Book Review: The Things I Would Tell You… About British Muslim Women

“They want us to apologise,” he said eventually, words mumbled between mouthfuls of bread.

“For what? Did I orchestrate the killings? Or think they are good? Innocent until proven guilty. Unless you are Muslim and they forget which order the saying goes.” – Us, Chimene Suleyman

Did you forget that you enslaved a race, deeming them to be inferior and savages, for centuries? Did you forget that you colonised nations, deeming yourself as the bearer of civilisation, for centuries? But yet you blame us, fear us, attack us for the actions of others that the majority of us did not commit, for actions that we condemn, and which bring shame to what our religion stands for. You gloss over your ancestors crimes, and expect us to apologise for crimes we did not commit.

The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write by Sabrina Mahfouz

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From established literary heavyweights to emerging spoken word artists, the writers in this ground-breaking collection blow away the narrow image of the ‘Muslim Woman’.

Hear from users of Islamic Tinder, a disenchanted Maulana working as a TV chat show host and a plastic surgeon blackmailed by MI6. Follow the career of an actress with Middle-Eastern heritage whose dreams of playing a ghostbuster spiral into repeat castings as a jihadi bride. Among stories of honour killings and ill-fated love in besieged locations, we also find heart-warming connections and powerful challenges to the status quo.

If you want to know about real Muslims and not the distorted version you see in the media, then this book is for you. I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant collection of complex and insightful poems, essays, stories and plays written by British Muslim women. I cannot express enough how refreshing it was to see myself being represented in a multitude of ways. This book is a testament to representation when done well.

There were many pieces that stood out to me that I am going to draw focus on:

The Girl Next Door by Kamila Shamsie

I was in a complete daze after reading this. It sincerely caused me to reflect.

The story starts off quite innocently, a gossipy tone adopted as our main character, Noor, takes us through her day as a makeup artist for a TV studio. Before Noor prepares the Maulana for his show, Ruby, a talk show host for their channel is also getting herself ready in the same makeup studio having refused Noor’s help. Noor is not the biggest fan of Ruby and offers some scathing assessments through her stream of consciousness.

They watch a talk show hosted by two Maulana’s which the present Maulana was fired from. The talk show receives a call from a woman who has performed the Hajj pilgrimage as she hesitantly reveals that she was unable to view the Kabah having found that her vision faltered. One of the Maulana’s on the show interprets it as the caller having had a veil placed on her heart which is a terrifying thing. Everyone discusses what she could have done wrong that has prompted such a thing to happen.

By the end, the present Maulana reminds Noor that she should focus on herself instead and Noor subsequently is given a lift from Ruby and they start getting along!

It’s all very easy to judge our Muslim brothers and sisters and other people, but we must remember that we ourselves will be judged one day. Focus on your own actions, before anyone else. And that includes me.

It was a powerful story, one of the most powerful stories that I have ever read. It took me completely by surprise. Kamila Shamsie is a terrific writer; her writing draws you in because there is a refreshingly relatable feel to her style. As a reader, I am excited to read more of her books.

Us by Chimene Suleyman

This story highlights the discrimination that has been the experience of countless Muslim people living in the West. “Go home, paki.” Yep, we’ve heard it before, even if we’re Bengali, Indian, etc.

giphy

Chimene Suleyman also brings to attention the hypocrisy in such actions. Our religion is taunted as being barbaric, backwards and oppressive towards women. Firstly, that’s culture’s doing, not religion. And did you know Islam gave women inheritance rights before the West did? Remember when Henry VIII was so embarrassed for not having produced a male heir that he created and inserted himself as Supreme Head of the Church, so he could divorce his wife and then he beheaded the next until he finally produced a male heir? Did you know that, in Islam, Heaven lies under your mother’s feet? That mothers take priority three times before a father does?

Secondly, the moment a white man/woman spews racist comments towards and attacks a Muslim woman for practicing her religion, the white man/woman becomes the oppressive one.

Thirdly, when nuns wear their religious habit and abstain from intercourse, they are not oppressed but we are?

