Suspicion and prejudice around Islamic clothing is common in Europe, with several countries even prohibiting the face veil and legislating [against] the headscarf. In the UK, then-prime minister David Cameron backed plans to ban the face veil and suggested that one of the main reasons young men were vulnerable to radicalisation was the “traditional submissiveness of Muslim women”.
That comment served as catalyst for writing It’s not about the Burqa, a book exploring Muslim women’s lives in Britain and fleshing out the diversity within. The writers discuss themes of cultural homelessness and identity and touch upon the headscarf, faith, love, feminism, the failings of their communities and of their countries.
The contributors are varied, from journalists to academics to lawyers and human rights activists. The editor, and one of the writers, Mariam Khan, discusses how she put the book together and why she believes it’s so relevant today.
How did you manage to get such a diversity of voices writing essays for the book?
What I was so scared of doing in this book was creating the Mariam-approved [curated] version of Muslim women. I was frustrated by the single-narrative for Muslim women, and I didn’t want to write a book about different topics by myself. I wanted to show there were lots of Muslim women, of different groups and backgrounds. They’re all complex conversations that really need to be had. Every essay is just the beginning of a conversation, and we should be talking about these things.
I didn’t specifically go into this thinking, I’m going to choose this and this person. I don’t believe in the liberal/conservative labels for Muslims. I think people just exist and we applied labels to their existence and opinions. It’s fine if we disagree with each other and I see it as a success if I have that nuance down on paper and other Muslim women are reading this and thinking well I agree with this part, and I don’t agree with that. Because that’s the reality when we have conversations.
I feel what happens in many communities is that people think that if they don’t talk about it, the issue stops existing. But if you don’t talk about Muslim women and divorce, they won’t stop existing; if you don’t talk about Muslim women who identify as queer, they won’t stop existing. Conversation, discussion and debate, that is how we progress.
Can you tell me about some of the essays in the book?
I remember being very upset when I read Saima Mir’s essay that first time: she writes about being perceived as a divorcee in her community and she talks about her struggle through those marriages. She describes how her culture was holding her down but how her religion was something that empowered her and emancipated her from these marriages when she wasn’t happy. I’ve seen so many who don’t understand how they have rights as a Muslim woman in society and Saima rightfully calls out the cultural stigma around divorce – something that Islamically, shouldn’t be there.
Another essay that affected me was Afshan D’souza-Lodhi’s , who writes about being a hijabi [headscarf-wearing] Muslim and bisexual. When she read her essay at the launch, we had a room full of crying people. She writes about how there was never a space for her in Islam because people say there’s no space in Islam for people who identify as queer. But there wasn’t space for her in queer spaces because obviously, they said ‘you can’t be Muslim and queer’.
I feel so angry at the world, at the community and everyone, because I think, how dare someone make someone else feel like they don’t belong in this world? How dare someone tell someone else you’re not a Muslim – because I don’t believe we should have the right to dictate whether someone else is a believer in Allah. That’s between them and God. Yes, you might not feel comfortable with it, but how dare you make someone feel like they don’t belong!
Bringing together 17 women to write very honest essays mustn’t have been easy, why did you decide to write this book?
I was frustrated by the lack of representation for Muslim women. I remember being annoyed when I was younger that there weren’t many spaces that Muslim women could come together as a community; often these spaces are occupied by men and are sort of sacrosanct for them.
My mum used to take us to this auntie’s house and we would listen to her talk about the Qu’ran. Although I didn’t understand a single word, as she was speaking in Urdu, at that moment I realised that although Islam had spaces for women, our communities didn’t necessarily have the same, or often men dominated these spaces.
When Cameron talked about submissiveness, and I saw the response, [from] so many different women, PhD students, doctors, war survivors and mothers… they didn’t look all the same and they weren’t doing the same thing and they were contributing to society in so many different ways. I knew that they existed, I knew Muslim women weren’t a copy of each other [and] there was a conscious awakening where I thought: “Hang on, yes we believe in the same faith, but our practice and our interpretations are different,” – and that diversity is never shown, it’s never allowed a platform. That is why I wanted to create this book. I wanted a communal space for women to agree and disagree.
Were you worried about any backlash because you were criticising your community and also the wider society?
This is the dichotomy of Muslim women. Let’s say two Muslims are talking [publicly] online, then there’s definitely going to be a third person, who has a right-wing agenda, who is going to jump into the conversation. If it’s about something slightly not suited to them, they’re going to take it and co-opt that conversation, showing their racism. Often we’re not allowed to have those conversations that might make a community look bad or might not be working, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it and that’s both within the community and outside of it.
I remember having this conversation with my mother, saying that I had pointed the finger at the community and at the wider western world. I didn’t care about being on anyone’s side; I just wanted to start a discussion. Other than a legal read, there was no debate in regards to re-phrasing something. What was beautiful to see was how some essays leaked into the other without any of those women interconnecting. There were things flowing in and out, connecting those essays, because their lived experience is the same as well as being different. That’s what a lot of people haven’t recognised – they haven’t allowed Muslim women to have this diversity of identity that a lot of other groups are allowed to have.
In your own chapter, you talk about a feminism where you didn’t fit in. You write, “This entire sisterhood of feminists, this global movement, wasn’t as committed to me as I was to it.” Can you expand on that?
Feminism in the west is dominated by ‘White feminism’, with a capital ‘W’. Feminism should be more intersectional, for all people who identify as women. I feel like we have a long way to go before that happens. In the essay I mention my frustration and write that feminism needed to die so that it can basically be regrown into this intersectional feminism, which is the feminism that I practice. We need to stop focusing on that White feminism, which is a privileged group of people who don’t recognise everybody else and who basically believe it’s their feminism or no feminism.
How did you go about writing this book?
Every story is about starting a conversation and bringing the reader on a journey with you. The publishing industry is incredibly non-diverse and I didn’t want a collection of essays that were edited solely by a white non-Muslim woman who wouldn’t understand the experiences and could potentially throw her biases and alienate those experiences through her lens. That is why I edited as well as contributing a chapter – I wanted those experiences to come authentically from the women who lived these experiences. We all understood the importance of the platform we were creating. There isn’t a book like this, and I’ve worked in the publishing industry.
Where did you find your writers?
Other than one person I knew, it was a lot of research and having honest conversations with people. The only thing I asked was, do you identify as a Muslim woman, if they said yes, then that was it, that was all I wanted. For the majority of the writers, the first time I met them face-to-face was at the launch of the book, even though I had been working with them for over a year. This wasn’t me trying to bring all my friends together. I really thought about who I wanted in this book and why I wanted them there. I wanted to represent as much as I could the intricacies, and the layers of intersectionality within our identity and the diversity of it. Of course, a book is a book and it’s only 17 Muslim women out of millions.
We are starting to see Muslim women in visible public roles, what should be the next step?
Personally, in any space I occupy, I feel it’s my duty as a woman to ensure that space is as intersectional as possible. You have to make sure the spaces you occupy are as intersectional as possible, don’t just look for people like you, even if you are a woman of colour. So I’m a hijabi woman, if I look around and I see around me, all women, all wearing headscarves, who are south asian and there aren’t any woman from other intersections in that space, I’m worried. I think, ‘where is everyone else? Why are they not here? Why am I in this space and they are not?’ We need to constantly hold ourselves accountable for the spaces we occupy, and why they are not being occupied by other people. If we all did that, I think we would get to the feminism that I want in the world.
You can read an extract from Saima’s story here.