I thought Australians didn’t like us. We were always taught that Islam is all about temptation and being tested to prove your faith is unshakeable. Outsiders were to be kept away, because they were only coming to test us or try to change us, so we shouldn’t talk or engage with them.
Gabrielle Lord: In 2014, I published a novel titled Dishonour, about an Iraqi girl in Australia who is desperate to avoid a forced marriage to a cousin back in Iraq and the female police officer who tries to help her. The fictitious 18 year old Rana fears she will be taken out of the country against her will and forced to marry a man who is almost twice her age and who is “traditional” in his religious observance. This means that the intended fiancé lives his life under sharia law, and that Rana’s position back in Iraq would be that of a subservient, second-class human being, a servant subject to the domination and sanctioned violence of her husband and his family, relegated to childbearing and endless cooking. Rana rejects this; she wants that most basic of all human rights: the right to self-determination. She wants to complete her pharmacy degree, as well as follow her heart. She has become attracted to Christianity, is in the process of converting, and is in love with a young Copt who wants to marry her. In other words, she wants the freedoms that other Australian women take for granted, but which are prohibited to her by sharia law.
In the course of researching this novel, it was necessary to interview several women of Muslim background who had converted. This wasn’t easy and I was shocked to hear that they live in fear of their own communities and that if their families ever discovered that they were “losing their religion,” they would be shunned, their entire extended families shamed and they themselves possibly exposed to retributive violence. What I was writing as fiction in a novel, was the lived experience of women and girls living in Australia. I had to operate with a go-between, a trusted clergyman, in order to gain access and their confidence.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to meet “Asiya”, a highly intelligent Iraqi girl, in her early twenties, smart, elegant and insightful, who was willing to speak frankly about her childhood and her observations of family life as a young Muslima in Sydney’s western suburbs. Asiya is very concerned about the isolation of girls such as she was, growing up in Australia and yet completely unable to access the wider community of Australians, or “the Europeans”, one of the words her family used to refer to the rest of us.
As she spoke, I thought she was talking about her experiences back in Iraq, but no, her story is one which takes place in the western suburbs of Sydney. She believes there are thousands of young girls trapped as she once was.
Asiya: We were kept locked up at home. We never went anywhere except to [Islamic] school. Even when our parents went shopping, we were not allowed to go. I didn’t know what a shopping mall was. I didn’t even know where I lived—apart from the name of the suburb—but I had no idea where that was. Sometimes, when the parents were out, my brother would disconnect the satellite dish and we could watch ordinary television. That was the only time I saw anything of the outside world.
My father was very devout, but he was an educated man and ran a very successful business. My mother was emotionally unstable and had a lot of issues. We were beaten for everything and the beatings were accompanied with threats about how we were going to hell where we would burn for eternity. I think my mother suffered from postpartum depression; a lot of the women do, because they’re forced to marry men they don’t want and then have children that they don’t want and so they take it out on the kids who are just another chore for them. They’re suffering because they’re “living beyond their own choice”. I honestly think that I would have died of neglect except for my older sister who cared for me. In fact, my mother used to openly say that I would have died except for my sister’s intervention. She wasn’t upset about saying that. She hated me.
According to my mother, I was a rebellious child, and was always being beaten. There were no bedtime stories, just the endless threats of hellfire because we were disobeying Allah. There were nine of us and the house was ruled by fear. If anything was broken or damaged in the house, we were lined up and interrogated, one by one.
In Year 5, I read Robin Klein’s novel People Might Hear You, which made a deep impression on me. (GL: It is the story of Helen, who tries to escape from an overwhelming religious cult, in which the girls are kept as servants, submissive and silent, in a regime imposed by her stepfather.) It was a turning point for me. I realised that what was happening in our house was actually strange, and not the norm. Then from about age ten to thirteen I became very religious and started to wear the hijab. But around thirteen to fourteen, I started to question my religion. I had a massive obsession with astronomy and as I studied science, I came to see that the planets and the galaxies move according to their own laws and that Allah has nothing to do with it. I was always in trouble at school because we are Shia and the school was Sunni. My answers were always wrong. The Sunnis say there’s only one person worse than a Jew and that’s a Shia. It’s twice the honour for killing a Shia than for killing a Jew. That’s what they say. At school, teachers saw the bruises on us from the beatings but they didn’t do anything. Even the Australian teachers. They’d try to make it up to us by being extra-sweet to us, or giving us better marks, but they never reported the abuse.
I was only a baby during the time the whole family fled to Saudi Arabia to avoid the war. My sisters told me about it later. It’s the most awful place in the world. The Sunnis despise the Shia so we were badly treated and forbidden to leave the camp which was in the middle of the desert. The religious police were on the alert for any breach of the rules, enforcing strict Wahhabism/sharia. If a woman stepped outside her tent without her scarf, she could be arrested and whipped.