I can’t stop thinking about Qandeel Baloch – the social media celebrity murdered by her brother in Pakistan in a so-called honour killing last week.
Qandeel is me. Qandeel is every woman I’ve met who worries about reactions to that sleeveless shirt Facebook picture or who faces narky comments on whether her hijab is too revealing. Her murder is an extreme version of the constant policing women everywhere face on their clothes, bodies and relationships which settles on the skin like a fine mist of shame, turning you inward, self censoring. Famous Muslim men like Muhammad Ali and Imran Khan are feted by scholars despite past indiscretions. Their sexuality never defines them in the same way it does for women, for whom punishment is swift for any aberration from moral norms.
Qandeel was working class and sexy and gauche and fabulous and wanted to be famous. The fact that any of those things is a qualifier in expressing sadness over her death, as seen in online reactions, is frankly terrifying to me. Twitter activist Mehlab Jameel links to a Facebook comment by Fauzia Kasuri, a supposed women’s rights activist in Pakistan who writes: “Whatever Qandeel Balouch did…it was wrong…but her brutal death shouldn’t have been her fate.”
The modern, popular culture, exhibitionist, selfie-style of female brazenness does not sit well with suffragette-style Muslim feminism which seeks greater freedoms without disturbing social norms. But women like Qandeel are no less deserving of our sympathy because she doesn’t fit a stereotype of piety. Respectability feminism works because it is strategic and seeks slow reform, but the provocative, angry and fiery also has its place in fighting sexism. As do social media displays – a natural rebellion for young women without power chafing against suffocating norms.
If your feminism has no room for women like Qandeel, for starlets and sex workers, hustlers and street sweepers, people with broken English from dysfunctional backgrounds trying to make a buck – it needs to be reassessed.
Qandeel never had the luxury of an education. Like so many working class people she was desperately aware of the currency she lacked to gain entry into a world she craved. Hers is a modern story of an insatiable quest for internet fame in the social media age as much as it is about female autonomy and the raw class struggle that threads itself through Pakistani society.
I wish we could live in a world where Qandeel was just another wannabe internet celebrity, and is not transformed into a martyr and revolutionary because of an intolerant society that is terrified of what it paradoxically represses and lusts after. For the mullahs and the village, the tension of Qandeel was too much. She could not exist because she represented the paradox of what they hated within themselves, the power she had over them and the need to control it. This threat is the undercurrent of all restrictions on female freedom – to move, travel, live, love and wear what we please.
Qandeel had escaped a bad marriage and was living away from her family on her own terms. A self-described feminist, she was more passionately articulate in her Facebook posts than a thousand academics, and more pointed in showing up the hypocrisy of the moral standard bearers. Her selfies with a besotted looking cleric in a hotel where she wears his cap and sits on his lap as he ‘schools her’ on religion reportedly had him stood down from various posts.
The struggle for women in developing countries is highly filtered through class. Women like Qandeel don’t have the education or feminist frameworks of the upper class, but they represent the lifeblood of a lived feminism, they are enmeshed in the struggle that poverty magnifies, and we need to salute that.
When I chatted to Bilquis Edhi, wife of the late great philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi at the Edhi foundation charity home in Karachi last year, she told me of the society ladies with big hair and make-up who came down to volunteer. They had little understanding of the lived realities of those they sought to assist, and hindered rather then helped the cause. “They have no idea,” she laughed, rolling her eyes.
It’s typical of the condescension even Pakistani liberal elites subconsciously harbour for the working poor. The ‘hordes’ that represent the worst of their society to the outside world but whose position is the result of being denied the power, education and resources to share in the privilege of the dominant classes.
Qandeel was the ultimate hustler and ultimate Pakistani. Like the hawkers selling knock-off perfumes on the street, using every trick in the book to get ahead, to get rich, to get her revenge at a society that seemed at every turn to militate against her. She lost the battle but her hustle will never be forgotten.
