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Bonza Sheila, Ruby Hamad
21 / 08 / 2014
Ruby Hamad is Sydney based writer who has been on Sheilas’ “wishlist” for some time. We’re delighted to feature her as our August ‘Bonza Sheila’ and look forward to publishing more of her views in future editions. Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper asks her about her writing, her feminism and her faith. Many thanks, Ruby!
Sarah Capper (SC): You grew up in Sydney in the 80s as one of seven children of Arab Muslim parents. I’ve read that while you enjoyed a tomboy inspired youth, playing with your younger brother, it was once you hit puberty that you noticed the different treatment you received – to that of your brother. Can you recall if there was an actual event that sparked your ‘feminist light-bulb’ moment, or was it more of a gradual realisation?
Ruby Hamad (RH): Growing up I never realised I was a feminist, in that I had bought into the myth that western women were “equal.” So that was a case of just wanting to fit in with western culture and be free. It wasn’t until much later, in my early 30s in fact, when I was part of a blogging community and witnessed the lack of respect so many of the male bloggers had towards me and some other women in the community, that I realised feminism was still very much necessary in a western context.
SC: As one of seven kids, on what you describe as the ‘tail-end’ – or younger end of the family, I imagine you’d have to develop a pretty strong voice. When did you realise you wanted to be a writer – and filmmaker, eventually studying at VCA – but when did your creative voice manifest, and how was your family an influence?
RH: I wanted to be a writer when I was seven! But creative pursuits weren’t really encouraged. I don’t blame my parents too much, they just weren’t aware of how to nurture mine, or my siblings creative instincts. I wrote a lot as a child, and read a lot of fiction, but as I got older I felt a lot of pressure to excel in my exams so that started to fall away. I rekindled my love for creative pursuits in my mid-20s when I decided to enrol in some filmmaking courses which eventually led me to VCA, which in turn led me to start writing again.
SC: I know you were born into a Muslim family, but I’ve read that as you discovered your feminism and freedom that you moved away from being a practising Muslim. Yet along with a lot of your writing on feminism, there’s also been a focus on addressing Islamophobia. How would you describe your relationship with your own faith?
RH: It’s complicated! I’m not practicing but still identify as Muslim because it’s such a large part of my identity. I am also very aware that racism is very much the driver of much criticism of Islam. I’m not saying it’s beyond criticism, but so much of this is driven by orientalism (for example the insistence that Mohammed was an unthinking barbarian which completely contradicts the available history). I find it very interesting that western critics of Islam often ignore the voices of peaceful, or for lack of a better word, “moderate” Muslims, and agree with the fundamentalists that they have the “true” interpretation of the religion.
SC: I read in the Australian newspaper last week a letter which said that it was “telling” that no one with an “Arabic name” had been published speaking out against the atrocities of ISIS members. Indeed the coverage and opinions published in some mainstream newspapers has been less than fair in terms of publishing moderate responses in opposition to these extremists. Extremism engulfs all religions, but coming from a moderate Muslim family background, are you worried what damage ISIS is doing to the reputation of Islam here at home?
RH: I think most Muslims are concerned about the damage being done by ISIS. Not just to the reputation of Islam, but the humanitarian catastrophe. But the fact that people want Muslims to condemn every single thing another person does, simply because they happen to share the same faith, says more about western distrust of Muslims that it does about Muslims themselves. In any case, it’s simply not true that Muslims don’t condemn ISIS enough. But those voices are ignored because people don’t want to let go of their fear.
That said, my family is Alawite Muslim. Believe me, any Alawite who crosses the path of groups like ISIS would not be spared, so it’s doubly frustrating that people seem to think everyone with “Arabic sounding names” would share ISIS beliefs. Again, that’s Orientalism! Treating all Arabs as some sort of monolith. Alawites and Sunnis are both Muslim sects but they have very different interpretations of the Quran. It’s like expecting protestants to speak out against the IRA!
SC: Childhood was also a catalyst for you becoming a vegetarian, and later, vegan. I read your Scavenger piece about how you became Vegan, in which you also wrote about your childhood and mention the separation from growing up as a practising Muslim and the freedom of becoming a feminist. Your article was under the headline ‘intersecting oppression’ – and here lies the key word I want to ask you about – “intersection” – as it seems to come into play in your life. Are you able to describe this intersection of faith and ‘isms?
RH: That essay was actually about discovering the intersection of animal exploitation and women’s oppression rather than the intersection of faith and feminism, although I am sure there are some feminists with more faith than me who would love to explore that! I do think the roots of animal and women’ oppression are one and the same: it’s about the desire to control other bodies, to treat them as somehow being created to serve you, and feeling that you are absolutely entitled to do so because of your own (imagined) superiority. I don’t buy it, obviously.
SC:I recently read you’re writing a book about pigs. Obviously growing up in a Muslim household, pigs would have had a pretty bad reputation. Why have you decided to embark on a book about it?
RH: This book grew out of an essay on my own complicated feelings towards pigs. Growing up, I was taught to revile them, and it’s something I was never quite able to grow out of, even after becoming a vegetarian. When I was in New York last year, I met with Lantern Books, the small publishing house behind “Defiant Daughters”, the anthology in which my essay on intersecting oppressions first appeared, and they mentioned they were working on a new series of books of human-animal relations, with each book focusing on a particular animal. So it grew out of that.
SC: How different is it disciplining your writing as a novelist – compared to working on articles?
RH: Well, it’s not a novel, it is non-fiction, but oh it is so much harder! Just organising my thoughts into appropriate chapters, and the discipline required to work on the same project day after day is so much more challenging than the quick turnaround of the op-ed world. Sometimes it all feels beyond my capacity! I honestly don’t know how people put out book after book. I think books are just such an indispensable part of our existence now that we have lost sight of what a little miracle each one is. Every single one is the product of an incredible amount of work and dedication.
SC: Name someone who inspires you and why?
RH: I have to say at this point in time, I am finding Russell Brand very inspiring. My masters thesis was on media criticism and how language is cleverly used to advance certain agenda, and I am amazed at his ability to deconstruct language and how he can make it so entertaining.
SC: If you could have a dinner party with any woman from history, who would they be?
RH: Oh, that’s a hard question. I’d say Hatshepsut, the only Egyptian queen to assume the title “Pharoah”, Elizabeth 1, Mary Wollstonecraft, Aisha (the prophet Mohammed’s wife who was a fierce feminist), Jane Austen, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou. Not to mention all the incredible women lost to time because our male-centred world ignored their achievements… Okay, this is becoming a very big dinner party!
SC: What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
RH: I would say, “it’s less about how well you do in your exams at uni and more about who you meet and what extra-curricular activities you undertake. Join the drama society! Run in student elections! Get your head out of the books, once in a while!”
SC: Ruby Hamad, thanks for getting your head out of writing your first book for a little while – and we look forward to hearing from you again soon.
*Photo with hound by Patricia Jenkins
As her Twitter handle describes, Ruby Hamad is a “Vegan. Feminist. Writer.“
Hailing from Sydney, Ruby’s writing often focuses on feminism and race. She writes regularly for Fairfax’s Daily Life website (her story archive is here), for ABC’s The Drum website (archive here), and is currently working on her first book.
Follow her on Twitter on @rubyhamad.
(photo by Onni Elliott)