It’s Not About The Burqa (2019) edited by Mariam Khan
Review By Hattie
This new edition to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Centre Library is a collection of powerful essays that provide an intersectional analysis of faith, feminism, sexuality and race from the perspectives of 17 Muslim women.
The message throughout the book states that many aspects of Muslim women’s identities are heavily politicised by the mainstream media and government in order to control the type and extent of representation of Muslim women in our society. While this includes the burqa (an outer garment covering the body and face with a mesh or window over the eyes) this book’s title alone indicates that there are so many more topics surrounding the representation of Muslim women that need to be talked about if we are to overcome this injustice. Editor Mariam Khan states in the introduction that her decision to include ‘burqa’ on the front cover means she is forced to engage with the belief that Muslim women are defined by their religious garments, and dismantle this from within.
This book covers everything from faith, to mental health, to social media, to marriage. Since finishing it, I have selected a few of the essays to look at more closely in this piece, which I hope will provide a brief overview of the book as a whole.
“The intersection of multiple oppressions”
The first essay in the book makes for a revolutionary opening. Written by American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, it discusses the cross-section of oppression faced by Muslim women using a metaphor of a see-saw. One end of the see-saw is racist islamophobia within society, and the other end is misogyny within the Muslim community. Eltahawy, who reclaims a statement someone made about her – ‘Too loud, Swears too much and Goes too far’ – and uses it to title her essay, takes the stance that Muslim women must “jump off that see-saw because neither of its sides cares about [them].” This chapter outlines the severity of this worst case scenario of oppression, but offers a beacon of hope from within.
“School and public libraries had raised my aspirations”
The third essay is an inspirational thank-you-note to books, in which Sufiya Ahmed discusses her personal experiences of expectations, oppression and inspiration throughout her education and working life. ‘The First Feminist’ (a title which refers to Kadija bint Khuwaylid, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife) especially resonated with me as I connected the safety that the author found in libraries at various stages of her life with how I hope people perceive the AIU Centre. Much like Ahmed found knowledge and comfort, our library aims to be a place where people from every background can immerse themselves in histories that reflect themselves, and somewhere that inspires people to celebrate their heritage.
‘There’s No Such Thing as a Depressed Muslim’ by Jamilla Hekmoun
This essay works hard to normalise the discussion around mental health, while also raising awareness that this is sometimes more difficult to do in Muslim communities than others. Hekmoun states that “a key idea within Islamic thought is that Islam offers its believers totality; that it can provide solutions. But that attitude can result in a very black-and-white view of mental health.” She draws on her own struggles with anxiety so that readers who suffer themselves know they are not alone, and know where to look for help. Hekmoun highlights the charity Inspirited Minds, and her gratefulness to her understanding imam.
‘How Not To Get Married’ by Aina Khan OBE
I learnt a lot from this essay. The underlying message that Aina Khan delivers is that too many Muslim newlyweds, particularly women, in the UK are unaware that their nikah (marriage contract) is not legally recognised unless registered. One of the most shocking consequences of this is the position in which it leaves women who are unhappy in their marriages.
“Because women in such unregistered marriages cannot get a legal divorce, if the husband refuses to give an Islamic divorce, they are referred to as ‘chained women’.”
Aina Khan has been a lawyer for over 25 years, and this essay demonstrates her commitment to this cause. She highlights her efforts not only to raise awareness of this issue, but also the work carried out through the Register Our Marriage (ROM) campaign that she launched in 2014. Ultimately she is calling for a change in UK legislation, that all nikahs must be registered, for the protection of everyone involved.
‘Between Submission and Threat’ by Malia Bouattia
This essay examines the contradictory relationship between the British state and Muslim women. Malia Bouattia highlights that on the one hand the State actively demonizes Muslim women through the Prevent strategy (part of the government’s counter-terrorism approach), and on the other claims to be the saviour of Muslim women – uncovering the ‘oppression within the Muslim community’. As Bouattia also points out, Muslim women are always being discussed, but never invited to the discussion.
When her action in roles such as Black Students’ Officer (and President in 2016) of NUS lead to major hatred and backlash on worldwide news and social media platforms, Bouattia began to realise first-hand that only a certain type of Muslim women is accepted in the public sphere with no repercussions.
There are some essays in this book that will make you laugh, smile and feel instantly empowered. While Malia Bouattia’s essay does include a message of hope in the conclusion, it is definitely written with the equally (if not more) important purpose of condemning the institutionalised racism within the British State.
‘Daughter of Stories’ by Nadine Aisha Jassat
This final essay, with its focus on stories, serves as a fantastic conclusion to the book – each essay has provided a different story which represents a different Muslim woman’s identity, experience, opinion and voice.
Reading Nadine Aisha Jassat’s essay reminded me of the importance of the many oral histories we have in the AIU Centre’s collection. She writes:
“We need as many stories and storytellers as there are people, a greater cacophony of diverse voices and views, and listeners who welcome them.”
The essay finds a perfect balance between personal family history and the importance of stories in our wider society; including the acknowledgement that some stories have been lost or destroyed due to the brutal history of colonialism and empire. It is the role of storytellers to ensure that more voices are not lost.
It’s Not About The Burqa will be available in our library once we are open again. In the meantime, you can follow the work of the contributors on their Twitter accounts and websites below:
Mona Eltahawy – @monaeltahawy
Coco Khan – @cocobyname
Sufiya Ahmed – @sufiyaahmed
Nafisa Bakkar – @Nafisa_Bakkar www.amaliah.com
Afia Ahmed – @EduAfs_
Yassmin Midhat Abdel-Magied – @yassmin_a www.yassminam.com
Jamilla Hekmoun – inspiritedminds.org.uk/author/jamilla/
Mariam Khan – @helloiammariam
Afshan D’souza-Lodhi – @ashlodhi www.afshan.info
Salma Haidrani – @its_me_salma www.salmahaidrani.contently.com
Amna Saleem – @AGlasgowGirl
Saima Mir – @SaimaMir www.saimamir.com
Salma El-Wardany – @writtenbysalma
Aina Khan OBE – Website: www.ainakhan.com (www.registerourmarriage.org)
Raifa Rafiq – @RaifaRafiq @ThisThingPod (podcast)
Malia Bouattia – @MaliaBouattia
Nadine Aisha Jassat – @nadineaishaj www.nadineaishaj.com