Mariam Khan’s It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race is an anthology of seventeen British Muslim women speaking frankly about their lives, from the hijab and wavering faith, to love and divorce, feminism, queer identity, sex, and living in a hostile environment. Asim Qureshi reviews the book that showcases voices too often silenced in mainstream discourse
A few months ago, I chewed through Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels in less than two weeks. I had heard a great deal about her writing and thought I would give the first book a go. What emerged, was a complete engrossing in a world that, across an entire generation, was told from the perspective of two women and their friendship. This was a world that was largely alien to me, with mine being occupied by a huge differential of men to women in my life (father, four brothers, three sons, mother, wife, no sisters or daughters). I went around afterwards talking to many of my family and friends about the books and how they had opened up an entire world that had hitherto been obscure to me.
So it was, that I was really pleased to receive an advanced copy of Mariam Khan’s edited collection of essays It’s Not About the Burqa by Muslim women on their experiences living in the UK. A perfect opportunity to learn from Muslim women directly about the micro and macro lives they live. The central premise is based on Khan’s refusal to accept David Cameron’s assertion that Muslim women are traditionally submissive and so the book is an attempt to provide some complexity to the reductive narratives that take place within public discourse.
For me there were two simultaneous ways of reading the contributions. The first, and in my mind the most valuable to me, was reading it purely to understand the multiplicity of experiences of Muslim women. Some of it was highly relatable, for example finding myself laughing out loud at Coco Khan’s descriptions of ‘Aunty Bushra’ – after all, don’t we all have an Aunty Bushra in our lives somewhere?
Many of these women have been on extremely difficult journeys, and it was at times hard to read some of their experiences. Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s workplace experiences and Saima Mir’s with two different sets of in-laws provided important vignettes into the typologies of experience that exist, and how Muslim women respond to those experiences. Some of the ideas that are presented are theologically difficult, but I was interested in understanding how they came to be where they are in terms of their relationship to their faith, rather than just seeing the end product in a vacuum of their contexts.
I felt a great deal of empathy for Salma Haidrani’s essay Eight Notifications, which captures so well the ongoing trauma of twitter notifications. Haidrani was writing about Muslims, in much the same way journalists such as Hussein Kesvani do, but her positionality as a woman attracted trolls, keen on holding her to account for her writing about subjects that are taboo for women. For anyone who has been received almost unending abuse of twitter, they will heavily relate to how the difficulties associated with being on such a platform never go away. As she writes:
“There’s an unopened message on my Twitter and my tummy takes a tumble, a familiar paranoia emblematic of that 2016 experience.” [p.145]
That message in particular ends up being a positive one for her, but it reminded me of all the times I’ve been in a situation like that myself. Except in my case I often don’t have to respond to trolls, as the activist communities I have a great deal of support in, mobilise themselves to defend me. It’s hard to imagine what it might be like not to have that support network surrounding you. For Muslim women – such spaces can be extremely lonely and alienating.
The second way I was reading the book, was to help understand the ideas that were being presented. There are some exceptional contributions that must be noted, in particular by Nafisa Bakkar, Afia Ahmed, Jamilla Hekmoun and Malia Bouattia – whose brilliance shines through their experiences and ideas. I felt that in their own right these pieces could have been expanded on a great deal to make a much larger and significant contribution.
