Walking down to Winifred Falls with my church mates, 14-year-old me is dressed in black, low-waisted bikini bottoms and a white crop under my clothes. I’m fucking nervous. The people I’m with are some of my nearest and dearest, sure, but they’re also the type to un-ironically claim (to females almost exclusively) that “modest is hottest” and not see an issue with it.
But it’s a public swimming space; it’s not like they’ve never seen someone in a bikini before. Surely one of the other girls is dressed along the same lines as me?
As I peel off my top and shorts, I realise the closest thing to my swimsuit is another girl’s high-waisted set, which leaves a lot more to the imagination than mine. The stares: a mix of appreciation, restrained disgust and disappointment – I already have a bit of a reputation.
Later that night, I tell my dad’s cousins that I intend to move to London someday, or maybe even Thailand to work in conservation – basically just anywhere that’s not Sydney. I could’ve guessed their immediate responses: that I won’t be able to hack it, that I’m too young to understand how difficult it would be without family, that I just haven’t met the right person yet who makes me want to stay and get married.
It’s five years later and I’m now 19 years old. Though I’m not interested in zoology anymore, I’m still just as hellbent to get out.
Like a lot of Gen Z girls, I’ve grown up in the throes of fourth-wave feminism. My Lebanese heritage has steered me down the path of intersectionality and – along with my Christianity – down the path of guilt and anger. The way that I dress and my approach to marriage, motherhood and sexuality have all been pushed and shoved and thrown and rolled and slapped and shot at by my culture and religion. So now I just have a fucking mesh-ball of feelings and dreams living inside of me under a blanket or two of shame.
Eric Wenocur, opinion-writer for the Washington Post, says he understands contemporary feminism and fashion – the trend to wear less conservative clothing, namely – as a demonstration of female empowerment that “shows how little [we] understand the dynamics between men and women, and the use of sex to sell products and ideas”. It’s a bit of a stitch up if I’m being honest: I see his line of thinking, but what would his approach be to the Regency and Victorian fashion eras where we women were just as sexualised, and with a tad less autonomy?
While I sit writing this, I’m in a crop top and shorts. Not because I’m playing into the sexual whims of the men in the room with me, but because I’m most comfortable in this. I think Wenocur misses the point of contemporary feminism where the male gaze is concerned: we’re liberated not because we reduce our exposure to it, but because we recognise the accountability of man.
This is the notion I’ve grown up with. With minor limits put in place by my protective father, I’ve basically had the freedom to dress however I choose. But this is where things begin to complicate themselves.
When speaking to my Tata (grandmother) and Joodoo (grandfather), as well as my cousins, aunts and uncles on my dad’s side, the need for an intersectional approach to feminism that accounts for the colonial roots of contemporary theorising is so clear. Their traditional concepts of female fashion are ultimately engrained in a culture that shouldn’t be dictated by western ideals and concerns, no matter how patriarchal or oppressive they may appear. When I attend the Maronite Church or go to lunch at my aunt’s place, I ensure to dress ‘modestly’ out of respect for my cultural history, not in fear of accidentally arousing one of my male family members as a lot of my friends assume.
At which point, however, do I see my usual state of (un)dress as disrespectful? I’m not sure, if I’m being completely honest.
I do know, however, the point at which I won’t – the moment I’m told that “modest is hottest” by one of my mates from church. Emerging from verses that claim women are to be modest and refrain from dressing to tempt men, the statement has culturally evolved to mean that women are at fault for men’s inability to keep their thoughts ‘pure’. Even if you want to ignore Jesus’ encouragement to rip out one’s eyes if you’re that tempted, it’s not my responsibility to keep someone else’s sexual urges in check. As a Christian feminist, I can agree with the bible’s teachings – it’s purity culture that has turned to victim blaming, not the text itself.
What the bible and church seem to agree on, however, is my role as a wife and mother. As in, I should be both of those things. I guess they don’t say that I’m a failure if I’m not, but it’s heavily encouraged to be the “portrait of a godly heroine” who is committed to lovingly serving the household.
Similarly, my Lebanese family has been joking about marriage since I was nine, and giving me low-key very concerned pep talks.
“What if you’re too caught up and miss an amazing person? I mean, we could always take you to the village for the weekend if Aussies aren’t your scene!” they say with an uncomfortable chuckle at the end – because they don’t really mean it. Imagine the comical expressions of horror they make when I tell them, most of whom were married before 22 and parents by 24, that I’m not fussed about having children. I take guiltless pleasure in their reaction.
But does this mean that I’m not a real Christian? That I’m a family disappointment because I don’t share the same passion for a small child literally tearing out of my dot-sized hole?
It is in this aspect of my life where I struggle most with my mixed identity: I am white and have been raised on western-feminist values. According to intersectional feminist theory, though, they shouldn’t dictate the way I experience my cultural heritage, which happens to be deeply engrained in patriarchal structures. In the same vein, feminist theory hasn’t told me that having a kid or husband is bad – just that being a mother and a wife aren’t my only roles in society. It’s a tad bit fucking confusing.
Then again, this could all just be a secular attack on the scriptures that I’ve ignored as the ‘religious roundtable’ (an evangelical arm of the New Right), articulated in a 1981 letter to the National Council of Churches. Included in a long list of secular attacks would have to be the reformation of contemporary attitudes towards sex and sexuality. I don’t think I even need to discuss the contradictions between the feminist, Christian or Lebanese community concerning my sex life – but that doesn’t mean I find it any less shitty.
As I grew up and started to question my sexual orientation and preference, I became increasingly aware of the ways in which my religious and cultural identities would prefer to stamp them out and keep walking. Changing centuries of culture and values seemed impossible, but thanks to social media, I was introduced to commentaries and histories I had no idea even existed.
For example, heaps of posts popped up on my feed of new-age priests and young adults discussing the misuse of the word ‘homosexual’ in the bible. In 1946, the intended Greek words ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitai’ (which loosely translate to ‘pervert’) were replaced with homosexual – a mistranslation that ignited an anti-gay movement within conservative Christian America.
The story was covered in a documentary designed to encourage viewers to “discover biblical truth and honour God’s word”. The truth in question? Texts are translated to fit the context and, for conservative America at the time, being homosexual was the worst thing you could possibly be.
But numerous articles outline the ways in which we have read the traditional bible without its context: back then, they didn’t understand a loving and consensual homosexual relationship in the same way that we do today. I can’t say for certain why the church chooses to hold onto these views – maybe it’s an institutional reflection of the sunk cost fallacy. That’s the approach most feminists take, anyways.
Since my Tata never taught me Arabic when I was a kid, it’s taken me way too long to realise that my father tongue didn’t have a word for homosexual, and rather used words like ‘cheth’ (pervert). This, along with numerous other cultural norms, is probably what culminated in my Tata dropping her pans in the sink when she overheard a family member ask my dad what his reaction would be to someone coming out as gay. “Don’t say such things!”
Why shouldn’t I? Surely I shouldn’t be using historical conceptions of love and relationships to determine my own when they so clearly dismiss the entirety of my potential identity? At least, that’s what I think when I use a feminist lens to analyse this particular issue. Until I bring in its intersectional cousin. Then it becomes a complete shit-fest of aforementioned feelings and shame.
The point of feminism, I’ve found, is not to unite us all in a common experience. It is instead to unite us as individuals with unique interpretations rooted in common foundations: our right to equality. Whether this overrides or cooperates with my cultural and religious identities is yet to be seen. Why I feel guilty in the first place for not being able to please the many facets that forcibly make up my identity (the fucking patriarchy) is a whole different thing, but that’s for another time.