Muslim women can be ambitious, lazy, cruel, hilarious and more – and Seema Yasmin’s new book shows it all.
Back in 2017, Seema Yasmin began to notice an irritating trend in the media. More and more often, she felt she was seeing news reports about Muslim women doing things: running marathons, riding bikes, standing for election. These stories were ostensibly positive and celebratory, but something about their tone got under Yasmin’s skin.
“It was as if they were almost shocked that a Muslim woman could do these things,” says the journalist and director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, who was born and raised in the UK but now lives in northern California. “Like: oh my gosh, there’s a Muslim woman and she’s competing in the Olympics!”
Internally, Yasmin always had the same response: “What do you think we do? Why couldn’t we do that?”
“You could see people really telling on themselves about how narrow their expectations were of Muslim women,” she says. “Even as they were trying to celebrate us, what they were really doing was showing how confined and constrained their definitions of Muslim women were.”
Frustrated, Yasmin fired off a tweet: “It is possible to be a Muslim woman and… do things.” The tweet turned into a poem, which featured fictional Muslim women doing “stunning things” like taking naps, digging lettuce out from between their teeth, doing open heart surgery and more.
Now, Yasmin has published a book, Muslim Women Are Everything, an anthology of Muslim women’s stories from across time and around the world. It features women from US congresswoman Ilhan Omar to Iranian racing driver Laleh Seddigh, Egyptian-born NASA scientist Tahani Amer to Bake Off star Nadiya Hussain, accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Seattle-based artist Fahmida Azim.
At first glance, some might wonder if the book inadvertently perpetuates the ‘Muslim women doing things’ genre of content that Yasmin so dislikes, instead of acting as a rejoinder to it. But two things ensure this isn’t so. First, it’s actually written by a Muslim woman – as opposed to a non-Muslim journalist who seems surprised by the achievements of women who share Yasmin’s faith.
Second, Yasmin was careful to include the stories of Muslim women whose stories are a little ambiguous: she resists the urge to flatten them out into one-dimensional positive female role models. “Muslim women can be warmongers too!” says Yasmin. “I’m not saying we’re perfect. I’m saying that we get to be everything – and sometimes those are controversial things.”
Yasmin was also adamant that the book would represent women who were disabled, part of the LGTBQ+ community, or who didn’t come from South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds – aka “all the women people don’t think about when they think of Muslim women”.
It was particularly important that she highlight the achievements of black Muslim women. One in five Muslims in the US alone is black, yet “the exclusion and erasure of black Muslims has been happening for a long time,” Yasmin says. With that in mind, black Muslim women feature prominently in the book, from R&B singer SZA to the Hausa queen Amina and the Senegalese feminist author Mariama Bâ.
Yasmin believes it is vital that people don’t “artificially disconnect” the Black Lives Matter movement from the movement against Islamophobia: “There are so many overlapping injustices.” The mood in the US at the moment is tense, she adds. “People are on edge, people are really sad and angry.” In pre-pandemic times, the protests would be international news, but factor in coronavirus and the situation feels both overwhelming and galvanising.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, maybe this is a moment where something will actually shift,’” she says. “I think a lot of people are new to this rage and new to this concept of police brutality. But black people in America are saying: ‘This has been happening, this isn’t new.’”
The difference now is that white people are attending Black Lives Matter marches in large numbers “or watching their TV screens and seeing 75-year-old white men who look like their grandad being beaten up by the police,” she continues. “So it’s a really significant moment.”
Ultimately, Yasmin hopes that people who read the book will “see the breadth of who Muslim women are”.
“We can be lazy, we can be problematic, we can be ambitious, we can be successful, we can be failures. Some of us wear hijab, while some of us will fight for the right to never wear hijab,” she says. “Sometimes we’re all of those things at one time. We are piles of contradictions because we are human – and we get to be all of it.”
Muslim Women Are Everything by Seema Yasmin (£16.99, HarperCollins) is out now
Illustrations: Fahmida Azim