New Blood by Aliyah Hasinah Holder

Aliyah renews a fresh sting of schoolgirl nostalgia as she narrates her school days which every Muslim girl from East London will relate to. She summed up the experience of our teenage glory days so well in a matter of three pages. I mused to myself, rolled my eyes and remembered too fondly: “Bubblegum lipgloss, PE kits, Impulse Musk and warm packed lunches.”

You know what yeah....

And let’s not forget PFC (Perfect Fried Chicken)! For £1 you can get a portion of chips drenched with ketchup, chilli, mayonnaise, chutney, pepper, and chilli flakes and two juicy chicken wings (better knows as ‘hot wings’) – which often taste better than the ones at KFC – and where you refer to the shop owner(s) as ‘bossman.’ If you smile just enough, they may give you an extra hot wing.

Islamic Tinder, by Triska Hamid

It’s a lot like Tinder, but without the haram and I’m sure you are aware of the specific type of ‘haram’ I am referring to. I don’t want to spoil too much, but this is the story of many educated Muslim women who have worked hard to abstain from what has been prohibited and thus dedicated themselves to their education and career. The end result is that the options for marrying, sadly, become scarce.

It is difficult to find an equal or to even find a relationship in our present times of modernised sacred religious principles without relinquishing specific honours. That’s what it boils down to: many educated Muslim women do not wish to trade in the possibility of a lifetime in hell for a few moments of pleasure (three seconds, to be precise, given the limited space the hostess is entertaining). I am euphemising here, but I’m sure you guys will deduce the gist of what I’m saying.

Mezaterra, by Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif explores the role the media, the USA and the West has played in creating an us v them dynamic, targeted against Muslims, that has permeated the world by and large. She expounds the importance of broadening the ‘mezattera’ – the common ground – and taking up residence in it. My words will fail to deliver justice to Ahdaf Soueif’s astute political commentary; I am no heavyweight writer. So, all I will say is this: I highly recommend that you read this.

Blood and Broken Bodies by Shaista Aziz

There is nothing honourable about killing a woman. There is nothing honourable about killing anyone.”

This was a truly disturbing and terrifying read and reading stories like this is enough to prevent any desire to visit my motherland. There are thousands of honour killings that occur every year and 2017 recorded a 53% increase in cases that have been reported.

The murder of Qandeel Baloch is a story that many are familiar with, I believe; and I became acquainted with the honour killing of Farzana Parveen while reading this. Shaista Aziz shares an account of her visit to Kashmir, Pakistan, where she met the shy and timid Sania who would cover her mouth when she spoke. The next year, when she returned to Kashmir, she discovered that Sania had been murdered by her brother after being accused of looking at another man. So, even the most seemingly timid and ‘modest’ women are not safe. No woman is safe.

This is what happens when men become high and mighty, when they are taught to be the mightiest by culture. It transgresses into an obsessive need for control to put women in their designated ‘place’ even if it means resorting to murder. Raging about your sisters bringing shame to your family, but what about the shame that is cleared by your browsing history?  

Staying Alive Through Brexit by Aisha Mirza

“They pretend to listen but they don’t hear a thing.”

A resonating piece on the white middle-class who talk over us when we talk about race believing they know more about us even though they’ve never actually been us. You don’t know how to approach it? It’s very simple: ask questions, then listen. You know, basic communication skills. Not just one question and then up and leave and then you’re back to monologuing about yourself. Dear white people, some of you exhaust me.

bye

Aisha Mirza details why the leave voters weren’t the scariest thing about Brexit, but the white middle-class who voted to remain and think they know more. Now, there are some good white people, but I have to agree that for the majority of my experience, most white men have talked over me when I bring up anything not them-related, and some white women will give you the silent treatment and pretend that they don’t hear a thing. “They are the kind of people who will read this and think I am talking about someone else.”

But, of course, there are white women who I have met who are absolutely amazing and actually take the time to get to know more about us, same with some white men. Sometimes it boils down to generosity of heart and a lack of self-absorption.

Which brings me to this excerpt from Hibaq Osman’s poem titled July and the Following Months on the reaction of some white people to Black Lives Matter:

How you can be called ‘rational’
when you say things like ‘at the bottom of this case a man was murdered, he should have been put away for that.’
(I say: no shit, Sherlock, how d’ya figure those ‘two cents’ out?)
Not guilty meant ‘you are unworthy of our protection even in death.’
that they will always be on trial
no matter who pulls the trigger.

