Beyond the veil

2 February 2017

Sydney based journalist, author and public speaker, Amal Awad, travelled to the Middle East in 2016 to conduct interviews with Arab women for a series of articles and a book, ‘Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Lives of Arab Women’, to be published in 2017.

Amal has Palestinian heritage and frequently writes and speaks about issues of society, religion and popular culture. She is also the author of two books, ‘Courting Samira – a tale of Muslim courtship and coming of age in the modern era’ (2010), and ‘This Is How You Get Better’ (2015).

The concept for the project emerged from Amal’s interest in creating a radio series involving Arab women in Australia and the Middle East. The aim was to shed light on the common misconceptions about Arab women, from the perspective of Arab women themselves.

‘Arab women are so scrutinised, and there are so many misconceptions and fixations when it comes to how they live and especially how they dress,’ says Amal.

‘I knew that I wanted to help other women tell their stories; that was my primary motivation.’

By talking with women from Australia and the Middle East, Amal sought to learn where the crossovers in common and uncommon experiences and perspectives emerged, and also discover how women of Arab heritage relate to each other despite living or having been born in different countries.

‘My concern was that in all the autobiographical journeys I’d read by non-Arab women – and there are several – Arab women’s lives are constantly judged and weighed against broad Western ideals that aren’t necessarily even being attained in Western countries.

‘For all of the criticisms of Arab society and its lack of equality between the sexes, there is little reflection on the problems women face globally.’

After travelling to the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Qatar, Amal says that one of the most surprising aspects to emerge from her research was how significant an issue dress was for women in each country she visited.

‘Women in the Middle East have strong opinions on the veil, with some women expressing strong views against it, or concerns that the rise in covering was a sign of increased conservatism,’ explains Amal.

Amal was also struck by how willing and open women were to share the details of their lives.

‘There was little or no resistance to talking about the challenges of being a woman of Arab heritage, no urge to wash over issues, nor to see them as strictly cultural,’ says Amal.

‘They were also proud of being Arab, but this didn’t mean they were blind to areas of life requiring improvement, or how certain attitudes and beliefs have affected them personally.’

Awal smiling during an interview.
Amal Awad’s book, ‘Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Lives of Arab Women’, gives a voice to the perspectives and experiences of Arab women across several countries, and will be published in August 2017 by Penguin Random House. Credit: Amal Awad.

One of the major themes to emerge from Amal’s research is the importance of understanding the broader history and conditions that people in the Middle East are living with, where trauma from war and ongoing conflict remains an everyday experience that impacts identity, personal development and livelihood. For women living in these regions, the challenges are often amplified.

In regards to Arab women living in Australia, the complexities inherent in navigating two cultures is another major talking point.

‘I was noticing that women in Australia suffered a lot of discrimination and identity confusion; Arab women in the Middle East had their own challenges but being Arab wasn’t it,’ explains Amal.

‘There is a lot of cultural pride and attachment in both parts of the world, but in Australia you’re pulled in different directions and the impacts can be far-reaching and life-changing.’

Religion, motherhood, activism and feminism are some of the other topics that will be explored in Amal’s writing. She stresses the project hasn't been about making people feel better about each other, but rather to tell ‘truths’, voiced directly from the people who are most affected by the issues being talked about. This involves Arab women from different countries, some of them living with different cultural influences, talking about their fears and hopes, the challenges they face – and in the process – revealing their issues to be universal.

‘When we read stories, we seek connection, this is what my book is about,’ explains Amal.

‘It’s about ownership of our lives and our stories, an honest insight that means everything to us, this is meaningful and can create a new way forward where no one is dictating to the other what is the right way to live or believe, there is room for everybody in this world.’

Amal’s project was supported by the Council for Australian-Arab Relations’ (CAAR), under its Speakers Flagship Program. The next CAAR grants round will open in February 2017, for projects deepening connections between Australia and the Arab World.

‘Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Lives of Arab Women’ will be published on 1 August 2017. Amal’s articles are being published by Al Jazeera and SBS Life.

Last Updated: 2 February 2017