Opinion

“What I want people to know about being a Muslim woman”

I will no longer fight for a seat at the table when I can create my own position, says author Mariam Khan.

The most tiring thing about being a Muslim woman is that before we can even go out into the world to establish our own identities, we have to deconstruct and unpick the identities that have been created for us by those who don’t necessarily care for us.

The way Muslim women are portrayed in the mainstream media, popular culture and politics means that, for the majority, the image of what a Muslim woman is and can be is a very restricted one.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story: “the single story creates stereotypes, the problem with the stereotypes is not that they are untrue but they make one story become the only story.”

I have long since tired of the single narrative and story about Muslim women. Conversations around Muslim women have happened in isolated spaces where Muslim female identity has been homogenised, and these same women are never asked to contribute.

“I have long since tired of the single narrative and story about Muslim women”

In writing It’s Not About The Burqa I didn’t want to pen a book about being a Muslim woman all by myself, because I am only one version of what a Muslim woman is. There is no one way to be a Muslim woman. We are allowed individual identities despite being part of a collective sisterhood. But even if we disagree with one another or have different perspectives, or come from different cultures, that doesn’t mean we can’t stand up together.

I wanted to create a platform where conversations around identity, mental health, family, sexuality, love and divorce, racism, LGBTQI+ and much more could be forged. When I was growing up I was desperate for someone to speak these conversations into existence, but they never did.

It’s easy to put the same label on a whole group of individuals and decide that they are identical in every way, just because they share one aspect of their identity. But I believe that creating a single narrative like this around a group of people and not allowing them to live beyond it is dangerous.

Those of us who haven’t been the authors of our own narratives have become disenfranchised. To an extent, we have internalised a powerlessness that makes us feel like we don’t get to have a say, and that we have no choice but to live within the narrative, identity and story that has been created for us. Often this powerlessness manifests itself in impostor syndrome, a lacking of self-confidence or self-worth. 

muslim women

“What people need to know about Muslim women is that we won’t fit into their neat little boxes anymore”

At points in my life I have actually thought to myself, “oh, I can’t do that because I’m a Muslim woman”. For example, I used to believe that in order to be a Muslim woman you had to wear a hijab. How could someone be Muslim and not wear a hijab? It wasn’t possible. And then I met Muslim women again and again who practiced their faith and prayed regularly, and it made me think about how and why the hijab, or any form of clothing a Muslim woman chooses to wear, has become the dominant factor in dictating her religiosity. Who started this thinking and who did it benefit?

What people need to know about Muslim women is that we won’t fit into their neat little boxes anymore. It is unfair that it has, by default, become our role to educate those who continue to enforce their ill-informed understanding of Muslim women upon us, and others in the world. 

Through educating myself and learning about the position that my faith gives to Muslim women, I have become empowered. I have realised that although there are restrictions placed upon Muslim women in today’s society, I don’t necessarily have to live within them.

I will no longer fight for a seat at the table when I can create my own position. I will consciously work to deconstruct the restrictions upon my Muslim identity that I have internalised. I will speak up and demand that all those who have until now have not been listening, do so.

It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race is edited by Mariam Khan and published by Picador, out now.

Illustration by Mel Four, Pan Macmillan Art Department

Other images: Getty

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