ArabLit in Australia: A Conversation with Amal Awad

To help inaugurate Hend Saeed’s new venture, Arabic Literature in Australia, we’re featuring a conversation between Saeed and Palestinian-Australian author Amal Awad:

Hend Saeed: A new generation was born in Australia, or any other Western countries, from Arab Parents (Muslims) and some of them, face the identity issues, especially women. You were born in Australia from Palestinian parents; how do you identify yourself?  How did you find balance between the two worlds?

Amal Awad: That’s an important question. One of the major differences I perceived in my research was how different the Arab women in the Middle East were compared to women like me, who are of Arab heritage but grew up in the west. The women in the Arab world weren’t afflicted with identity issues; religion and culture were often quite blended. In Australia, however, a lot of us have experienced identity confusion. We have one foot in Australia, one in the homeland of our parents.

I identify as being Palestinian-Australian in a Muslim family. I prefer not to use these labels as much nowadays. I have at different times in my life identified very strongly as Palestinian; I’ve identified very strongly as a Muslim woman; and while I am still those things, I don’t want to be defined by them. There is so much more to us than our identity labels.

HS: From Courting Samira (2010) to Beyond Veiled Clichés (2016), did you find any change in Arab women’s situations from the time you wrote Courting Samira to writing Beyond Veiled Clichés and does it make a difference if women are living in an Arab or Western country?

AA: Well Courting Samira is a fiction book, more specifically chick-lit. It’s a light-hearted exploration of a young Muslim woman in Australia looking for love, but also purpose in her life, when she has spent most of her life being a people-pleaser and thinking she doesn’t have the same options as everyone else. I wrote it in my 20s, at a time when I was trying to make sense of what’s it like to be that fish out of water – a religious woman in a western society, and the balancing act this involves. But really, it’s a very universal story about learning to love yourself, explore your own life potential, and find joy in it.

Beyond Veiled Clichés is a very different kind of exploration. It’s non-fiction and features the voices of many women from around the world, sharing their real-life experiences. The similarity is that, although it’s non-fiction and a serious book, it’s also about trying to make sense of life and how you fit into it, as part of a culture and/or religion, and as an individual.

I think Arab people in general are only under greater scrutiny and criticism over time, so writing Beyond Veiled Clichés was important to me. I wanted the real-life stories of Arab women to be out in the world, to have a place amid all of the negativity.

But at the heart of all of my writing is a desire to deep-dive into human experiences, ideas and pathways. How do we live and what makes us feel whole?

HS: How does Beyond Veiled Clichés deal with the veil?

AA: It’s funny, the book is called Beyond Veiled Clichés because I was very focused on writing about the lives of Arab women more generally, beyond the veil that seems to define us in the eyes of many. I have been critical of the focus on the veil but it became clear that it needed to be covered in depth, so I have included a chapter on this.

The women I met with usually had opinions on hijab and niqab, both variations of the veil many Muslim women wear. For the Muslim women in Australia who wear hijab, it was clear that for many of them, it was an important aspect of their faith, and that they felt it was part of their identity as Muslim women in the west. For women overseas, there was a similar commitment to hijab, but those who don’t wear it for whatever reason often expressed concern about what the rise in conservative dress meant for their societies. More than one woman talked about a grandmother or other elder who refused to wear hijab, seeing it as a step backwards.

The interesting thing is how interchangeable the veil is; it can be at once a form of liberation or a source of oppression. The conditions of the society, its attitude towards women, and how women themselves see their place in society all shape the energy of that moment. This is why, in history, the veil – which itself doesn’t change much beyond being something that can be either very trendy or deeply forbidding in its nature – can symbolise different things.

For the women in Australia, the veil was their choice. More often than not this would be the case, generally speaking. But the same can’t be said for the Arab world where there would be greater pressure in some societies to dress conservatively.

So it’s not a simple case of liberation or oppression. And the question is, how much is the embrace of the veil a barometer for where a society sits? There is just too much emphasis on women as barometers for society.

HS: In one your interviews you said, “I do think it is up to Arab women themselves to tell their stories, they don’t need a westerner to come in and save the day and say I am going to give you a voice”.  And based on your book Beyond Veiled Clichés there are amazing women. Wwhy do you think this is happening? Does the western media want to keep Arab Muslim women in a particular image?

AA: I’m not sure if the media is creating the image or mirroring what people believe about Arab women – it’s a combination of both. The prevalent image of the ‘Arab woman’ is that of a veiled woman, kohl-lined eyes peeking out from a heavily veiled face, looking frightened or enticingly exotic. These are extreme images and both exist and both define how people around the world view Arab women.

Not all Arab women wear a veil, and those who do don’t necessarily wear the veil the same way. Many Arab women aren’t Muslim; those who are Muslim are not necessarily religious, in the same way a lot of Christian or Jewish women might not be religious even if they identify as being in those faiths.

A major issue is how we are not perceived as fully-functioning, fully human beings. Whether we’re perceived as victims or heroines, we seem to exist in extremes in the minds of others, devoid of normal lives, depth of feeling, desires that don’t revolve around men and wider culture and society.

Amal Awad is journalist, screenwriter and author. She is a columnist for SBS Life and The New Arab and has written for ELLE, Frankie, Daily Life, Sheilas and Junkee. Amal has also worked as a producer for ABC Radio National. Amal is the author of four books. Her latest is a non-fiction book called Beyond Veiled Clichés – The Real Lives of Arab Women. You can read an excerpt online. 

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translatore, life consultant, and book reviewer.