It’s Not About the Burqa is a collection of 18 essays from both British and international women that brings to the fore Muslim women’s voices and allows them to speak for themselves on what it really means to be a Muslim woman in the West today. The essays range widely and expose for a myth the idea of traditionally submissive Muslim women and, vitally, call time on the pervasive oppression, stereotyping, misogyny and Islamophobia in contemporary discourse and attitudes.
Below, Mariam introduces the collection and tells us why she felt compelled to create it.
When Muslim women speak out we are told we are playing the victim and if we don’t we are told we are oppressed. We are told we can’t have certain opinions, be empowered or know feminism because of our faith. See, it’s okay to be Muslim in the West, but you have to be a Muslim in a Western manner that is deemed acceptable by everyone who isn’t Muslim. Being a Muslim is difficult enough but being a Muslim woman in today’s society feels like being on public trial. There is an identity allowed for Muslim women in society but as a Muslim woman I’ve never identified with it.
In 2015, ex-Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in which he was reported to have said “Muslim women are traditionally submissive”. There was huge uproar from Muslim women after this statement was made, I specifically remember the Twitter backlash where women held up plaques stating why they were not traditionally submissive, these Muslim women were everything from “war survivor” to “PhD student”, “Mother”, “Doctor” and so much more. I felt angry and I felt like our identity as Muslim women was a space that had been dominated by those who didn’t want to authentically allow Muslim women to represent themselves. We, Muslim women didn’t have a space that was our own, that was driven by us. And even if we did or do those spaces are often curated in a way to show a glossy and acceptable face of who society will accept us to be. All I had ever heard was things about Muslim women. Things about who we were and who we were supposed to be and how we were supposed to act. I won’t give David Cameron all the credit for this as I’m well aware that there are many others involved in having shaped with narrative, but what he said stayed with me.
This book is not going to represent every single Muslim woman who exists in this entire world because we are not a monolith and I can’t make that book. These 17 essays are a fraction of the stories Muslim women have to share. The essays in this book are unfinished, a start, a talking point for many conversations that should have started long ago.
When was the last time you heard a Muslim woman speak for herself without a filter? Or outside of the white gaze? Or outside of the narrative built around us by the media and Government. This book is a way for Muslim women to reclaim, define and author their own. For the longest time, I waited for someone to empower me as a Muslim woman, to give me a space to voice my opinion and then I realised I could empower myself and in doing so empower others. We, as a collective of Muslim women could create a narrative that is truer to who we are instead of the one made for and about us. Every single writer in this book wants to write outside the one-dimensional portrayal of Muslim women, and now we are. We are more than the victims or oppressed narrative everyone has lazily embraced of Muslim women. I can’t live in a world or society that refuses to acknowledge me for who I am because of pre-conceived notions they’ve concluded without consulting any Muslim women. I am worried about future generation of Muslim women being stigmatised, systematically oppressed, their opinion stifled and autonomy revoked for their “own benefit” when actually it doesn’t benefit them at all. I have often found it difficult to have conversations such as these within the spaces I have existed because I have been frustrated by the binary discussions that have taken place. When it comes to Muslim women, Muslim women know best. In my 26 years of being alive, I’ve listened to a lot about who Muslim women should be and who they are without actually hearing Muslim women speak for themselves. But now, I’m done, now it’s your turn to listen and to hear us.
Mariam Khan (born 1993) is a British writer and activist. She is the editor of It's Not About the Burqa, an anthology of essays by Muslim women. She lives in Birmingham.