I have been following the work and articles of Amaliah.com for a long while now, and value the contributions that it makes, not just for Muslim women. The co-founder of Amaliah, Nafisa Bakkar, thinks through what representation means in a much wider context of living in a hyper-capitalist society – a piece that was interrogative beyond her specific experiences. I think perhaps Afia Ahmed’s piece though was something that really made me pause and reflect. There is an honesty to it that really sets out how this dialectic between being represented, and representing yourself on your own terms are constantly pushing back against one another. Sentiments that I have heard echoed by my wife on many occasions:
“But as ‘modernity’ envelopes us, we find ourselves struggling to say proudly, ‘I wear hijab for me and my Lord, not for you, not for him, not for her, not for them, but for me and my Lord alone.’ We find ourselves trying to categorize our decision by placing it in a framework that negates the idea of Islam entirely – a framework that believes religion to be contingent, merely a set of historical practices and rituals, that believes in a complete separation of religion governing our affairs; the idea we stick to because our religion dictates our way of life. The hijab being reduced to a simple head covering – a fashion statement before it is an act of observance – has diluted its meaning and left some Muslim women battling with their nafs and spiritual belonging. Granted, many wear the hijab for different reasons, and for some, the hijab becoming fashionable has made it easier to wear. And we also know that some people begin their journey with hijab through a fashion lens; yet it is not fashion that underpins the wearing of the hijab. With so many differing realities, consequentially an identity crisis is quick to catch up, and we find that we now have two unattainable standards we need to live up to; the Western beauty industry and the spiritual level we wish to reach.” [p.81]
It is precisely these deeper insights, that I found to be so important. Muslims can say as much as they like that the shari’a is x, but that doesn’t make the world simply go away. Reading these contributions reminded me again that so much of understanding where people are, is about listening to how they see their place in their world, and the place in relation to their faith. Insights that we are importantly given a window to throughout the book.
With all of the above said, and the importance of publishing any collection of experiences like this, I was left frustrated by the brevity of each piece. All of the essays stopped before they really began. I would have personally benefitted a great deal more from longer essays, in the region of 8-10,000 words, that could really have the space to set out their stall. This might have meant reducing the number of contributors, but there was always a sense of just feeling like you would have liked to have learnt more on the range of issues being presented.
Mariam Khan’s own essay on what feminism means in the context of being a Muslim woman could have been the entire book. In a context of the scholarship that was left behind by the recently departed Saba Mahmood, I would have liked for her to have been really able to expand on her central thesis, which to me seems to make such an important distinction to White Feminism and the problems associated with it. Even the final reference in the end to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectional feminism that Khan wants to think about more deeply, would have been great to engage with in terms of how she understood it within the contours of Islam – something she doesn’t have the time to get around to specifically. I get that perhaps that was not the purpose of this book in particular, but I do feel it is something worth expanding on.
Few of the pieces themselves deconstructed Muslim presence within modernity, as a product of settler colonial violence through the Enlightenment. Individuals are forced to accept that certain standards of behaviour are the norm within our communities, but for those challenging those norms, they don’t consider how their response is also socially constructed. Mona Eltahawy’s call to the power of profanity felt like a race to the bottom – it seemed constructed from a world that has set a faux-baseline of behaviour that frames the boundaries of what real ‘radical’ responses look like. Eltahawy writes “I say f*** because I believe that crimes of racism, bigotry and misogyny – enabled and protected by patriarchy – are more profane than swear words”, but I personally wonder to what extent even the construction of this response, is predicated on a narrowly defined liberal ‘radicalism’, one that takes the issues of the real world at the expense of all else.
As Muslims, we live within modernity, and for those of us in the UK in this particular neoliberal bubble, there comes with it an expectation of how we should seek to be seen and heard. In that sense, I found Amena Khan’s contribution on representation read like fortune-cookie philosophy, it was largely a superficial take on the subject. This was particularly disappointing as she was presented with the perfect opportunity to address her experience with L’Oreal and her subsequent apology – a significant moment in the discourse on representation. The fact that Nafisa Bakkar writes on the issue in the chapter immediately after, indicates that there should have been time to tackle it within the time-frame of the essay writing.
As a final thought on the contributions within this collection, the absence of Allah and His Prophet throughout was something I found interesting to note. I was left wondering to what extent Islam itself is reduced to a culture through so many of the pieces, rather than a devotion that is actively chosen. It would have been fascinating to learn more about how, within the often very violent and abusive worlds these women inhabit, they think of their own relationship to faith as a matter of spirituality, rather than an identity they are seeking to find.