It’s Not About the Burqa came from many frustrations. Muslim women are often spoken for or about, they are rarely spoken to, and almost never the ones speaking for themselves. So for the longest time, I felt that everyone else dictated the narrative around Muslim women, whether it was Islamophobes, racists, our patriarchal communities, or women who had internalized patriarchal values.
My book, It’s Not About the Burqa, is not about denying the narrative of those women who choose to wear the burqa. This anthology of essays is a rejection of the singular political narrative the Western world has associated with Muslim women. Muslim women are more than hijab, more than burqa, and more than we have been allowed to be. My idea behind the book was for Muslim women to come together, even if we practice in different ways, and even if we are to disagree with one another. Only through the exploration of the diversity of the Muslim female identity can we progress within our communities and within the Western world.
There were two significant moments in this journey that made me realize how necessary this book was. In January 2016, former British Prime Minister David Cameron was reported to have said that Muslim women were “traditionally submissive.” Cameron was an educated and influential man who was supposed to represent people like me – British Muslim women – nationally and internationally and yet this is all he thought of us. After this report came out, Muslim women took to social media to reject this narrative. Frustrated and angry, they held up placards with the words they use to identify themselves – “PhD student,” “war survivor,” “doctor,” “mother” – using the hashtag #NotTraditionallySubmissive. In that moment I consciously acknowledged the diversity of the Muslim female identity, which made me euphoric but angry. If there were this many Muslim women who were empowered, educated, and phenomenal, why were we always reduced to being oppressed or submissive when we were discussed in media, politics, and culture? I am not denying female oppression, but women – specifically Muslim ones – are more than that, yet it’s never shown.
In editing this anthology, I had to be conscious of not impressing the way I practice my faith or feminism, or how I perceive empowerment, on the other contributors. The book isn’t a Mariam Khan-approved version of being a Muslim or a woman. Each of the contributors is her own individual. That’s what I wanted to demonstrate. The book covers everything from faith and feminism to sexuality and race. Sufiya Ahmed writes about the first feminist role model in her life, Khadija Bint Khuwaylid. Raifa Rafiq talks about the trifecta of being black, female, and Muslim and how these identities intersect, and calls out racism within the Muslim community. Saima Mir looks at the difference between culture and religion when a Muslim woman decides to divorce. Mona Eltahawy discusses how, “to be a Muslim woman in the so-called West, where Muslims live as a minority, is to stand in the middle point of a seesaw, engaged in a perilous balancing act” between Islamophobes and the community. It’s Not About the Burqa book also covers themes of mental health, why everyone needs to practice intersectional feminism, and how not all representation of Muslims is good representation. There is so much that I didn’t include, because then I would never have finished. This is but one book – and not every conversation can be captured in one book.
No one story resonates with me the most. Every essay is an important contribution, allowing the reader to reflect and encouraging dialogue. Some people have told me they loved every essay, while others only liked a few and disagreed with the rest. I never expected for everyone to love every essay, to read this book and accept everything. That is why it’s a collection of essays by different Muslim women – because we’re not all alike. I want to show the reality of Muslim women today, in our own words, on our own terms. Unfiltered.”
It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race edited by Mariam Khan (Picador Books)
Originally published in the May 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia