And every person who worships Allah isn’t a candidate for suicide bombing. In every religious community (including atheism), there are people who are unstable, or who value ideology over human life. There’s the clichéd movie priest who does ‘God’s work’ and bloody wackiness ensues. Many Christian terrorists, like the Oklahoma Bomber, Timothy McVeigh, believed they were doing God’s work. So why when an extremist group misinterprets Islam (or their holy book, the Koran) and does something monstrous, does the ‘terrorist Muslim’ stigma grow?

‘Jihad’. Ok, what are you thinking? Ooh, terrorists imposing their oppressive beliefs onto others; it’s all bad. But how did the term ‘Jihad’ become ‘holy war’? The word literally means ‘to strive’ or ‘to struggle’. ‘The concept of Jihad is actually really simple’ says Jessie. ‘It’s a defensive thing, not an offensive one. If you’re happy just sitting around, doing your thing, and someone approached you and told you that you couldn’t follow your personal beliefs anymore, then you should fight to defend those beliefs. It’s got nothing to do with inflicting war.’

* * *

During my Hijabi week, I met three different women who had converted to Islam. They were all intelligent, assertive, attractive people. They certainly weren’t repressed by sexist or overbearing husbands. Their stories were similar. ‘When I was a teenager I used to drink, smoke, go out and everything’ Jessie told me. ‘I just… never really enjoyed it, you know? Then I met [my future husband]. We’d just talk about stuff, and he’d tell me about his religion. It all seemed really logical. So I did some extensive research and decided I wanted to convert.’

Aisha is the same. ‘I just didn’t like where society was going… [and] during the last year of my psychology degree, I started asking myself questions about who I was, and why we were put on this planet. I found my questions were answered in Islamic teachings.’

Contrary to popular belief, Australian Muslim women don’t cover themselves just because their husbands demand it. When going out, Aisha wears a similar garment to mine, with only her eyes visible. ‘Actually,’ Aisha says, ‘my husband doesn’t like it. He says it’s too modest. But I feel that if you’re going to be dedicated to a religion, or a cause, you have to give it your all.’

Aisha and I noted the similarities between the reactions we received whilst wearing the hijab and niqab. For example, everybody stares. Everybody. People under sixty tend to stare briefly, then quickly look away, or give you a patronising ‘I’m ok with this’ smile like you’re in a wheelchair (which, I suppose, is better than the glares). People over sixty, just keep on staring. I tried not to giggle when I saw many an old man staring, and I could just tell they were thinking, ‘no, bugger this, this looks weird, so I’m gonna look. I’ve lived too damn long to be polite.’ Women often glare (for the sisterhood of feminism, I suppose) and men giggle or comment to each other nervously. The only one to treat me exactly the same way was Mum’s guard dog, (our spoilt-brat five-year-old 75-kilo Rottweiler, whom I adore). When I came down to the shop on my first day as an Hijabi, I said hi to him. I was expecting him to bark at this black-clad stranger; instead he walked up to me, sniffed my shoe, and pushed me with his head in the direction of the kitchen to get his food.

While wearing the hijab, I had several friends make nervous jokes about terrorism in that matey, ‘hey I’m ok with all this’ way that proves they’re really not comfortable with such an obvious display of Muslim culture. I got so sick of ‘hey, is that a bomb in your pocket…?’ jokes. Also, many of my friends wanted me to subvert the stereotype of the solemn, mysterious burqa-clad unsmiling woman by drinking, smoking, swearing or dancing around while wearing the hijab. Out of respect for Islamic culture, I didn’t do any of these things. And out of respect for the fact that I’m an easily-led idiot, I vowed to do all the above later on while in a polar bear or penguin suit. But I’ll keep you posted on that one.

A friend of mine with political-correctness anxiety confided: ‘it’s just that it all looks so… I don’t know, foreign? Like the headdress and their practices and everything. And everything we see of the Middle East, their home, is bad. Conflict, wars, oppression.’

While researching my experiment, I spoke to many Muslim people. Their natural humour warmed me, and definitely affected the way I saw the experiment and how I later analysed it in this piece. When I bought my Hijab, the Muslim shop assistant laughed and told me my idea was ‘awesome’. Every Muslim person I spoke to was so funny on the subject of bigotry. Not in a defense-mechanism, if-I-don’t-laugh-I’ll-cry kind of way, but in a genuine, understanding, ‘I’m happy with the way I live my life, and in time, people will probably accept that’ kind of way.

It’s a simplistic point of view, and it’s difficult to kill prejudices and bigotry, but if the same people who yell ‘get back to your own country!’ to Australian-born Muslim converts actually knew about Islam and Muslim people, then perhaps the media would have to find something else to scare us with (genetically mutated surly wombats, perhaps?) and I wouldn’t have to sweat it out on a 30-degree day wearing heavy black synthetic material just to try and get an understanding of cultural bigotry.

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