The first thing you notice about Tahir Qawwal are is his dreadlocks – they wrap around his head to create a turban-halo effect.
Combined with his shaggy beard and Indian kurta, the 35-year-old Canadian, the lead singer of qawwali seven-piece group Fanna-Fi-Allah, which literally translates as ‘annihilation in God’, looks the epitome of whirling-dervish chic.
The artist looks completely at ease during this small gig in western Sydney, as he belts out passionate qawwali in his western-accented Urdu.
Qawwal’s soaring rendition, accompanied by the beating of the frenetic tabla and the harmonium piano, create a mood of ecstatic celebration as the audience chants and sways to the rhythm. The singer admits his journey to learning qawwali, the spiritual music of the subcontinent, inspired by Islam’s mystical Sufi tradition, has been an unlikely one.
Born Geoffrey Lyons, Qawwal left his native Canada for India as a teenager. It was there where he explored Indian classical music, renounced all his material possessions and dabbled with the idea of becoming a yogi, before converting to Islam at 17.
“I felt the deep communicative powers of music as a spiritual language and also the teaching of the Sufis and that inspiring path was also simultaneously very magnetic for me,” he says.
The journey then took Qawwal to Pakistan where he studied under Rahet Fateh Ali Khan, Pashupatinath Mishra, Sher Ali Khan and Muazzam Qawwal.
“As with anything, one step in the path leads to another and you never know where it’s going to take you,” he says. “I was really nervous and really excited to meet these people that I had idolised and have been so moved by.”
The singers took Qawwal under their wings and he spent weeks embedding himself in the spirituality and poetry of the art.
Describing its appeal, Qawwal – who now lives in California – says the music transcends culture, and even those who don’t understand the poetry can feel the passion of the tradition.
“It’s a music of wild abandon,” he says. “When the qawwals sing with feeling, it gets offered in a very passionate heartfelt and divine way so people feel that.”
Fanna-Fi-Allah – which has a multicultural make up, featuring three Canadians and Americans, and one Pakistani – have been together for 15 years and initially struggled to overcome their novelty status.
Judging by the quality of their debut album, Mehfil-e-saga, however, they are well on their way to challenging misconceptions. The songs have the joyous, wild enthusiasm that embodies the passion and poetry of the qawwali tradition.
Qawwal explains that the buoyant sounds reflect the hospitality he experienced during his stay in Pakistan. He hopes the music shows a different side of Pakistani culture and Islamic spirituality, often associated with extremism and violence in the western imagination.
“There’s a deep-rooted generosity there that’s connected to the culture,” he says.
As a westerner who lived in Pakistan, Qawwal explains the group were “overwhelmed by the generosity of locals” after years performing across the country.
With Mehfil-e-saga well received, Fanna-Fi-Allah are set to tour Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and South Africa.
“We’ve been invited to play in the UAE several times but it hasn’t worked out as of yet,” he says. “I would certainly love to someday.”
•Fanna-Fi-Allah’s latest album Mehfil-e-saga, and single, Man Kunto Maula, are available on iTunes
Over the last few weeks I have been making the journey to Villawood detention centre, in Sydney’s south-west. After navigating forms and metal detectors I am tagged with a bright wristband and invisible ink and ushered inside.
Once inside, I have spent hours talking to Abdellatif, his wife and six children inside the secure facility. For the first time ever, they speak candidly in person, about their experiences in detention and their journey to Australia.
Sayed Abdellatif and his extraordinary detention in Australian immigration
BY SARAH MALIK AND BEN DOHERTY Exclusive: Considered a ‘dangerous terrorist’ because of previous convictions that have now been found to be false and revoked, Abdellatif, his wife and six children remain in limbo in the confused haze of the detention system
Sayed Abdellatif’s son is celebrating his 12th birthday. On a low table, plates are piled with homemade cake and colourful chunks of pomegranate, mango and kiwifruit.
The birthday boy wears sneakers and jeans. He talks loudly to his sisters and brother and mum in a broad Australian accent. The treats are offered around, and happily accepted.