Battleface by Sabrina Mahfouz

This play gripped me from start to finish. It is a tense interview that takes place between Camilla (an MI5 employee posing as a journalist) and Ablah (a cosmetic doctor specialising in facial rejuvenation). I don’t want to give away too much, but this play felt like it could be on the screen and I very much enjoyed acting it out.


You know what makes me sad? I see many people of colour reading books that exclude them, histories that forget them, news that distort them, yet it is a rare instance to see a non-POC read books that feature a main character who is a POC and/or read up and do research on our histories and religions. Sometimes you think you know more about Islam and Muslims than the Muslim woman writing this, but oftentimes it is also because you don’t care, isn’t it? Why acknowledge us when it is only your history, your life, that is important to you?

Yes, there are more diverse books available now and publishers have come to the realisation that inclusive and diverse books will bring in new audiences which will result in an increase in profits, but what about books outside the mainstream YA genre? Also, why is 90% of your staff white?

The Hate U Give was a tremendously relevant book which should be included in the school curriculum effective immediately. It is worthwhile to note that it will be easy for some to detach from it too… effective immediately. Which is why we need more: more people of colour in publishing, both authors and employees, especially editors.

The Things I Would Tell You is an excellent example of why representation matters, especially for us Muslims who so rarely find ourselves represented well both in the media and in literature – I’m looking at you, Kiersten White, please do your research as I can assure you that Muslim women do not fast when they are menstruating.

But reader, when will you learn more about us? When will you start using the M word? Muslim. Does that scare you? Do you know that we can smell your fear from a mile away? All our attempts at integration amount to nothing when your eyes dance fear at the drop of the ‘M’ word. Oh, I have seen it. Even in my melting-pot, as diverse as it comes, city: London.

*sighs* – More books like this, please. And, oh yeah, I know, how dare I be so outspoken? But, you know what? I am done out here. There are certain things that I do not need to put up with and this is one of those things.

And that's the tea.(1)

What is the last diverse book you read from a diverse author? What are your thoughts on the representation of Muslim people in the media? As a white person, how often do you have conversations with people of colour about race? As a person of colour, what has your experience been like talking to white people about race? Let me know in the comments.

Sophski out.

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19 Comments

  1. The whole time I was reading this I thought of Chief Logan. (A Cayuga War Chief of local fame. )
    Basically, when he was arrested he asked them who was it that he mistreated. His accusers could give no answer.
    I also think that there’s a group that thrives on instigating distrust between different groups. They’re the ones who run to each side of any issue and try to keep the conflict going.

    Like

  2. I love the questions you posed! In college I cowrote a paper on the sociological effects on Muslim women after 9/11. My partner was Muslim and she helped coordinate interviews, being in New York we had a reasonable sample size. Needless to say, the increased xenophobia and racism ran rampant spreading fear and abuse. One of the things we touched on was the similarities between the bible and the quran, the hate doesn’t make sense.

    I hope we continue to hear from more voices, there can never be enough books from POC’s of different ethnicities and religion. I hope to see a book from you ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 🙂 That’s really interesting and I’m glad that you guys wrote a paper on it because I think it’s after 9/11 that really exacerbated relations between Muslims and people of the West and even as a young person I felt that fear e.g. increase in tv shows that highlighted this. And, yes, that’s exactly the strange thing because there are similarities between the Bible and the Qur’an and Muslims believe that Jesus existed with the difference being that we believe Jesus was a prophet. I think that’s a key issue… that sometimes people forget that the origins are very similar.

      You’re so kind, thank you and I completely agree… and hopefully I can be one of those voices. 🙂❤️

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that you want to read more about different perspectives from different cultures (I’ve noticed that from the books you add to your GR TBR) and that makes me very happy! Thank you 🙂

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  3. Excellent review, Soph, I’ve added this book to my “To Read” shelf!

    Two of the best and most affecting books by diverse authors I’ve read recently are Educated by Tara Westover, a female (though like me white) and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, a British Indian (though like me male) formerly Muslim atheist. You’ve already ‘liked’ my reviews of both books either here or on Goodreads, so I won’t post the links. They both easily earned the distinction of being added to my ‘Favorites’ list on Goodreads.

