“Muslim Women, particularly visibly Muslim women, are harangued at work, at home and in politics” notes Sabeena Akhtar, editor and contributor of this brilliant collection of twenty-one essays exploring race, prejudices, modesty, trauma, motherhood and so much more. Gone are the conventional tropes around oppression and victimhood, here we hear, and hopefully learn, from the voices of the women, of various ages and a multitude of races, speaking for themselves about their experiences.
It’s hard for me to be chill about how important I think this collection is. I am not sure of any other book like this one, that unapologetically centres and amplifies the voices of Muslim women. These are not the voices of a few, they are not the “acceptable through the white gaze” version of Islam, they are just (extra)ordinary Muslim women conducting their lives, whilst wearing hijab, and sharing their struggles and experiences.
The collection starts with everyone’s favourite South Asian spoken word poet, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. She sets the standard of what is to follow with her brilliantly named essay “I Am Not An Answer, I Am the Question” Suhaiymah shares her experience of being a person of colour at the University of Cambridge and her shift away from a politics aimed at ‘equality’ and towards decolonising , and questioning why her education had led to her learning little about the world beyond Europe and why history is taught from the “coloniser’s point of view”. Identity politics is unavoidable for women in hijab and Suhaiyah goes on to reflect how she perceived Islam to be an isolated element of herself, her private principles and prayers, but within the British context it was also her most apparent identity. This led to her looking into Islam and socialism in the postcolonial Arab world: “secularism was inherently entangled with the making of the modern colonial world and yet it is the one bastion of coloniality that has managed to evade my previous attempts at denaturalising the world I live in – I would also argue it is the one bastion pf coloniality thatmost people engaged in ‘decolonising’ work in the UK and Europe fail to interrogate, undermining the wider project”
The next essay is “Hidden” By Asha Mohamed which explores education and the damage it can do embedding racist ideologies into each generation with its unnuanced, monolithic nature. She centres the child’s world view and asks what happens “when the only history you learn about yourself is one of degradation, humiliation and dehumanisation?” The importance of regaining control over our own histories, and therefore our identities, and telling our own stories is imperative. Asha argues passionately about the importance of rejecting the hidden curriculum because all people look to history to define themselves, and for people of African descent, specifically those in the diaspora, find themselves “ at the mercy of Western academic systems”
“On Therapy” by Sophie Williams is her personal reflection, as a niqab wear woman, living with the constant fear of being attacked because of what she represents. Her NHS therapist, with her prevent training, does little to subside her fears. Sophie, a white English revert, tells of her interactions with Drs, teachers and other professionals and always having to be guarded for fear of how they perceive her and what she represents, now as a visibly Muslim Woman. Negla Abdalla’s essay “Dirty Melanin, Precious Melanin: Bilal was Black” looks at the lack of Black Muslim women in mainstream representation, at a time when Muslim women appear to be everywhere. Abdalla holds Muslims to account for our own racist and colourist behaviours. Addressing each community she shines a light on our wilful ignorance and hypocrisy around race, and urges us to be better and to recognise our responsibilities to each other, and realise that Islam, not Muslims is without flaw.
The next Essay is by Khadijah Elshayyal and is titled “Covid-19 and Recalibrating my Ramadan Reality”, its certainly one that most people will be able to relate to in some way as Khadijah relays her experience of Ramadan in lockdown here in the UK. This is followed by Ruqaiya Haris’s “ The Quest for Modesty in the Digital Age” Ruqaiya ponders over the difficulty of wearing hijab as a religious act and taking it off to feel prettier. The seventh essay in this collection is by Fatima Ahdash, “Arabic Speaking: Liberal and Translating Trauma in the Human-Rights Sector”. To say this essay left me speechless and shocked is an understatement. Although the problematic nature of the charity sector has received some press recently, it was hard to read about Fatima’s first-hand experiences and the little regard that was afforded to her and her wellbeing. “The Gift of Second Sight” by Sofia Rehman looks at the fundamental principle of fairness and equality in Islam and how they have been manipulated to suit the patriarchy, both white supremist and Muslim, at the expense of Muslim women. “Youth in the Time of Madrassahs” by Mariam Ansar looks back at the innocence of her childhood and the madrassah: the smells, the sounds, the friendships, and the secrets.
The tenth essay in this collection is probably one of my favourites (although I’m guilty of saying that a lot reading this anthology) “4,091 Milse Away from Home” by Aisha Rimi looks back to life in the early 80’s when her Nigerian mother and two sisters attended a boarding school in England. She then reflects on her own experience, some 30 years in the future and compares their challenges and wonders if any progress has truly been made. She also reflets on what it means to be Black, and Muslim especially given the level of anti-blackness in many Muslim communities.
“Waiting to Exhale: The Scarcity of Safe Spaces” by Hodan Yusuf blew me away with its searing honestly and the mirror she holds up to its readers, especially the Muslims. I was horrified at the stories she relayed about mosques. As someone who as always viewed them as safe havens, I have clearly let my privilege blind me. Her experience of Hajj still haunts me and is a reminder that we are all responsible, as an Ummah, to be each other’s safe space. Nothing less is acceptable.