It could be any party, anywhere, save for the fluorescent bands on everybody’s wrists.
The Abdellatif children are visiting their dad in a separate room just off the central visitors’ section of Sydney’s Villawood detention centre.
The whole family are detainees, and their father is considered by Australian authorities to be an extreme security risk, “plainly a dangerous terrorist” in the words of the attorney general George Brandis. Abdellatif denies the charges, which Interpol have found not to be true.
Outside the small room used by families like the Abdellatifs, the visitors’ area is packed, as it is every Sunday.
Reunited couples nuzzle in corners. Family members, friends and refugee advocates greet inmates with hugs and precious supplies from the outside. Coffee, chocolate biscuits, and food in plastic containers that have survived the metal detectors line the tables. There are no phones or cameras allowed.
Outside, Villawood is being renovated – the byzantine centre is a maze of gravel paths and patches of barren land cordoned off for expansion. Beyond that is the wire – the imposing metal fence that surrounds Villawood, the boundary that separates it from the outside world. Further still there is Sydney.
And at the centre of these concentric circles, behind the unknowable rings of security, sits Sayed Abdellatif.
Weary from 18 years in exile, two and a half of those in the confused haze of the Australian immigration detention system, he explains why he has chosen to talk.
“We were being badly treated by the immigration department,” he says. “We were silent … but that wasn’t because we were doing anything wrong. But this way didn’t work. We have to change plan.”
A life of exile
Abdellatif’s story is that of a lifetime in exile.
The 44-year-old Egyptian has not lived in his home country since 1992. His children have known only lives in the shadows of societies all over the world, or trapped in detention.
Abdellatif left Egypt for Albania in 1992. There he worked for a civil society organisation called the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS).
He met and married his wife in Albania. His eldest daughter was born there in 1995. But the family was forced to flee in 1997, after a civil uprising toppled the government and plunged the country into an economic crisis.
“We were forced to leave,” Abdellatif says. “The only way we had at that time was UK.”
Three more children were born in the UK – in 1997, 1998 and 2000 – before the Abdellatifs were forced out to Iran in 2001. Their son, the boy who celebrates his birthday in detention today, was born in Iran in 2003.
In Iran the family were arrested as illegal immigrants. They lived for a time in an Iraqi refugee camp before spending years under house arrest.
In May 2010, an Iraqi people smuggler moved the family through Malaysia and Indonesia, in the hope of taking them back to the UK. They were stopped in Singapore and deported back to Indonesia.
“When we came back to Indonesia we were arrested by Indonesian immigration,” Abdellatif says. “Once we were arrested we applied for asylum at the UNHCR in Jakarta.”
The family spent four months in detention and had two interviews with UNHCR officers, before spending two years in the refugee “queue” waiting for a determination on their status. The family’s youngest child, a boy, was born in Indonesia in 2010.
The family spent long months, as thousands across the Indonesian archipelago do, waiting for a refugee determination. “Then we lost hope,” says Abdellatif. Running out of money, he says, with no answer forthcoming from the overrun refugee agency, the family made a decision to find a boat bound for Australia.
“We always had a hope to arrive in a safe place.”
As Abdellatif speaks, his four daughters sit, wearing neat hijabs, next to their bespectacled mother. His two boys, 12 and four, stomp noisily in and out of the glass-panelled room.
The children are allowed to leave the Villawood compound to attend school. The girls go to the local high school nearby. The two eldest, 19 and 17, will sit the HSC this year. They walk to school under guard each day.
One daughter says it is difficult to explain the toll detention has had on her family during the many years in the UK, Iran and Indonesia.
“We already lost so many years of our life … it just feels like it’s going on forever. I’ve lived more than half my life in detention,” she says.
The demands of school make regular visits difficult.
“We don’t see Dad except on weekends,” she says, “we don’t sit as a family. I don’t remember the last time we had a proper meal together.”
