I was very saddened today when I received a review that interpreted my latest book, On the Edge of Death, as containing Islamophobic themes.
Everyone is, of course, entitled to their opinion, but it was never my intention that this be conveyed as a result of the themes of oppression in the book. I consider myself to be an open-minded person, and I strongly stand against racism and religious oppression and any kind of oppression I encounter. I am the person who argues with her parents about why we should take more refugees, and the one who says if you want Christian schools, then you have to allow Muslim schools, and if you want Catholic Churches, then you have to accept mosques. This is what freedom of religion means. I live in a region of Sydney that is strongly multi-cultural. There are people of all races and religions in the houses neighbouring me. I believe this is what life should look like. I believe everyone should be treated equally.
So, what happens in the book that came across as Islamophobic?
There is a race of people, called the Jerreki, who are black, which I suppose could be interpreted as Arabic. However, I describe them as “blue-black”, and I always had in mind very dark African black. Certainly I’ve never seen an Arab as black as what I had in mind, but perhaps that’s just been my experience and they do exist. I don’t know. In any case, at no point is anyone judged or discriminated for their skin colour.
Parts of the Jerreki culture was modelled on Arabic culture, in particular the architecture, the weaponry and the names. Other parts, largely cultural aspects relating to the treatment of women, were modelled on, inspired by, or extrapolated further from the Archaic Era in Ancient Athens (see here, here, here, and here). This included the fact that women could not carry weapons, could not testify in court, were largely to remain within the family home (and sometimes even within dedicated women’s quarters within the family home), could not be seen in public without a chaperone, and had a man who was responsible for all their legal decisions (a tutor or guardian, usually a family member).
It is important here to note that these cultural aspects were not part of the modern Jerreki culture. They were ancient legal requirements (in the same way that the Ancient Greek laws on which they were modelled are ancient) and which the country had moved past. They appear in the book because an outside party forces them to take up those laws again. It is not my intention to vilify any particular activity (such as the wearing of a veil) but to make the point that forcing anyone to act against their culture and traditions, and in breach of their legal rights, is wrong.
The reviewer’s interpretation was that I had cast the Jerreki in a negative fashion as equivalent to Islamics, which saddens me greatly, because the point I was trying to make was, in fact, that they are the victims. They are getting along just fine when a white woman basically invades their country, seizes control of their king, forces them to give up their religion, forces them to change their laws, strips women and gays of their legal rights under Jerreki law, and tries to make everyone worship another god. The Jerreki are basically forced to convert at swordpoint. They are, in this story, the victims of a white oppressor.
Yes the oppression by this invader involves acts against gays and women. There are very real, current and continuing acts against these groups that are not confined to Islam. You need only look at what is going on in Chechnya, the recent surge in sentiment against women and gays in the US, and the ongoing issues relating to homophobia, gay marriage, inequality, and domestic violence in all Western countries, to realise this is not a mere stereotype. It is happening right now, and it is not an Islamic issue. It is a human issue.
More on the Use of Veils
One of the key acts of oppression of women in the books is that they are to remove themselves from public view. Of course, for some women this is not practically possible. For those women, a poor second alternative is to wear a floor-length veil to create the illusion they are not present, and they must be escorted by a chaperone.
This is not intended to be a commentary on veils, hijabs or burqas. The withdrawal from public view was a custom of the Archaic Era of Ancient Greece, and I extended it further to an almost complete ban from being in public (even if chaperoned). From there, my line of thought literally went “but if that isn’t possible, what would you do?”. I settled on a floor-length veil. Floor-length, because the intention isn’t to cover the hair, or hide the face, or for modesty, but to literally create the illusion that the woman is not present. If this draws any parallels to any Islamic theology, I am unaware of it. It was purely an invention of my own imagination because my protagonist is female and if she was confined to her quarters, I had no story.
My personal views on veils is as simple as if you want to wear one, you should be allowed to. As soon as someone attempts to force you to wear one, or to not wear one, against your will, that is wrong. It doesn’t matter if it is on a personal level (a husband forcing a wife) or a national level (governments passing laws to make the wearing of items of clothing mandatory or illegal).
The wearing of veils in On the Edge of Death is depicted in a negative fashion purely because the women being compelled do not wish to wear it (but they were always permitted to do so if they wanted). It is the act of forcing that is the negative occurrence, not the thing that is being forced. The Jerreki people themselves do not embrace the changes in their lives, and in fact it ends up leading to riots and a coup—because the Jerreki people are not evil, but the victims of a white oppressor.
The white oppressor herself does not have a view on veils, or women, or gays. Rather, her god is the god of decay. She embraces anything that relates to decay. In the case of cultures, this is anything that represents a reversal from the current situation. In this instance, the reversal was back to a similar state of play as in the Archaic Era of Ancient Greece, on which the Jerreki history was modelled.
What the villain represents is the forcible oppression of any culture or religion by another culture or religion—it applies equally to the notion of the West forcing Muslim women to give up the hijab as it does to Muslim countries forcing all women to wear it (or other clothing), regardless of their own personal views.
The Jerreki, rather than being evil villains themselves, are the empowered victims of that oppression, who fight back to retain their national identity.
The story isn’t about whether veils are good or bad—it’s about having the right to make those choices for yourself.