Freedom | Excerpt from Even My Voice Is Silence

image credit: Lisa Nessan

While I was in Palestine from 2004-2005, the subject of freedom was persistently on my mind. I’ve spent my life with an awareness of prison, of the possibility of being imprisoned. With a sort of consciousness that I must somehow be prepared to be imprisoned, and that I must be prepared, somehow, to be mentally free in spite of it. It had been the fate of many of my relatives and friends who were politically active in some way—people who dared to speak out or act out against the State of Israel.  That feeling has never fully been out of my daily consciousness.

I returned to the U.S. after a year in Palestine in 2005, determined to start a meditation practice. Mental preparation. Meditation practice seems a good thing to have if I’m to be trapped in a cell. In solitary confinement, even. If I could really meditate, then I could be free even in the dark, sitting on cold stone, listening to the sounds of tortured souls; others’ and my own.

So I read books by Thich Nhat Hanh. I spent three months in his monastery in Escondido, California. I said, let me learn this well…I want to know how these monks and nuns subject themselves to self-immolation in lotus position. I want to have the capacity to do it. Because, in the minds of the socially or ancestrally or politically oppressed—in our psyches is a knowing—an understanding that our freedom, which is already restricted, can be taken away from us in an instant. And so we must be prepared. If not with arms, then with a voice. If not with a voice then a pen. If not with a pen, then a clear mind.

My desire to learn how to meditate came out of the helplessness and despair I felt after spending a year living under occupation from 2004-2005. I was invited to teach singing lessons at the Edward Saïd National Conservatory of Music. Due to Israeli closures, students from surrounding areas were unable to travel to Jerusalem for their lessons, so the Conservatory opened two additional branches, in Ramallah and Bethlehem. I traveled between the three cities each week to teach singing lessons, using my green I.D. and my Israeli-issued permit. I also created an acting class for a small group of teenage girls in Jerusalem, in which I helped them write and perform autobiographical monologues that bear the insidious insignia of young women living under military occupation—stories of trauma, of struggle, of hope.

The class was made up of about ten girls; approximately half of whom were Christian and half Muslim. A few of them had one parent who was Christian and one who was Muslim. None of these young women was veiled, although several of the Muslim girls’ mothers and aunts and cousins were.

I asked the girls to read two monologues from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, one called “My Short Skirt,” and another called “Under the Burqa,” each of which describes the ways in which a woman’s clothing can serve as a symbol of the relative freedom of the feminine in modern society. I asked the girls to compare these two women—one a presumably Western woman who asserts her sense of power, choice, and defiance of others’ reactions to her body by wearing a short skirt; the other an Afghani woman who is not afforded the choice but to see life through oppressive suffocation within the blanketed shadows of a violent regime that torments her. I asked the girls which one of these women is freer.

Following a spirited and compelling exchange of views, they unanimously agreed that these two women are the same; they are equally oppressed. Neither one is truly free. They both experience some level of vulnerability and a threat to their safety, largely at the hands of the violence of men. They are consistently under the immediate or potential threat of rape or assault; violence that lingers in the collective experience of women everywhere.

I asked them to consider Muslim women in Palestine, or in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world, as well as the Western world, who have the choice to wear mini-skirts or to don the veil, but are increasingly choosing the veil. Where, then, do women in Palestine fall on the continuum of relative freedom? The young women weren’t sure.

A week later, I came to class wearing hijab and jilbab—a long blue coat. I told them I was making a choice to exercise my freedom by wearing hijab. I told them I didn’t want men to continue to objectify me, and this was the best way I knew how to secure my freedom. I told them I felt calm and introspective. Safe inside of my clothing, if not inside of my skin.

Curiously, the lively discussion was silenced. From the moment I entered the classroom, nobody seemed to know what to say. Some of the Muslim girls congratulated me, in a quiet, mumbled voice or with polite, exaggerated smiles; such is the custom when a woman chooses this path of piety.

Many of the girls were clearly devastated. “Miss, esh yani elhurriya?” one girl asked me: “What, then, is freedom?”

She later left the classroom sobbing. She locked herself in a room across the hall and wouldn’t come out. Had I been lying to them, they wanted to know? Had the image I had portrayed of myself, as an irreverent woman who believed in self-determination, both personally and politically, been a ruse? What did this choice mean?

When I finally convinced the young woman to unlock the door and speak to me, she shared with me the harrowing story of her cousin, who had been forced by her family to wear the veil:

Nobody asked her. 

They told her that she could find her freedom if she denied her flesh 

beneath a shroud of draping cloth. 

Behind silk and chiffon and polyester. 

Behind. Beneath. Her freedom.

 

They told her:

God said to the believing men that 

they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; 

The believing men disregarded that part. 

 

They told her:

God said to the believing women that 

they should draw their outer garments around them 

and not display their beauty in public. 

 

The believing men took that part and ran with it; 

they can’t seem to let that part go. 

 

They can’t seem to let her go. 

 

The believing men surround her in the street. 

They devour her with their gaze and they say, 

“Lick me. You want to lick me.” 

 

They sing to her, words she doesn’t understand. 

They surround her, reaching out to grab her. 

To touch her body, as if they had permission. 

As if she is offering; 

As if revealing her hair, her arms, her legs

Leaves her no other choice.