Interpol and quashed convictions
The Abdellatif family’s detention in Australia began unexceptionally.
Housed in the low-security Inverbrackie detention centre in South Australia, they awaited release into the community after an Asio recommendation they be allowed to leave detention (a decision the spy agency has since recanted as a “processing error”, the first in a litany of government mistakes in the case).
But the family’s situation was cast into sudden national prominence in April 2013, when it was discovered Sayed Abdellatif was the subject of an Interpol “red notice” for murder and firearms charges in his home country.
The Abbott-led Coalition, then in opposition, used the case to lambast the Gillard government’s handling of border security. Labelling Abdellatif a “pool fence terrorist”, Abbott said the government had failed to notice that a “convicted jihadist terrorist was kept for almost 12 months behind a pool fence”.
Abdellatif says he first became aware of the firearm and murder convictions against him through the media.
“My name become in the media … (it was) huge, huge propaganda. I was shocked at that time,” he says, adding that he was given little information about why he was transferred to Villawood’s high-security Blaxland compound.
Although he was later transferred to a medium-security area within Villawood, he remains separated from his family, who live in the family compound. They have declined an offer from immigration to be removed into the community because they don’t want to be separated from their father.
The Abdellatifs live divided. Half-lives, neither in Australia nor out. They cannot be deported because of the real risk of persecution in Egypt, but by ministerial decree they are unable to apply for a visa.
Their detention is indefinite.
The Abdellatif case took a dramatic turn in June 2013 after an investigation by the Guardian, in both Egypt and Australia, resulted in the violence-related convictions against Abdellatif being quashed.
Abdellatif had been convicted in an Egyptian military court, in a 1999 mass trial of 107 men, of premeditated murder, destruction of property and possession of firearms and explosives.
The Guardian contacted the Egyptian authorities following interviews with Abdellatif’s lawyers and verified court documents that showed his convictions made no mention of murder or explosives possession.
As a result, Interpol took the extremely rare step of removing all charges relating to violence from their red notice list.
A red notice on Abdellatif’s name still exists. It now lists convictions for “membership in a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, charges Abdellatif strenuously denies.
The terror conviction relates to allegations that Abdellatif was an operative of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but he told Guardian Australia: “I have never been a member of any group. The Egyptian government [under President Mubarak] used to falsely paste this charge to any person they want to punish or to get rid of.”
Abdellatif’s only other purported “link” with terrorism was his employment by the Albanian branch of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. This was mentioned at his 1999 trial, but was not part of his conviction.
Abdellatif worked for RIHS, a multi-national Islamic civil society organisation, between 1992 and 1996. It was later infiltrated by al-Qaida and outlawed by the UN.
Abdellatif claims the Albanian branch was “clear” when he worked there and he never had any involvement in organising or funding terrorism.
“It was a charity organisation. We were building mosques, supporting adoption.”
Abdellatif also denies ever forging documents.
Now new documents, subsequently submitted to Egypt’s supreme military court, and provided to the Australian government more than 12 months ago, state that the evidence used to convict Abdellatif was obtained under torture.
Abdellatif’s father, Ahmed, who gave evidence against his son in the original trial, signed a statutory declaration in 2013, stating: “All of what has been said as my words regarding my son … are incorrect and were said due [to] compulsion and torture by the interrogating authority.”
Abdellatif’s brother-in-law, who similarly testified against his relative, signed an affidavit: “all the statements that were attributed to me in the public prosecution investigation, especially the statements that mention Sayed Abdellatif, were written from the security book and dictated by the Deputy Public Prosecutor. I objected to the statements and I denied them. I was subjected to torture and electrocution in order to sign the paper.”
The State Security Investigations Service, the principal domestic security and intelligence agency of the Mubarak regime, which conducted the investigation, was dissolved in 2011, after evidence emerged it was involved in “extraordinary rendition”, and tools of torture and secret cells were uncovered at its headquarters.
In 2012, the court re-tried seven of the original 107 convicted men. All seven were acquitted, the court finding the evidence used in the original convictions was obtained under torture.
