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On Jan. 28, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Safia Fazlul reading from her novel The Harem. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.
You’re only free in the West to be as immoral as the men who exploit you. You’re free to give into lust and greed – things that do nothing to better this world. You’re free to lose your passion and your compassion – the only things that make humans human.…My dear little sister, you won’t realize the falsehood of this liberation until you’re shackled by your own self-contempt.
from The Harem
by Safia Fazlul
“Oppression is a very subjective word.” As a teenager in a Bangladeshi Canadian household in Scarborough, Safia Fazlul felt the pressures of being a Muslim girl and longed to escape her claustrophobic life. She turned to writing, her imagination providing a limitless and therapeutic outlet, as well as the first draft to her novel The Harem. Yet, she did not know how much her perspective on oppression, her novel, and her life would were about to change. On Jan. 28, Fazlul appeared at York University’s Canadian Writers in Person series to discuss her experience and read from her debut novel.
Born in Bangladesh, Fazlul lived in Norway for approximately 10 years before immigrating to Canada with her parents. “I was a very confused kid, trying to figure out right from wrong,” she said.
Fazlul noticed that issues of morality are magnified for girls in Muslim culture. Boys could get into trouble and just receive a slap on the wrist, whereas a girl could have her reputation ruined for life. This was amplified in a tight-knit community where neighbours noticed everything and would talk behind a person’s back, she said. These double standards led Fazlul to be critical of her culture, angry that by the uncontrollable fact of gender, she was blocked off from the world. She wanted to engage with the larger community of Toronto, to be “part of the bigger picture.”
Fazlul started by writing a lot of poetry and short stories in high school and at the age of 16 decided to write The Harem. The first draft was about a young oppressed Muslim girl named Farina who cuts all ties with her family, converts to Buddhism, and runs away to Mexico. Though it was reasonable to have critical questions about her culture, in this earlier version, Fazlul now realizes that she was doing it blindly and did not actually see the truer meaning of freedom. This changed when she answered an ad for a job working the phones at an escort agency.
At 18, Fazlul felt that “nothing cooler than high-end escorts” because their freewheeling lifestyle was completely opposite from the world of the Bengali housewife, a role she meant to escape. She expected the escorts to be very strong and confident about their identity and sexuality but was sad to discover that was not the reality. “There was a lot of self-hatred, drug abuse, unnecessary plastic surgery, a lot of violence, rape, and suicide,” she said.
After watching many girls change for the worse, Fazlul realized that there are more barriers for women in our “free” society than she imagined, even if they aren’t South Asian or Muslim. She left the agency and decided to do something about it by rewriting The Harem to include a commentary on how North America oppresses women through capitalism and the pervasive sex industry.
The result is a more balanced novel and its central character Farina comes to understand the complexities of her family and culture from a more enlightened perspective. She develops a relationship with Ali, a positive young man who follows a more traditional Muslim path. This character serves as a counterpoint to her friend Sabrina, a young woman who sees only the dark side of both cultures and is both damaged and liberated by her role as escort agency madam. Between these extremes, Farina makes her own choices about the world she navigates, and releases definitions of identity imposed by the roles of Muslim, South Asian, Woman and Canadian. Rather, she recognizes the value of genuine human connection and following one’s own path to freedom. As Fazlul’s audience applauded, it was clear that many young people agree with her.
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. See the Sept. 15, 2013 issue of YFile for a full schedule of upcoming writers.