 

She shrinks away from her edges, 

a tiny version of herself, hiding inside of herself. 

Her body is broken segments, 

loose fragments of dried-up worm-skeleton, 

each limb crumbling away from its core. 

She balances awkwardly on disconnected legs, 

hobbling under distorted hip bones, 

a caricature of the woman inside of herself. 

 

Their eyes still trace her edges, 

searching for an entry point beyond the hardened skin. 

She hides herself more deeply within. 

 

God said the believing women 

should only reveal the shape of their bodies to their husbands. 

And their fathers. 

And their brothers. 

 

Her father sees her coming out of her bedroom one morning 

wearing only a nightshirt. 

He screams at her to cover her legs; 

her teenage brother is in the hallway. 

 

She covers her legs with a long blue cloak. 

She wraps a scarf around her hair and 

She fastens the edges under her chin with diaper pins. 

 

She is a face and hands, 

emerging from a thick blue coat, 

legs swinging beneath her undetected, 

like invisible pendulums moving forward and back, 

never side to side. 

Never in circles. 

Never to dance. 

Never to run. 

She only walks. 

Seemingly endlessly

on the hard concrete, 

which blazes with reflected sun,

She only walks. 

And he walks behind her. 

 

He is close behind her 

as she climbs stairs she does not think he will follow. 

She walks up, up, tripping over her long coat, 

the toe of her shoe catching in the hem, 

hands grabbing her, 

reaching into her gown, 

pulling her down, down, 

until the parts of her that still feel

are struck by cold tile 

and grittiness

from shoes once treaded there.

Bright light in oblong shapes

enters through windows; 

a final chance of fatal escape.

She would choose death,

but she is not offered a choice;

light is quickly covered by dark shapes

hands and mouth with

thick coated tongue,

shaggy hair like black silk threads,

torn, without screams but with laughter.

Staircase railings imprison her

And she hears this conscious thought: 

 

Now, he is going to enter me. 

He will find me underneath my blue robe. 

He will lift its edges and find me there, 

find the shape of my legs, 

see the curve of my hips. 

He will force his way inside of me. 

And I will never find my way outside of me again.

 

God told the believing women to draw their veils over their bosoms so that they would be known as Muslims and not be molested. 

 

She is a silent vessel, confined to the space of blue fabric. 

She is straight lines, moving forward through time. 

She is steady and confident, though she is shrinking inside. 

She is the same, like you, like everyone else who wears these garments. 

She is the same as every woman who does not.

She is undefined shapes in a hollow dark mask. 

 

She is somebody’s wife, 

somebody’s daughter, 

somebody’s sister. 

 

Nobody sees her. 

She is free from the gaze of the men in the streets. 

The believing men finally leave her alone. 

 

She is completely alone. 

 

She is released from the burden of her body, 

from the weight of their eyes upon her breasts, 

from the brush of their fingertips along her thigh. 

She is free from the nausea that arises when they look at her. 

 

Nobody asked her. 

 

They told her that she could find her freedom if she denied her flesh beneath a shroud of draping cloth. 

 

Behind silk and chiffon and polyester. 

Behind. Beneath. Her freedom.

 

The believing women are safe in the streets. 

They are only molested by their husbands. 

And their fathers. 

And their brothers. 

 

She is not a believing woman. She stopped being a believing woman a long time ago. 

 

News of my covering traveled all over Jerusalem and Ramallah and Bethlehem. Friends in the U.S. heard the news from Palestine and called to ask me if I had lost my mind. The parents of the girls told me many of them came home and cried for a week.

When I took the veil off a week later, the parents were impressed; the young women were irrevocably changed, having spent the entire week discussing freedom. In class, the girls shared how they perceived that some part of my aliveness had vanished—my movements were restricted, my face was less expressive; even my voice, they said, was muted. They simply could not reconcile the woman who routinely leapt excitedly around the classroom, encouraging them to push beyond their own perceptions of society’s restrictions on their bodies and their minds, with this subdued, less animate form of the woman they knew.

Although it was not my intention, some members of the Muslim community were offended by what they perceived as a mockery of Islam. My intention was not to make a mockery of my religion, but to question the implications of denying women the right to make their own choices about how they live in their bodies and relate to their worlds. I believe that each person’s relationship to God and religion is personal. I also believe that women should have the right to live in a world in which they are surrounded by reverence and a sense of security they can take for granted, instead of under the overt or insidious aggression and domination of disturbed and misguided men. Men who distort religious values to exert their power in society.

I had no idea the experiment would have such a profound effect. The girls came out of that experience determined to challenge misogyny and fight for women’s freedom—to do their part to effect change in the world. I have no doubt some of them will.

 

Read Even My Voice Is Silence

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Soha Al-Jurf is a Palestinian-American Muslim writer who was born in the West Bank city of Nablus and raised in Iowa City, Iowa. She works as a speech-language pathologist in San Francisco. Her writing focuses on issues of identity and “finding one’s own, authentic voice” by exploring themes of politics, spirituality, and personal story. Her writing has appeared in Turning Wheel, Critical Muslim, ElevenEleven, and al Majdal magazines, as well as online on CounterPunch and Transform. She is also the author of an autobiographical solo performance piece, Pressing Beyond In Between.

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