“The court, having verified the claim documents, hearing witnesses for and against the prosecution, and comparing the crime and innocence evidence … it seems that the claim and accusations against those accused are surrounded by thick layers of doubt and suspicion that weakens the evidence derived therefrom,” the court ruling says.
Abdellatif says these documents were passed to the immigration department, the AFP and Asio in December 2013.
“Every government will understand this trial is a political trial. This trial had 107 accused. We don’t know each other. We never met with each other.” He says confessions were extracted under torture and played off against each other. But the new evidence, he says, has not moved his case forward.
“Every time we give them [Australian authorities] new evidence the reaction is punishment.
“We received very bad treatment, unjust treatment, and still [we are] receiving this treatment.”
The Australian Federal Police told Guardian Australia it did not make recommendations on immigration matters, and that the extent of its inquiries into Abdellatif were to establish his identity.
“The information contained in the Interpol Red Notice and any investigation into these allegations is a matter for the Egyptian authorities,” the AFP said.
The AFP said other inquiries regarding Abdellatif’s status should be directed to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Asio refused to answer questions about Abdellatif.
The immigration minister Peter Dutton has refused to comment on Abdellatif’s case. His department would say only that security issues were a matter for Asio and, “the department has offered Mr Abdullatif’s [sic] family placement in the community. They declined this offer.”
The Abdellatifs say they declined because they do not want to be separated from their husband and father. And regardless of where they are housed, Abdellatif’s family cannot – and unless the minister’s decision is overturned, can never – apply for a visa.
Life in Australia
Abdellatif looks tired.
“When we decided to come to Australia we had a big hope to come and start a new life.”
One of his older daughters translates the difficult English phrases into Arabic for him. She breaks down in tears as she talks about the difficulties of being separated from her dad.
Abdellatif watches on silently. The breakdown in composure and the language difficulties compound his powerlessness. His daughters are teenagers still, but burdened with adult realities.
“After what happened to us in Australia we are very disappointed,” he says.
Abdellatif suffers Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition, and he has twice gone on hunger strike in detention.
“When I become frustrated or angry my Crohn’s disease becomes very active and painful,” he says. “I can’t sleep. I can’t sit on the chair.” He says he has suffered bleeding and weight loss in detention, and his family worries for his health.
One of his daughters speaks. She says the effect of the family’s experiences in detention has been compounded by the expectation that life in Australia would be different.
“We have seen all detention in all countries. What happened in other countries we expected it. But in Australia I expected they would follow the rules and respect human rights.”
From Villawood’s less-regimented family compound, his wife and children make regular visits to see their father and husband. They all feel trapped by their father’s legal limbo.
“We are completely frozen,” one daughter says. “We need the minister to lift the bar and allow us to apply for permanent visa.”
For the Abdellatif children, a future of apparently-endless detention is a bleak uncertainty. They struggle for the smallest normalities. At school, the girls are often invited out to parties. They can never go, or even explain why.
“They [my friends] think I’m rude,” one daughter says. “It kills. Every day you wake up, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The girls studying for their HSC have to compete with 40 other detainees for access to three computers for their one hour of daily internet time. It makes studying and finishing assignments difficult. A younger sister says detention is “like being trapped in a place where you can’t see anything … like a blank page”.
And another says the impact of being separated from their father is fraying their own relationships. Sometimes her siblings will sullenly withdraw, retreating to rooms and refusing to talk. Or they’ll fight with each other and scream.
“If I knew I had done something wrong and was being punished for it, I’d accept it,” she says. “What makes it harder is that I know none of us has done anything wrong.”
Her life is a carefully-circumscribed existence, of wristbands and metal detectors, of visiting hours and security details following her to school.
Her dream is simple: “To go to the mall with my friends.”