    I don’t often have the opportunity to have discussions about race with people of color. Recently, however, I accompanied The Girl and her fellow 7th-graders to the Islamic Center of Nashville for an engaging and eye-opening presentation about Islam in Nashville. The main point that the center’s female director and the male guest speaker made, repeatedly, is that the practice of Islam varies from country to country and that it is heavily influenced by each community’s culture. I was surprised to learn of the differences in practice, but not necessarily belief, between American Muslims and Muslims from other countries and cultures. I don’t know why that surprised me when I know that maxim has always been true for the practice of all religions. I think it has something to do with the way that certain members of Western and especially American society so loudly and frequently misrepresent modern Islam. More’s the pity.

    Stay bold, Soph, and kepp fighting the good fight!

    Denny

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, I can’t wait to see your thoughts on it if you do! 🙂

      I read your review of Educated which I loved and I can’t wait to read it, based on your review, it seems like an important book and one that I feel I will strongly relate to. I haven’t read Satanic Verses nor your review of it yet, if I recall. I will put my hands up and say that the title alone has led me to avert my eyes whenever I chance upon it.

      I really admire and commend The Girl’s school for taking a proactive effort in learning about my religion and it’s application in different countries and I’ve always felt that it is the role of the education system to do this. I don’t think I can express how happy I am to see that The Girl’s school are doing this. Yes, it is true, there are not only different sects (the major ones being Shia and Sunni, I belong to the latter), there are also different schools of thought such as Hanbali, Hanafi, etc. Interestingly, the different sectors differ in their interpretation of Jesus (Isa (AS) to us), and as a Sunni, I believe that Jesus will return. We are all human beings at the end of the day and, religion aside, we will have differences in opinion and belief and as such, the same applies to people of faith too. I hope that The Girl was able to see that Muslims are not the monsters that we are represented as in the media and that we’re not all one and the same. 🙂

      And thank you, Denny! I think I might stick to kepping though. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nashville is a very diverse city and has a sizable Muslim community. The Girl has had Muslim classmates ever since she started school, so she has never thought of them as the monsters that some despicable elements in our society try to display them as.

        What frustrates me more than the occasional political ads that try to link ALL Muslims to terrorist attacks are the far more common but no less malignant beliefs of common conservative evangelical Christians, who tend to view themselves and their ways of belief as superior to Muslims. Their passive but prevalent attitudes and comments are far more damaging, on the whole to perceptions of Muslims in rural America.

        I am encouraged, though, by the recent election of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first two female Muslims elected to the U.S. Congress. May the be just the beginning of a massive change of attitude here!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. So glad to hear that you live in such a diverse city! That’s incredibly important because it normalises the presence of Muslim citizens and when a young person, like The Girl, witnesses that from a young age, naturally it wouldn’t feel out of place and an us v them mindset will not surface. Really, truly, other than a difference in faith, we’re not all that really different, it’s more so us and not so much them.

          Hmm, that’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way. I had no idea that conservative evangelical Christians possessed such an attitude towards Muslims. Religion can play a huge part in shaping perspectives. That’s really upsetting to hear… I wonder what has caused them to possess such a superior attitude? Our faith tells us to not mock other people’s religions, but to just get on with our own. There will be the occasional we are superior to other sects, but the more mature know to just mind their own business.

          Yes, yes, yes! So glad to see that you feel encouraged by it, I remember reading the news and feeling ecstatic and it’s always wonderful (I will never get tired of it) to see people, other than Muslims, when they’re pleased for progress that seeks to progress society for everyone whatever background, religion and ethnicity they are from. I feel encouraged by your belief and attitude!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Girl, your posts always blow me away! They’re insightful, engaging, and full of truth. The last diverse book I read? A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hossieni. Honestly before 9/11 Muslims weren’t really on my radar. We still hadn’t learned the basics of each religion in history class yet. Afterwards, it was hard to dodge the news and everything they said. Although shoutout to my history teacher for telling us time and time again that one radical group was not indicative of a whole religion. I don’t talk to white people about race. From the people I’ve tried to spark a conversation with they get either uncomfortable/offended or are completely dismissive. Like I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s frustrating. I’m trying to tell you about the latino experience and why we tend to side with BLM and you’re over here telling me I’m wrong? Bruh! I was born in the USofA, I’m actually pretty white-washed, but I’m also latina and I haven’t lost sight of my heritage.