I just want to take a moment here to say how brilliantly this book is curated. It felt like walking through an art exhibition of experiences, and just as you thought you’d reached the precipice, the piece de resistance of the collection, you are hit with something else, every bit as engaging, as fascinating and as insightful. I’m going to go ahead and tell you a little about the remaining 11 essays, as I think each of them has an important message and deserves to be heard. I’m also desperately proud of every single contributor and want to amplify each of their voices.
Suma Din’s “Cartography of Motherhood” is not only moving but is one of the most beautiful prose I have read in a long while. I think every Muslim parent will feel her frustration and pain as she navigates her family through an education system that seems stacked against her. Rumana Lasker Dawood’s essay “Growing into Hijab” starts off by recounting her own journey to hijab, the difficulty and self-consciousness of not only wearing it but having to always explain it. Rumana shares uncomfortable conversations with fellow Drs and her patients and the feeling of “otherness”. She goes on to describe her experience on a BBC 2 sewing programme, watched and loved by millions of people, and her struggle with the negative press she received.
The next essay, “Grenfell” is a conversation between Shaista Aziz, a freelance journalist and Zahra Adams (a pseudonym) a young woman who lived opposite Grenfell tower and recalls the night of the tragedy. “Smile” by Sabeena Akhtar is another really personal insight into the reality of women who wear hijab. Looking visibly Muslim they are often the first to get vitriol thrown their way, by cowards who of course attack women they assume to be defenceless. Sabeena is not, but here she explains how tiring it is to always be in fight or flight mode, having to analyse situations in split seconds, hoping they don’t escalate. She shares her personal experiences of Islamophobia and how emboldened your average racist is getting as our country sinks deeper into the hole of xenophobia. I was shaking with anger and crying as I read this essay as I know so many other women who have experienced similar abuses, many to the point of abandoning their hijab for their safety. That is a very scary thought. Take a moment to imagine if non-Muslim women had to reconsider their attire because they felt scared of being attacked. Would we stand for that as a society, as feminists, as women?
The next essay is by the lovely Yvonne Ridley titled “The Global Revolution of Hijab” and in some ways continues on from the previous essay and the strong reaction hijab evokes from people who don’t understand it. Yvonne’s perspective, like many reverts, is always interesting to me as they have experienced life as non-Muslims and with that comes their previous understanding of Islam. She confesses to holding opinions on veiled women as “quite, oppressed creatures” whist confessing to also finding it “liberating” as an investigative journalist in the Muslim world. She only truly started to look into Islam after being kidnapped by the Taliban for ten terrifying nights, and was released after she promised to study Islam and read the Holy Quran. The rest of the essay looks at the relationship women from around the world have with hijab and how the politics of exclusion impacts Muslim women.
“Racial Perceptions” is by half Nigerian, half Pakistani, Khadijah Rotimi. She explores identity and the alienation that comes from not ticking any one singular race box. Again, she holds some parts to the Muslim community to account, and urges us to create a space where all Muslims are welcome and feel safe and where we celebrate all identities. The following essay is by spoken word poet Raisa Hassan, who is also a disabled-rights activist and the founder of the campaign ‘Right Words, Right Mind’. In “Ticking the ‘Intelligence’ Box” she shares with us her experience of disability, deciding to wear hijab from a young age and how the two impacted so much of her life, particularly in High School. Her writing is punctuated with her poetry, which is equally as brilliant.
The penultimate essay is by Fatha Hassan and is titled “So I Can Talk to Guys Now?” and covers a multitude of issues faced by many Muslim women when it comes to meeting Mr Right. From the threat of scandal for speaking to someone of the opposite sex, to navigating the often-hateful comments targeted at young women for their appearance and finally to making sense of sex and intimacy. The final essay, so perfectly placed as the closing act, is “Riot, Write, Rest: On Writing as a Muslimah” by Sumaya Kassim. “we are more than just anthropologists of whiteness; we have lives outside other people’s fantasies of us” Sumaya shares her struggles as a writer always aware of the expectation society has of her and the limited archetype of Muslim women. She writes “whatever you fight, you strengthen. Whatever you resist, persists. When we work hard to humanise ourselves, the battle is already lost.” Her insights into the creative industry alongside her personal and spiritual journey gives credence to her belief that writing is revolutionary, especially as a Muslim women.
‘Cut From the Same Cloth?’ is an urgently needed addition to the works of female writers. These refreshing and thrilling essays tackle important topics from the mental impact of hypervisibility to education reform and trauma, Grenfell and finding safe spaces, both within and outside the Muslim community, and each offers a cognisance which is all to often missing when we speak about the lives of Muslim women. This collection doesn’t claim to be the whole, but it is certainly part of the sum of being a visibly Muslim woman. It’s also not a condemnation on women who don’t wear hijab, “its a hijab, not a halo” but it is a snapshot of the varied lives of this small collection of women who also happen to wear hijab. This book will be my most widely gifted book of 2021, because I truly believe that this collection is an important first step in beginning to heal the disservice that has forced a narrative around the lives of Muslim women that centre everything but themselves. I hope this wonderful collection doesn’t only end up on the bookshelves of Muslims, it deserves to be read widely and hopefully lead to the questioning of our own perceptions of Muslim women.