Check out my latest review in Sultana’s Dream of Coming of age: Growing up Muslim in Australia. If you haven’t already make sure you have a read, there’s something here to relate to regardless of whether you’re Muslim or not. The anthology features awesome Australian writers including Randa Abdel Fattah, Tasneem Chopra and Amal Awad whose personal stories will make you think and reminisce about your own awkward adolescence.
Gloria Steinem once said that “every social justice movement that I know of started with people telling their life stories.”
The same could be said for understanding the reality of multicultural Australia; those stories that are rarely reflected in the whitewashed beaches of soapie suburbia.
Growing up not-white and Muslim in Australia means becoming inured to a media and popular culture reflecting back faces and worlds which bear little resemblance to an everyday reality punctuated with ritual, some kind of after-school class, parental expectations and confusion.
In this context, Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia is a welcome balm, like looking into a too-close mirror, familiar but also unnerving. The anthology features 12 Muslim writers sharing stories of migration and dislocation, navigating two worlds and cultures and grappling with familiar adolescent pangs around sexuality, love, body image, faith and identity.
The vignettes in Coming of Age chronicle the experiences of this first generation children of migrants, navigating a place within Australian culture as the culture itself navigates how to accommodate a fusion at once deeply familiar and different. Hybrids sporting ocker credentials like Indian-Kenyan activist Tasneem Chopra; growing up in country Victoria amid bush dancing and yabby-catching while going home to practice Indian-dance, later showcased wearing glittering bangles at YMCA halls.
The anthology features familiar names including children’s author Randa Abdel-Fattah, footballer Hazem El Masri and his wife Arwa El Masri, lawyer Irfan Yusuf and writer Amal Awad, but also dispersed are valuable contributions reflecting the diversity and complexity of Muslim communities. From self-confessed ‘mish-mash’ Muslim and former Miss World Sabrina Houssami to devout, agnostic and atheist voices from a rich diversity of sectarian and cultural backgrounds, the book is a learning experience even for those from within the tradition.
Pakistani woman Alyena Mohummadally shares the trauma of coming out to her Muslim family and reconciling faith with her sexuality. There are moments of unconscious levity in even the most gut-wrenching scenes. Mohummadally’s mother confronts her, not after previous less-than-subtle intimations about her sexuality from her daughter but only when Mohummadally brings home the women’s cricket team for a sleepover: ‘I have always attributed my mother’s question to her being aware of the stereotype that women cricketers and the queer world go together,’ she recounts.
Racial-slurs and schoolyard taunts are explored in the same breath as cringing teen crushes and moments of parental embarrassment. Headshots of the writers as gangly adolescents bring back memories of adolescence as life’s universal awkward hour, but exacerbated by the self-consciousness of ethnic difference.
Psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed remembers being inundated with kilos of pungent seafood in the car after his triumphant father spends an afternoon bargaining with vendors at Sydney’s Flemington markets. Yusuf recounts ‘the phone call day’ every desi kid dreads. The day HSC marks are released and the phone rings off the hook as ‘Aunties’ interrogate parents on the life plans and marks of their progeny.
Former Bulldogs legend El-Masri and academic Michael Mohammad Ahmad, both of Lebanese background reflect on the burden on Muslim men post-September 11, as the description of ‘Middle eastern appearance’ becomes an epithet of suspicion. There are lessons from their own youth dodging the temptations of drugs and violence as they minister to troubled youth.
In an age still full of caricatures and shrieking headlines, this anthology is a long-overdue offering. Stories of young people, now well-known adults who by sharing funny, human stories of their youthful frailties, relationships and loneliness are in turn changing our cultural landscape and what it means to grow up Muslim in today’s Australia.
Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia is published by Allen and Unwin.
So I’m in Jordan! My favourite part of being here is munching on pomegranate seeds as dusk approaches with lyrical strains of the Quran drifting from the local mosques where multiple adhans jostle for supremacy causing a chiming echo across the horizon.
It’s been a surreal few days figuring out taxis (this deserves it’s own post), food (as does this), money andorientatingmyself to the sights and sounds of this new city.
