I write to speak my truth

by Huma Munshi

Who am I to demand, to desire, to dream?
Who am I to think, to create, to break?
Who am I to lie naked, to arch my back?
Who am I to breathe, to live?
Who am I?
Who am I?[1]

Shonda Rhimes, creator of TV shows Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy was recently quoted as saying

“Different voices make for different visions. Different visions make for something original. Original is what the public is starving for.”

She couldn’t be more right.

A homogenous white commentariat does no one any favours.  It provides an outsiders’ account on the experiences and issues BAME communities face; it talks about us and therefore takes away our agency to inform discussions. This is not to suggest that the white commentariat remain silent on these matters, rather opportunities and spaces should be given for diverse voices to be heard. Ask us about our experiences as women of colour on issues such as tackling violence against women and girls, mental health, the niqab ban, gender segregation – all these affect us. Do not speak about us, without us.

This recent article by Laurie Penny has caused a furore. The furore started almost immediately and some wondered what all the fuss was about, after all it was just about hair wasn’t it? Having considered it for 3 days many seem to have concluded that by writing only about her experience as a white, middle class, cisgender woman she has (unwittingly) contributed to what has always been tacitly understood in the mainstraeam media ‘her (white middleclass) narrative is the “norm” narrative.’ Yes it’s unintentional. Yes she meant nobody any harm. Yes she should speak her truth. However the furore is no surprise. Her article and others like it just add fuel to the increasingly vocal rebellion against the erasure of the experiences of people of colour, trans people and other marginalised groups.

As a young woman growing up in a strict Muslim household, it was strictly forbidden for me to cut my hair. When I left, I chopped off my long long plait in an act of defiance, It was exhilarating. Fuck the restrictions and rules, but how would the New Statesman or its readers know that?

With a word limit of 1000 or similar it’s going to be hard to fit in all experiences. To avoid questions such as “What of the experience of other people of colour? Black women and their relationship to their hair?  Other people of faith? Visible trans women?” It’s time editors admitted there is another narrative and they’re doing a disservice to their readers by not giving that narrative a platform too.

‘All voices can speak, but only few are heard. Amplification is tied to prestige, meaning that where you publish – and what privileges you already have – gives your words disproportionate influence.’ Sarah Kendzior

For women of colour, who are often marginalised, writing provides us with the space to tell our stories and speak our truth. Without such a space, other people tell our stories; often skewed; often with racist and imperialist connotations, both “othering” us and silencing us.

For survivors of abuse, writing takes on an even greater importance. It is a way to understand trauma and with the safety provided by time and distance, reflect on deeply suppressed emotions. Without undergoing this process, supressed feelings are often recycled which can lead to destructive cycles of behaviour.

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It is for these reasons that the anthology of short stories and poetry, produced by Muslim Women’s Network (MWN), will be an invaluable resource to highlight the experiences of Muslim women. The above verse is from a poem I submitted to the anthology giving voice to my own experiences of surviving and recovering fromhonour” based violence.

The publication will cover a breadth of topics as varied as social inclusion and exclusion, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, polygamy, sexual abuse and mental health. You can donate to their crowd funding  initiative to enable MWN to publish the anthology and give a space for Muslim women to share their stories.

The anthology and similar spaces, such as Media Diversified, provide opportunities and avenues for women (and people) of colour to have our voices heard. At a time when BAME people are under-represented in the media industry by a magnitude of over 300%, safe spaces are invaluable to get our voices heard. Indeed it is through engagement with other activists and survivors that I was able to challenge my own feelings of shame and share my story.

It is also critical that we as women, we as Muslims and we as people of colour challenge oppressive practices within our own communities. It is the silence that provides tacit legitimacy for such things to remain unchallenged. As Unheard Voices (a report on the prevalence of sexual abuse within Asian and Muslim communities) documents, notions of honour and shame are a barrier for victims to access support. The evidence in the report also highlighted that there were cases where parents sought to hide incidences of abuse to protect their so-called honour and standing within the community.

