Speaking to Mariam Khan who has edited the refreshing feminist anthology, It’s Not About the Burqa
It’s Not About the Burqa is the sort of straight-to-the-point book title Muslim women in Britain deserve. In one sense, feminist discourse is rapidly evolving – and so talking about a woman’s right to wear what she wants, or choose who she wants to be, feels elementary. Yet, when it comes to feminism and Islam, so much of the mainstream conversation is coloured by assumptions. Many question how Muslim women choose to present themselves – even though we’re fighting to establish that any woman can wear what she wants. Another common assumption is that the Muslim faith puts women at the bottom, as though patriarchal cultures in the West haven’t also left us downtrodden.
Reducing Muslim women’s input in feminist discourse to whether they should or shouldn’t cover their hair means there’s so much left unsaid. It’s not just about the burqa. How often do we think about how to empower women in Islam to have enjoyable, halal sex? Salma Haidrani’s chapter in this collection of essays gives a brief shout out to halal sex shops selling gelatine free lube and sex toys. Jamilla Hekmoun talks about how the community affected her struggles with mental health in an essay entitled: “There’s no such thing as a depressed Muslim”. Another chapter, by Raifa Rafiq, argues that on the Venn diagram of oppression, black Muslim women fare badly.
We caught up with Mariam Khan, who edited the book, to talk about how the different chapters came together, and why platforming all of these voices is vital.
How did this project come to fruition?
Mariam Khan: There was a collection of triggering points, my frustration at the lack of diverse representation of Muslim female identity being one of them. A few years ago, David Cameron said that Muslim women are traditionally submissive and that leads to the radicalisation of our sons. This view was really seeping into mainstream politics. There was this huge backlash online of Muslim women basically holding placards with the hashtag #TraditionallySubmissive. There were teachers, nurses, scientists, such diversity that was never represented outside of a single story: we’re oppressed and we’re letting terrorism happen. That is apparently the life of a Muslim woman. I was speaking to Nikesh Shukla who was the editor of The Good Immigrant and he really encouraged me. I wanted a book that let Muslim women speak on their own terms, without being spoken over, about whatever they wanted and for that not to have to go through a white filter.
Is there a fear with Islamophobia that having these conversations in the open, conceding any flaws, gives bigots carte blanche to criticise the entire religion or culture?
Mariam Khan: Definitely. I remember watching preachers online mocking feminism. They said, ‘This is not what your faith teaches’. That is so indicative of their privilege as men to proclaim that feminism is somehow incompatible. They hadn’t really backed that up by looking at Islam. But then there’s this rock and a hard place (as Mona Eltahawy writes in her essay). Our community can’t progress because we’re never allowed to have conversations on our own terms. You know, before some racist jumps in who doesn't give a crap about anyone in that space or community but hijacks the narrative to paint all of Islam as backwards or regressive.
Growing up, what were your thoughts on what a Muslim woman had to be?
Mariam Khan: My experience of Islam came through the prism of what people were pushing on me. One day I was having a conversation with my mosque teacher and I bravely decided to tell her I hated Islam. She was like ‘OK’. Her reaction was so unexpected because she asked me why I thought and it was the first time I felt like I was being invited into have like actual opinion, that I was allowed to have this discussion. I was saying ‘I’m not allowed to do this thing my brothers do’ and all of these things that are impressed on women. She said to me: ‘That's culture, that's not religion’. Nobody has made that distinction, it was empowering.
“Our community can’t progress because we’re never allowed to have conversations on our own terms before some racist jumps in and hijacks the narrative to paint all of Islam as backwards or regressive” – Mariam Khan
When you’re in feminist spaces do you feel like your viewpoint is narrowed or watered down?
Mariam Khan: Yeah. There’s a perception of the view that I’m allowed to have, preconceived ideas about what I might like to talk about. We're often left out of the conversations about sex. I saw Salma El-Wardany talking about (her romantic pre-marriage virginity experience with her white Yorkshire boyfriend) online and I thought – why are more of us not talking about sex? It’s not a small thing it’s a huge part of this world. If women are these vessels to create life, then we’re having sex, so why aren’t we also talking about their pleasure? This applies to so many communities where there is this shaming, so it's not just Muslim women who can relate but it's refreshing to hear it from our perspective and look at how our faith impacts this.
While you were putting this book together did you want to include voices you didn’t actually agree with to widen the discussion?
Mariam Khan: The only thing I asked is: do you identify as a Muslim woman? We had to have a platform of all sorts of voices, and represent the vast experiences. I couldn’t edit the book thinking, ‘I don't agree with that’.
What are your feelings on International Women's Day?
Mariam Khan: We need days like this to pull each other up. I understand the argument of people saying, ‘Why this day why not all the time. I think that there's an argument there, but we have today and so we should use those platforms. It's a chance to support the work of women that are not necessarily known. If we're pushing other women the next year they might be a little more known and covered more regularly.