The other Arabic language students here seem to fit into three categories – the young Arabic language undergrads on exchange or developing their skills and wanting careers in international relations, development or anything that pays and allows travel. The second group is non-Arab Muslims seeking religious knowledge and the third is older students in their late 20’s and thirties. These are the ones who might have quit their jobs or at a crossroads and want to do something completely different and see where it takes them. I’ve met everyone fromFulbrightscholars, corporate lawyers who’ve quit their jobs, UN workers, wide-eyed college grads, spiritual seekers and Muslim converts.
I can see why Amman is attractive to travellers. It’s relatively safe and there’s a host of hipstercafes(this also deserves it’s own post) in the expat areas downtown in the aptly named Rainbow Street (maybe a play on the colourful range of travellers passing through).
It’s warm in the day and then cold at night. Everywhere is hilly and mountainous and historic with the city’s white and cream stone buildings providing panaromicviews at vantage points around the city.
One of the best places for epic views is the Citadel featuring Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman period Islamic architecture as well as ancient ruins predating Islam including the hand of Hercules anda bird’s eyeview of a nearby Romancolosseum. Traipsing around the ruined splendour makes you feel a bit redundant and also awed at humans and their futile but valiant fight against inevitable decay. We’re just a transient speck in the scheme of things. These great civilisations, these visions of splendor, all reaching for immortality, or just wanting us toknow-hey we were here! You have to admire the attempt- a rebellion against, but at the same time a testament to transience.
Later that night we roam streets lined with posters of King Abdullah and his bespectacled young son, Crown Prince Hussein who apparently went to Georgetown with one of my fellow language students.
Strangely enough twice on the first day people thought I was Arab, and started speaking to me in Arabic. Australian doesn’t cut it as an explanation for my brown-ness, but Pakistani elicits smiles, which it never does in the west so that’s a pleasant change. I get asked where my father is from, which I’m assuming is how identity isdetermined – patrilineal in the MiddleEast – where in most placesa mother cannot pass on her citizenship if she marries out.
Our next stop – a day trip toAl-Ajluncastle is like stepping into a medieval novel. It’s at the border of Syria and Palestine, built by the nephew of Salahuddin, the dreamy Muslim general who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
There’s a moat, a former drawbridge, turrets, tunnels, towers and shafts where poisonous arrows and vats of boiling water were dropped on enemy troops.
There’s even a barred prison area where enemy soldiers were captured. Apparently the old citadels are not totallyredundant-I’m told in Syria most of them are actually being used in the conflict.
There was even some entertainment on top of the castle where you can literally see the horizon (and any invading hordes) for miles.
Pakistan has a new feminist superhero. Her weapons of choice are books, pens…and a burqa. Recently I was interviewed by Melissa Wellham from Mamma Mia on my thoughts on the burqa-clad heroine.
For those not familiar with the Burqa Avenger, she is the brainchild of Pakistani popstar Haroon. The animated TV series aims to counter Taliban opposition to women’s education through its heroine- a mild mannered teacher who dons a disguise to turn into Burqa Avenger by night, battling local goons to keep her school open.
Like Kim Kardashian, Pakistan seems to have become famous for the wrong things, like the shootings of schoolgirls, acid attacks and gang rapes. But these high-profile stories have also mobilised thousands of Pakistanis protesting against the degradation of their society. This new heroine I think is part of that protest. Like I told Mamma Mia:
Burqa Avenger is a smart, powerful, subtle, strong Muslim woman.
She’s a fantasy most Pakistanis long for … We wish we had super powers that could magically neuter extremist nuts and the corrupt politicians that enable them, in a society where the right to go to school has exposed women and girls to violence.”
“By having a niqabi feminist heroine – at once both indigenous to Pakistani culture and Islam, it reclaims those forces as a source of power for Muslim women, neutralising criticisms of feminism and human rights as a western impost and cleverly repositioning Burqa Avengers’ enemies as antithetical to mainstream Islam and local values.”