Sunday, 2 February 2020

It's Not About the Burqa edited by Mariam Khan

It's Not About the Burqa edited by Mariam Khan
Published by Picador on the 21st November 2019.

I for my 2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When was the last time you heard a Muslim woman speak for herself without a filter?

Shortlisted for Foyles Non-Fiction Book of the Year. 
'Engrossing . . . fascinating . . . courageous' – Observer.

In 2016, Mariam Khan read that David Cameron had linked the radicalization of Muslim men to the ‘traditional submissiveness’ of Muslim women. Mariam felt pretty sure she didn’t know a single Muslim woman who would describe herself that way. Why was she hearing about Muslim women from people who were neither Muslim, nor female?

Years later the state of the national discourse has deteriorated even further, and Muslim women’s voices are still pushed to the fringes – the figures leading the discussion are white and male.

Taking one of the most politicized and misused words associated with Muslim women and Islamophobia, It’s Not About the Burqa is poised to change all that. Here are voices you won’t see represented in the national news headlines: seventeen Muslim women speaking frankly about the hijab and wavering faith, about love and divorce, about feminism, queer identity, sex, and the twin threats of a disapproving community and a racist country. With a mix of British and international women writers, from activist Mona Eltahawy's definition of a revolution to journalist and broadcaster Saima Mir telling the story of her experience of arranged marriage, from author Sufiya Ahmed on her Islamic feminist icon to playwright Afshan D'souza-Lodhi's moving piece about her relationship with her hijab, these essays are funny, warm, sometimes sad, and often angry, and each of them is a passionate declaration calling time on the oppression, the lazy stereotyping, the misogyny and the Islamophobia.

What does it mean, exactly, to be a Muslim woman in the West today? According to the media, it’s all about the burqa.

Here’s what it’s really about.

At one point in the previous book I read, a fictionalised biography of Josephine Baker, the author, Eilidh McGinness had a male character decide that Josephine could never be Muslim because she isn't 'subservient'. This lazy stereotyping jumped out at me but, as the women writing essays for It's Not About The Burqa each take pains to point out, for most non-Muslims in the Western world, actually having the opportunity to hear Muslim women's voices is almost impossible. We are incessantly fed the stereotypes until those portrayals become the only available narrative - a gross caricature of a woman who doesn't actually exist. It's frustrating enough as a white British woman who wants to listen. I can't begin to imagine how difficult it is to actually Be a silenced Muslim woman.

The main impressions I have taken from It's Not About The Burqa is that, of course, Muslim women cannot be shoe-horned into a neat media-friendly box. There is no convenient 'they' because 'they' are as diverse in their attitudes, opinions and dreams as any other large group of women. Most of what we are told to blame on faith is actually cultural practices and traditions that Islam does not demand, and Muslim women's voices in the West are more effectively stifled by our patronising attitudes than by Islamic rules. The problem is our diminishing of Muslim women's experiences by making our own assumptions, talking about or for them, but rarely with any of them.

These seventeen essays are powerful and candid. I found myself swinging between enthusiastic agreement and moments of embarrassed self-recognition, and having my own preconceptions challenged. The collection covers a wide range of topics from the extent of women's marriage rights under Islam to the need for women to have community spaces to share learning, from how women cope with multiple layers of gender/racial/religious oppression to their right to wear what they damn well choose. When I reviewed Zeba Talkhani's My Past Is A Foreign Country I commented on how refreshing it was to read a Muslim woman speaking for herself. I feel the same about It's Not About The Burqa. These seventeen women have every right to be heard and it is past time for everyone else to shut up and listen.

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  1. This is a subject that a lot of people try to avoid. Forcing women NOT to wear the burqa or hijab is as wrong as forcing them to do so. I'm in favour of the women making their own choice for their own reasons.

    1. Yes!!
      The assumption that Muslim women can't actually make up their own minds what to wear is so infuriating and insulting

  2. Replies
    1. The essays opened my eyes to issues I hadn't even considered before

  3. I really love the sound of this one and it is high on my TBR! I agree, it must be hard and so frustrating to be silenced and I can't wait to start listening to this people by reading their stories and experiences. I have so much to learn. Great review and glad you appreciated it.

    1. I really appreciated the opportunity to read this one and I think you would like it too. I hope you can get to it soon :-)