Indonesia in Focus
Indonesians in Focus: Qaisra Shahraz
Meeting Qaisra Shahraz is like greeting an old teacher, someone who has lived through much and is fired by a greater purpose in life. Shahraz holds herself gracefully and communicates with a tender voice, evoking her role as an educator and lecturer. Not surprisingly, her various interests include promoting the value of quality education, teaching and writing. Shahraz is in the country to talk about her latest book, Perempuan Terluka (Typhoon), the sequel to Perempuan Suci (The Holy Woman). Her mission is simple, to use her books to introduce the Muslim world to the Western world.
“One of my aims in writing The Holy Woman was to introduce the Muslim world. I was writing it when Salman Rushdie came out with The Satanic Verses. I was very angry, I was very upset, and I thought the West can never understand it; they think it is only a book, (but) you have to be Muslim to understand the pain.”
“I am a writer and I love literature… so what I wanted to do with my book was open the Muslim world out and show the positive side. Through my heroine they learn about the Muslim world. That every day there is millions of us like this.”
Her aspiration to become a writer developed in her early teens but Shahraz says she writes mainly to entertain and explore women’s issues.
“I always felt strongly about women’s lives, because I’m always comparing my life to other women’s lives, and I think I’m so lucky because I live in the West, I have an education, I have a career and opportunity and I want other women to have the same. I am not a Western feminist; (I am) a feminist within a Muslim framework. I must be a feminist because I feel strongly about women’s lives and women’s issues.”
She is quite vocal about the fascination and arguments over the wearing of the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, and introduces a character within her book that pleads to the readers to not look upon Muslims as “freaks” but just women who like to dress modestly.
“What I am telling people in the West is to get out of their little box, don’t assess us through your box, and because that box is the Western box and that box won’t fit everybody. Some people are 100 percent covered, some are 90 percent, some are 80 percent but somehow or another covering is important.
“In Indonesia most people cover (themselves) with a scarf; in Pakistan you wear these dubatas; in Egypt, they cover their hair but not (their) legs and you go to Saudi Arabia and they cover their entire face. We should dress according to our own modesties. It is cultural modesty, fashion modesty. So every society has its own culture of dressing.”
Using her role as a writer, Shahraz is on a mission to raise awareness about other cultures and build bridges. “We desperately need (to build bridges) because life can be difficult for us Muslims in the West. People say that as a writer, people listen to you so use your influence well. Luckily I can talk, I am confident, I am proud of my faith. I feel I am using that to raise awareness and above all bring the world together.”
Her journey to Bali last year for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival helped open her eyes to the vastness of the world and made her see the arrogance of the West.
“They’re full of themselves; the West thinks the whole world is about them. There are people living across the other side of the world, who also matter, who also have another faith and belief. We’ve got to learn about them just as they learn about you because we live on one planet and these days the borders are very close. I think there’s a lot of arrogance, in America and Europe, they think everything they view is right. They need to get beyond that way of thinking of arrogance,” she said.
Shahraz describes herself as a British Muslim with Pakistani origins and is acutely aware of her identity. She is at ease with the different influences in her life and finds them all extremely positive.
But despite being comfortable with her identity, there are also moments when she feels displaced.
“I feel displaced when I go to southern England, it’s all white and sometimes they’ve never seen a brown face or a Muslim. The other moment, when I am going to Pakistan, I am a stranger, superficially I am there but really I am a stranger. I am not a product of that society. Mentally I don’t fit in, because it’s the way people think and behave. There’s a class society, there are big houses, cars, servants, in England we treat everybody the same. I don’t care about cars; I don’t have servants so it’s a big change.”
Shahraz was eight years old when her family migrated to England. She strived to do well at school. Her philosophy and emphasis on quality education remains as strong today.
Her father was a university graduate and encouraged his children to excel academically.
“I was a bright girl, I wanted to work very hard, I wanted to please my father. I would go on my stairs and say I want to come top, I feel if you are determined and aim high you get there,” she says.
Shahraz’s motivation to help other women rise above their adversities comes from a real sense of self-awareness and acknowledgement of the privileges she had growing up in the West. Shahraz recounted the time she was with a tour group driving up a mountain in Pakistan and her struggle with reality when she saw a woman living in a house on a hill.
“I hated myself. I am the pampered privileged women from the West on a holiday, sitting in a car, there’s a woman out there, who probably doesn’t even have water, has no hospital to take her baby, let alone an education, that is her life and what a hard life it is.
“We are lucky by where we are. We are unlucky by where we are. That woman was unlucky that was her little world. And that made her. I became a writer because I had all of this,” she says.
“A woman who can not write her name, when she writes her name it’s like a degree to her. Because it made a difference to her life. One woman’s degree is equal to that woman writing her name for her first time. It’s about achievement, personal achievement and I think all people should have that opportunity.”
The mother of three grown sons shows no signs of slowing down as she speaks excitedly about her latest project to document the way Muslim women from around the world live.
“I feel as a Muslim woman, because of migration you go through a big process. And I am sure your lives are different to your parents’ lives, so it’s interesting to document it.”
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