Recently, I was wandering the aisles of a local department store when a moment of activism by a woman shopper stopped me in my tracks.
It was in the book section. I’d only just read that the books in chain stores are carefully curated and sold to the highest bidder; each position on the shelves has a price tag – bookstores sell reading real estate. I was there checking out who had bought into the neighbourhood.
Front and centre of the ‘Recent Releases’ section, a book caught my attention – The Underground Girls of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised As Boys.
I picked it up and read the back cover. It is about an old, unusual and little known practice in Afghanistan called bacha posh, of raising girls as boys.
I was excited by this book. It spoke to me of resistance, the recognition of oppression. And such a practice, I imagine, would allow some girls to experience the difference, the freedom of being male, and to report back from the other side.
In the mid ‘90s I knew a woman from Afghanistan, a nuclear physicist; she was distressed and vocal about the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban: banned from schools, denied the right to employment and political participation and controlled and dependent on men.
I have heard criticisms against feminist western white women applying feminist western white values to Muslim culture. I often feel frozen between race and gender, culture and country, judgment and acceptance, so I avoid the issue of gender politics in other societies; I avoid learning, I avoid connecting and I avoid thinking. I align with the views of my friend from Afghanistan – the treatment of women there is appalling: 87% of women in Afghanistan experience domestic violence, only 13 % of girls over 15 are literate (compared to 47% of males), and from mid-2012 to early 2013, 30 female political and civil society leaders have been killed. )
In my ignorance, I wonder if the criticism coming from Muslim women towards western white feminism comes from a justifiable protectiveness and loyalty to their community and traditions – like the notion that I can criticise my family but I will not stand for anyone else to do it. The criticism might also come from the blanket basketing of all Muslim culture and cultures in with treatment of women in Afghanistan – something I do too easily.
I contemplated buying the book but my bedside table was overflowing. I put it back. I began to move around the corner of the shelves when my eye caught sight of a woman in a black hijab. She was slowly browsing along the main corridor. I saw her eye glance across the books and land on The Underground Girls of Kabul. Her hand reached out to pick it up. I was pleased and curious. She might want to learn more, take action, fight the oppression of our sex and want to know more about these girls/boys. I didn’t want to stare, to frighten her away or make her self-conscious. I watched her pick the book up as I moved around the corner. But something about the way she moved her hand was familiar. She turned the book while it was still on the shelf.
I held my breath and slowly walked around the shelves, back to where I started. The woman had disappeared. I stared at the shelves, searching for the title, I couldn’t see it. It had vanished. In mental desperation to make sense, I imagined the woman had convinced the book store manager to have the books magically and instantly removed.
Then I saw two identical books side by side, where I thought Underground Girls ought to have been. I removed one of the books, and there was the pile of Underground Girls of Kabul, reversed. She not only covered the books, she turned every copy over first.
A long time ago I was a community lawyer working for social justice. But since having children and moving to a small rural community, I have become staid. The nice, white, middle class, Anglo Saxon community I live in does not beg to be challenged. Comfort and age, children and responsibility have bedded me down as a soft do-gooder, all talk no action.
Occasionally, like a mosquito-swatting reflex, I do something. A few days before the Underground Girls of Kabul incident, I was standing in line at the supermarket, staring mindlessly at the magazines. A beautiful, slender, bikini-clad woman filled the cover of one magazine and the headlined screamed, ‘Model bosses blast Kendall, you’re too fat for runway’.
Images of self-loathing girls and women, perhaps even myself, filled my mind and my outrage was instant. My radical act, my middle finger gesture at the fucking bastards, was to turn the top copy over. I am under no illusions that this gesture made any difference to anyone else. But to me such small doings are the antidote to numbing powerlessness. It is still an act, a stand, an agitation.
I don’t watch TV and I hardly listen to the news, not because it doesn’t matter but because I can’t make a difference and watching the pain and suffering of others, when I can make no difference, seems a senseless act of depression. But I do have a conscience, I am a woman, a feminist and I feel for the women and girls of this world, my sisters.
I often wonder how I would feel, how I would cope in a society that grants me, as a woman, few rights, that systemically punishes me for my sexuality, and legally labels me a possession, and that is run by men who overtly fear and hate me. I try not to think that the freedoms I have are privileges, to remember they are universal human rights.
I ponder the lesser rung on the ladder of life, which all women of the world stand upon, and also the complexity of gender and race oppression. I know the risk in writing about this is that I will stumble with great heavy boots into soft and sensitive territory. As a white woman from a western society, I am part of the dominant and dominating culture, but I am not part of the dominant gender, and like an unsolved mathematics conundrum, the logarithms to work out who is more oppressed, white women or non-western/non-white men, should be a Millennium Prize. But of course ‘more oppressed’ than either of us, are non-western/non-white women. Maybe men from oppressed groups, in mirrored reflection of their own oppression, oppress those around them more? If this theory holds water what would it say about women with children? My head spins and swims.
Why did she turn the books? Was she threatened by the thought of girls living as boys? Was she threatened because it challenged her values and culture Just as I turn away from images of injustice, suffering, violence and exploitation in so many places, did it remind her of her own failure or inability to challenge gender-based discrimination, ? Was she worried that the book exposed a secret and useful practice? Or was she concerned it would stir up trouble in the western community I imagine she calls home?
I speculate wildly and assume blindly; I automatically stereotype this woman as an immigrant refugee, I hopefully stereotype her as a feminist, or I unfairly stereotype her as someone too defensive of her own culture to be able to hear or see discrimination against women.
And I wonder who exactly is paying for this bit of billboard book mongering. The same week I had caught a snippet of news about a Federal Police raid which aborted an apparently planned Muslim beheading in central Sydney. The Prime Minister said it wasn’t witch hunting. I didn’t believe him, it was a great distraction from national affairs, and I have spent too many years as an activist lawyer not to know that the dogs of government power, the police, especially when moving in raiding packs, are brutal; hatred, violence, fear and power are a terrible combination. The rule of law is a mesh bucket that does not hold water.
Could the horrors of hatred against women in Afghanistan be used by western culture, which prefers more subtle oppression, to fuel hatred of Muslims, via retail book shelves? Are my concerns being preyed upon for other purposes? The complexity gets deeper and murkier.
My speculation continues; maybe this woman waited a long time to find some peace and stability, some refuge in Australia where the racism and sexism, while potent are not systemically sanctioned. This type of book could create more hatred, fear and violence.
I will never know why she did what she did and so I am left with theories, stories, choices as to how I imagine her reasons.
What story would you choose?
Image: Aleksi Tappura
Kate Lawrence lives in a small bush town on the edge of Melbourne. As well as being an emerging writer of memoir and personal essay, she has a passion and purpose for personal storytelling. Kate regularly tells and teaches, and she is a Moth Story Slam winner. Her writing has been featured nationally on ABC Open and Open Drum, and she was the winner of the Castlemaine Wordmine Non-Fiction competition.