Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women

By Athena Rogers
BeyondVeiledCliche1

BeyondVeiledCliches_BookCoverBeyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women
Amal Awad
Penguin Books Australia

In the media, in politics, and certainly in their day-to-day lives, Arab women’s lifestyles continue to come under scrutiny from outsiders – from men, from non-Arab women, from well-meaning liberal feminists. Particularly when it comes to Muslim women, mainstream society appears to be overwhelmed by the temptation to remind these women how they should behave and, above all, how they should dress.

In her new book, Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women, Amal Awad brings the much-needed voices of Arab women to the forefront. After meeting with Arab women in the Middle East and Australia, the author invites us to listen in on her discussions with prominent women in their communities, as well as old friends. The topics range from the inevitable discussion of the hijab, identity politics, and the line between religion and culture to Arab feminism and the experiences of queer Arab women. While many of these vignettes centre on well-worn debates within mainstream media, they also vividly point out that Arab women have been grappling with these issues in their own way and with far greater nuance than Western critics tend to give them credit.

One of the first individuals that Awad introduces us to is Myra Saad, a Christian Lebanese art therapist who runs a not-for-profit studio in Beirut to help women deal with the trauma of civil war. Through this encounter, we hear about the influence of gender roles on overcoming trauma in post-war Lebanon and the effect that typical Arab stoicism may have in labelling therapy as taboo.

At times we want to know more about the individuals introduced to us by Awad, and of the personal journeys that led these women to where they are today. But these small glimpses into the lives of accomplished and fascinating women serve as jumping-off points for the author to reflect on her own experiences as an Arab woman growing up in a Muslim household in Sydney.

The pressure many Arab women experience to marry a good Arab or Muslim man is brought to life through Awad’s insightful and comical re-telling of what she calls the “door knock appeals” of her youth, where her parents would introduce her to eligible young men through awkward afternoon teas with full family attendance. She richly illustrates the conflicting pressure to act as a modest, Muslim woman while remaining alluring to the male visitor.

Throughout the book, familiar social issues and debates are presented in refreshing new ways by these introspective Arab women. We hear of a young woman who is finding ways to re-imagine veganism through the teachings of Islam, the “mansplaining that occurs around the hijab” and how, for queer people of colour, coming out is often more an act of inviting people in.

This invitation for the wider community to listen to Arab women reflect upon their own lives, head their own social movements and enact their own decisions is the provocation at the heart of Beyond Veiled Clichés. As Awad puts it: “It’s time critics show Arab women enough respect; that they can be trusted with their own lives; that they are the game-changers and activists of transformation we need.”


Editorial Note: This article originally stated that Amal Awad conducted interviews in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, however interviews were conducted more extensively around Australia. The article has been amended to reflect this and we wish to thank the author for contacting Right Now to correct this.

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