by Huma Munshi
As a Muslim woman, a space to share my story and talk about my feminism is scarce and (therefore) precious. I was reminded how important these spaces are to me as I attended the launch of the Body Narratives exhibition, A Different Mirror. A discussion with some of the organisers inspired this column.
The media focuses on Muslim women for all the wrong reasons. The so-called anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent, launched under New Labour and continued by the Tory-led coalition government, has recently encouraged Muslim women to speak out about Muslim men who may be considering going to Syria to engage in the armed struggle. This focus adds to the narrative of Muslim people as terrorists and jihadists, both one-dimensional and stigmatising. It is in this landscape that the notion of Muslim feminism is much maligned.
The disparity between what my feminism is and the media perception of Muslim women is vast. My feminism is empowering and enabling; it provides a structural analysis of the impact of patriarchy; it is at the intersection of being a Muslim cisgender woman of colour with complex mental health needs. However, given the dominant media portrayal of what Muslim women supposedly are, and what are preconceptions must therefore be, it is no wonder some people see being Muslim and a feminist a coupling too unlikely to be believable.
Muslim women are fetishised and “othered” with non-Muslim people obsessing over the hijab, the veil, our oppression, we must be downtrodden victims, lacking all agency. What I find particularly galling about this narrative is that it steadfastly ignores what it means to actually be a British Muslim woman. I do not dispute that this can be complicated and challenging because I have experienced the dichotomy of being an independent British Muslim woman but it is the subtleties that are overlooked. Indeed, the pain often resides in surviving these.
When do we hear about the achievements of British Muslim women: our work, our aspirations, our desires? The spaces that allow this are few and far between and are, by and large, away from the mainstream. Whenever the media needs a spokesperson from the Muslim community to talk about all the issues the media obsesses over, the so-called community leaders coming out of the wood work, such as Mohammed Ansar, could not be further removed from my experiences as a Muslim woman. In mainstream press Muslim women writers are few and far between. When they are featured it is nearly always to discuss a “Muslim issue”. We couldn’t possibly have more varied interests and aspirations, could we?
It is in this political and social landscape that the launch of the Body Narrative’s exhibition, A Different Mirror, provides a valuable space for solidarity and reflection. The Body Narratives is founded by the writer Hana Riaz and documents the ways in which we, as women of colour,
“navigate and understand our own bodies and the embodied experiences.”
It challenges media, societies and cultural images of “what we should look like and how we should be”. The exhibition provides artists the space to “explore the conflicts between how we see ourselves versus how we are seen.”
Included in the exhibition is a selection of images by the artist Sanaa Hamid, they form part of her project: My Body is Not Your Battleground. These images came about through “discussions about femininity and existence” for young women living in Pakistan. She later photographed various young Muslim women and writes on her site that this was “in the hope to shatter the image of the oppressed young Pakistani woman we often see in the West.”
Of course if this was about British Muslim women it would reflect the diversity of racial background, sexual orientation, disabilities/able-bodied etc. But the premise of the project resonated. The women were varied in their observance of the faith and the daily activities they engaged in.
We need more feminist spaces, ones that reflect the diversity of who we are. Muslims are not a homogenous entity and nor are feminists. I felt energised after my discussion with the women at the Body Narratives launch and I long for more spaces where this is possible. Indeed, if government is keen to build the capacity of Muslim women, this is where they should consider investing because it is in safe spaces that we build solidarity and strength.
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. Her weekly 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