    Things get dicey when a non-POC tries to write about POC. I’ve seen it happen a few times in books. It’s like you said though, we need more editors, publishers, writers of color. To get books like this out in the world. To educate people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment has literally made my day. Thank you. 💕

      First, I can’t wait to see your review on A Thousand Splendid Suns! Secondly, it’s always the history teachers who talk a lot of sense and are the woke ones, isn’t it? I’m so glad to hear that he was able to better paint a more accurate picture of Muslims for you and your classmates. Thirdly, it must have been frustrating for them to try and erase your experience for you. That’s so damn annoying when some white people think they know more about you and your OWN heritage than you. I’m quite surprised though that you’re experiencing that, more so because of your location, if I recall you live somewhere in the New York vicinity, right? I would have thought white people in New York would have been far more sympathetic. Unless it’s somewhere else?

      Yes! I mean if you’re going to write about POC and you’re not a POC, the obvious thing would be to actually speak to POC and learn more about their experiences and better represent them. That’s basic researching skills 101! Considering that they will have, ordinarily, written for newspapers and zines, they would have already had some experience in researching and journalism. When I read that 80-90% of top publishers are white, it pissed me off SO MUCH. If you go on Penguin publishers, you’ll find that most of their interns (from when I last checked) were Caucasian, fgs, they need to do a LOT better. Sometimes they’ll include more diverse authors to collect a few woke points, but what about within your own company. From a business perspective, it makes sense too. So, not only are their ethical standards poor, but their commercial nous can be quite lacking. Ugh, poor business acumen repulses me too, not as much as ethics, but geez, where’s their business sense.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Girl, who are you confusing me with lol. I am in forever-sunny Los Angeles. Seriously. It was warm earlier today smh.

        Haha you’d be surprised by the people you find here. My faves are the ones that complain about spanish speakers. Because, um, the city name is literally a spanish phrase lol (The Angels). There are stupid, ignorant people everywhere. But for the most part it’s all pretty good here. Super diverse.

        The problem with a non-POC writing about POC experiences is the fact that most of the time they rely on stereotypes. Like in Sarah J Maas’ Catwoman story. The superhero is African American and gets pulled over by a cop at some point. Wth would Maas know about racial profiling? That’s not something that she will ever experience in her life. And it was an unnecessary stereotype. It didn’t really add anything to the overall story.

        That makes no sense. We exist. We want to see ourselves in the books we read. We’re just as big consumers as non-POC. Ugh. I need to expand my reading. Read more books by diverse authors…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m lost, for real, who actually told me that they’re from NY and Queens/Brooklyn, ok someone else did lol. 😂

          America: names state in the Spanish language
          Spanish speakers speak:
          America: pikachu shocked meme
          Every POC: ???? Meme

          Yeah… lol now it makes sense why some of the POC characters were killed off in the ACOTR series, for good reason because she clearly doesn’t know how to write them. I mean, would it really hurt to do some research? Ask some questions? *rolls eyes* *sighs a lot*

          Hey, perhaps, even more POC will read books when we get more diverse reads. Ethics and commercial sense make a rare alignment here. 🤷‍♀️ can you imagine how amazing a child would feel reading a book with a character that looks like her and she is pointing to the child saying: “that’s me! I’m included! And I’m a main character!” Yep, us POC’s of all ages would love that. To be included. Every human being would love to e included. Basic common sense smh.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. My goal for 2019 is to read more diversely. I really need to. Looking at my 2018 stats made me cringe. But like you said. It’s difficult to do when the material we’re looking for isn’t available. Incredibly frustrating!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s such a great idea, also, quite hard to do… I mean, I’m sure most of us just mood read, and when we do that, we’ll land on YA books. It’s great to see there’s an increased amount of POC authors in YA, so that should help. But still… romance needs to have more, for sure, maybe even crime, but people don’t tend to focus on colour when they read crime books. However, how interesting and fresh would that be?

              Hmm, thinking about it, I might actually join you on that diversity challenge and set a month where I read books written by POC authors or even a collection of short stories.

              Like

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