Long Reads

“Women don’t need permission to speak up. I’m proof of that”

Our voices are powerful. Let’s use them, says Mariam Khan

Two weeks ago, after much deliberation, I decided to start a petition. With the support of Women’s March London, I took to change.org to call upon Parliament to launch an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in major political parties.

I was scared that nobody would sign it. I was scared that nobody would support something I felt incredibly passionate about. Most of all, I was scared that nobody would care.

But I was wrong. To date, the petition has been signed over 50,000 times – at least 49,999 more times than I was anticipating.

I believe that using your voice is important. Many women underestimate the potential for change, and the impact we can have if we just speak up. I am not ignorant to the barriers that exist physically and institutionally for women, and even more so for women of colour. Many times in my life I have been told that my voice isn’t important, that I am shouting into a void and nobody is listening.

But, even if nobody hears me, at least I am doing something. And if nobody is listening, why are so many people trying so hard to make sure they speak over me and that I, as a Muslim woman, don’t speak up? 

Using your voice is important

Over the last few years, I have used my social media platforms to support those that the mainstream media largely ignores. I have stood in solidarity with those who are unheard. I have spoken up with opinions that aren’t visible anywhere else. Nobody was talking about the things I thought were important, in the way that I wished they were.

I’ve talked about being a Muslim woman, the lack of diversity in publishing, mental health and much more. I have come to realise that I can use my platform to create change, or to at least create awareness of the issues I see in society, that others might not see or be affected by.

It has been difficult to change myself from the girl who wanted to fade into school walls to the woman who can confidently speak up both online and offline. Although I do have my wobbles. Somewhere in this struggle, I realised I was waiting for permission to stand in the spaces where people like me didn’t exist or speak up. 

For the longest time, I watched conversations happen without realising I didn’t need anyone to invite me to the table before I could speak up, even if that was the impression they gave.

As women, we are all waiting for this permission-giving person or moment to arrive in our lives. So the importance of our individual opinions can be reaffirmed to us before we speak up. If we all recognised that we don’t need this “permission”, then maybe we’d stop thinking twice before sharing our views. 

If you still crave that permission, then I am giving it to you now in this article. Take it. 

“I watched conversations happen without realising I didn’t need anyone to invite me to the table before I could speak up”

I still struggle at times. For the last few years, I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by women who believe in owning the work they do. Friends call me out when I am self-deprecating and, despite my efforts not to acknowledge my achievements and always wanting to do more, I have learned that it’s fine to say: yes, I did well. Yes, that was something special.

Myira Khan, BACP Accredited Counsellor and Founder of the Muslim Counsellor and Psychotherapist Network (MCAPN), backs this up. “It takes confidence and resilience, as well as not feeling isolated, alone or singled out, for a woman to speak up,” she tells Stylist

“Especially a Muslim woman, when voices from the ‘powerful’ elite majority are further dominating, reinforcing and reflecting the power imbalances and social injustices that are prevalent and which underlie the group dynamics within society.”

I have made a conscious effort to support Muslim women, and to know of their achievements. This is what has built my confidence and resilience: by knowing that Muslim women are already what society thinks we can’t be. There is a power in denying those who believe they know you better than they actually do.

In educating myself this way, I have created a new narrative of who Muslim women are for myself, and rejected the restrictions that have dominated accounts of Muslim females so far. I find the “traditional” narrative around Muslim women frustrating because I rarely identify with what I see. Muslim women are scholars, sportswomen, rule breakers, scientists and more, and it has taken a long time for society to show any of this.

Even now, unless the Muslim narrative is linked to capitalism or oppression of some sort, we don’t see a varied narrative surrounding Muslim women. But by actively controlling what I read and take in from the online sphere, I have widened my own world view.

I know there are women in today’s society that are changing the world: Malala Yousazai, Yassmin-Abdel Magied, Linda Sarsour, to name just a few. I have seen the impact of these women in society. I don’t for one second believe that they didn’t feel scared at any point, but even then, they never wavered. They still don’t.

Like them, I want to speak my truths openly and offer education where I can, while learning and expanding my own worldview. None of this can be achieved if I stay silent. 

Mariam Khan is the editor of It’s Not About The Burqa, an anthology of essays by Muslim women forthcoming in 2019 from Picador.

Images: Unsplash