All these issues make it abundantly clear that we need diverse voices in the media.

As many doors remain closed within the mainstream media, I wholeheartedly embrace the opportunities provided by the blogosphere and other publications to speak my truth.

To contribute to Muslim Women’s Network Fund for the anthology on the experiences of Muslim women, please donate here .


[1] Who Am I to Say No, Huma Munshi for the Muslim Women’s Network

Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change.
She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. This column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs.
 Read more of her articles here

Media Diversified is a 100% reader-funded, non-profit organisaton. Every donation is of great help and goes directly towards sustaining the organisation

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8 thoughts on “Hair, Platforms and Politics

  1. Great article – I think this sums it up for me:

    “It’s time editors admitted there is another narrative and they’re doing a disservice to their readers by not giving that narrative a platform too”

    and this:

    “It is the silence that provides tacit legitimacy for such things to remain unchallenged”

    You are spot on. We are being misled by an unaccountable mainstream media industry, and we do have a responsibility to determine our own narrative. Any platform that allows us to do so – like Media Diversified, Muslim Women’s Network and countless others – should be supported by all of us. To do otherwise is to do ourselves a disservice.

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  2. What was the problem with Laurie Penny piece? Was it that she wrote about her own experiences or that she should have written about the experiences of black women too?

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    1. The problem is, as I understand it, that Penny writes about an experience as if it’s shared by all women, when it is not, generally, shared by the global majority of women and particularly by black women in the UK where she is writing. Even if she acknowledged that ‘things are different for black women’, that would repeat the exclusion of black women from the category women, implying that they are some lesser & alien subgroup. This implication has a history (i know, newsflash!) Which makes it particularly painful.

      Her offhand mention of ‘afro’ hair just made things worse, as this positions black women as struggling towards the same unattainable beauty standard, with a supposed disadvantage of less compliant hair, effectively reinscribing the racist othering of black hair. This kind of simplification erases black hair experiences, narratives and politics by attempting to swallow them (with kind intentions but very negative impact) in a single strand of feminist thinking.

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      1. Laurie Penny writes from her perspective. She appears to own and be aware of where that perspective comes from. The article as I read it was her experience I did not read any where that she spoke for all women. I don’t think thats her style either.

        Also your line that Penny’s piece writing on an experience that is only applicable to white women is wrong on this subject. The matter of long hair being a standard of beauty only applicable to white women in the UK is simply not true. The conversations on weave are endless so I will not even enter that topic. I’ve been through enough ACS events on that one.

        There is an assumption that the white middle class experience is the norm. That is true but thats a critique of a structure rather than Penny’s piece per se unless the argument is that she should not write because her writing maintains the status quo?

        Furthermore her line on the afro seemed to be a concession of how notions of beauty are also racialised and therefore discriminate against black women which I think most people reading this forum would agree with.

        There was nothing wrong with Penny’s piece at all. The only issue is the mainstream discourse is obviously very limited. The positive outcome is Em wrote a piece new to many (but not not new at all) on black women’s hair in the NS. I don’t think Penny should have been a football for that to happen when the piece was her usual self driven writing.

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      2. I actually said that Laurie’s Penny own experience is not the universa one, even if some cases do share the same standards on beauty.

        I also specifically say that “BAME people are under-represented in the media industry by a magnitude of over 300%” so clearly this is institutional and not specific to Laurie who is entitled to her views and sharing her expressions which i also noted. I am not sure whether you actually read my piece?!

        the “positive outcome” as you put it was a result on much discontent on Twitter and elsewhere from women of colour but agree that it did allow for another experience to be heard

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    2. It is the assumption that the white, middle-class, cis experience is the “norm”, this isn’t Laurie’s fault but it demonstrates the lack of opportunities in mainstream spaces for women of colour to share their experiences so we continue with the dominant white narrative. The under representation of BAME people is overwhelming as i mention above.

      Following discussions on twitter, Helen Lewis commissioned this piece which i thought was v good and may help answer your question further: http://www.newstatesman.com/media/2014/01/politics-black-hair

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