“We’ve already been killed, all of us. It happened so long ago, we’ve forgotten it.” ~ Yasmina Khadra, Swallows of Kabul
I waited for the furor of the Charlie Hebdo massacre to die down before I wrote this post. Like everyone else, I was horrified and saddened by the killings. Unlike so many others, I did not leap up in outrage and solidarity, raise my pen or pencil, and declare Je suis Charlie! When I saw the world leaders, arms linked, defending freedom of speech, I was angry, but not at the murderers. You see, every day, freedom—basic freedom—is denied and the world lets it happen. Those of us who question the instrument of this oppression are branded as disrespectful or biased—even if we speak out in defense of our own. Even if “our own” constitutes half of the human race.
But let me stop here and tell you about the woman I saw in Las Vegas.
Not even a month has passed since I saw her. I was walking down the Las Vegas strip. The weather was chilly, even for January, but the sun was shining and I was enjoying the feel of light on my face. Soon I would be back in Nelson, where sunlight would be a scarce luxury until spring. The usual teeming masses of people wandered the street, clutching their plastic replicas of the Eiffel Tower and taking photos of the Bellagio Fountains. I’ve seen it all too many times to care. But then, in the middle of the mob, a shadow appeared.
She walked down the Strip, covered from head to toe in a grey burqa. I say “she” because of what I know about burqas and their wearers, not because I saw even an inch of flesh to hint at the wearer’s gender. Completely hidden, eyes behind a tiny mesh of fabric, this woman waded through the crowd and I was mesmerized.
What was she thinking? Here in this city of sin, here where flesh is so readily displayed, here where the sun shines almost every day, what did it feel like to be here under that shroud? Was she thankful for the protection and anonymity of the garment or did she look longingly at me in my bright pink coat, walking freely and joyfully with the crisp winter air on my skin? Who was the woman under that burqa?
Because I’ve traveled, I’ve seen women in burqas and hijabs and chadors, and all manner of religious and cultural coverings, and have never spared more than a glance. But this woman haunted me. Perhaps it was the location and the incongruity of such extreme modesty in the center of hedonism?
No. The woman seared herself onto my consciousness because I am not supposed to talk about her. It would be rude and insensitive, at the very least, for me to comment on a piece of clothing designed to hide females from the world, to render them shapeless and inhuman. To speak aloud my rage at the systems that deny women the simplest freedom–the feel of the wind and sun on a crisp January day—would be, in a word, blasphemous.
Legally, in my country, I can talk about religion and the harm and injustice it inflicts on my gender. Socially, such talk is unacceptable. All religions enjoy a kind of protection not afforded any other institutions in the world. This is not a law. This is a social contract. A contract of silence.
I cannot speak out against the oppression of a simple piece of cloth without risking condemnation. It doesn’t matter that I am a woman, a free woman, a woman whose foremothers fought for her freedom against the social and religious constraints of their time; religion is untouchable. Oh, I can join in the voices that rise up against “extremism” but I cannot (especially as an atheist), condemn the good, “moderate” beliefs and believers who continue to systematically subjugate, devalue, and exclude females from positions of authority. I must keep my nose out of other people’s business.
Why? Why can we not look as critically at religion as we would at economics, or the military, or government? Why are the organizations that repress women off limits?
I do not care about the names—Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.—all religions should be examined because they all have condoned or contributed to the unfair treatment of my gender. And where we see that women are denied rights and freedoms, or caused harm by religious texts, teachings or practices, then we must use that freedom of speech we’re apparently so fond of and shout “This is not right!”
Murder, torture, slavery, oppression, these things are happening to my sisters right now. Not in one quick and senseless act that draws the attention of sympathetic world leaders, and not in one isolated location, but always and all over the world. The outrage you felt over the Charlie Hebdo massacre? That is the outrage that burns inside me like a miniature sun, every second of every day.
I am not Charlie.
I am the child bride. I am the dowry killing victim. I am the girl who cannot go to school. I am the rape victim who was stoned to death for her “crime”. I am the woman who is not allowed to drive. I am the widow bound and tossed on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. I am the girl with the mutilated genitals.
I am the woman in the burqa.