“And if they do not give us the mic to speak, we build our own stage – I was never a fan of their stage anyway; how correct it stood, how sturdy and mute, how cold it was.” – Raifa Rafiq
It’s Not About the Burqa by Mariam Khan (Editor)
Genre: Non-Fiction, Islam, Essays, Diverse Anthologies, Feminism
Goodreads Summary: When was the last time you heard a Muslim woman speak for herself without a filter?
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. Funny, warm, sometimes sad, and often angry, each of these essays is a passionate declaration, and each essay is 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.”
Contributors: Mona Eltahawy, Coco Khan, Sufiya Ahmed, Nafisa Bakkar, Afia Ahmed, Yassmin Midhat Abdel-Magied, Jamilla Hekmoun, Mariam Khan, Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, Salma Haidrani, Amna Saleem, Saima Mir, Salma El-Wardany, Aina Khan OBE, Raifa Rafiq, Malia Bouattia, Nadine Aisha Jassat
A book so impactful it made me change my entire Twitter bio.
‘It’s Not About the Burqa’ is a piercing contemporary collection of essays written by 17 prominent Muslim women ranging from entrepreneurs, activists, journalists, writers and more. These essays amplify the voices, struggles and stories of Muslim women, how we connect with our identities as Muslims and challenges the narratives created without our permission. What I find incredibly important is that there is such a wide range of voices because monolithic stories cannot define us. Within these 17 essays, you’re bound to find something that speaks directly to you, and, for me, Raifa Rafiq, Nafisa Bakkar and Afia Ahmed’s essays were life-changing. It’s Not About the Burqa not only made me feel seen and heard, but it also made me question how I connect to and define my identity. I’m so glad I purchased this book because I can see myself rereading it sometime in the near future.
As much as Islamophobia, another prominent theme that is interwoven throughout the collection is feminism. I have generally been avoiding white feminism because it doesn’t serve me, and the more I inhabit spaces outside of my community, the more I realise that my gender doesn’t seem to be much of the issue, but more so my faith and race. This meant that I wasn’t as passionate as I would have liked to be in the portions where feminism was explored in a Western context, however, Mariam Khan’s ‘Feminism Needs to Die’ was an essay that I felt has echoed and given voice to my more recent concerns.
I was left feeling and thinking a number of things after reading ‘It’s Not About the Burqa’ which is why I would especially recommend doing a buddy read with not only friends, but your family too. You’ll find yourself needing to have plenty of discussions once you finish reading, you’ll see. I’d recommend this to late teen readers as well as it captures some of the experiences that they’ll inevitably come to know.
I’ve decided to highlight the essays that really struck a chord with me or made me laugh out loud, but please bear in mind that this is very subjective and that there are other essays that may resonate with you more deeply.
Immodesty is the Best Policy by Coco Khan
“But I remember the aunties. They liked to gather around and compare notes on minor ailments as a leisurely pastime; an opportunity to flaunt their martyrdom and indulge in a touch of the Bollywood melodrama they enjoyed so much. The sweet spot was having a condition that was in no way chronic or serious (that would be a mood killer) but still involved substantial effort to power through. And the more unnecessary that effort, the better.”
Coco Khan is ridiculously hilarious, and I couldn’t stop laughing while I was reading this essay. ‘Immodesty is the Best Policy’ takes us through a variety of events, each tackling the conflicting nature of modesty in Islam which Coco Khan asserts has long been defined by men, whereas her mother resolutely denies that Khan has enough knowledge to come to such a conclusion. I know we’ve all had conversations like these with our mothers and aunts. There are various scenarios that are explored: yoga, dancing, dating apps, marriage, respectability, exclusion from your community, all pertaining to Muslim women and our rights to our bodies. What it taught me is that the right man will love you as you are in all your glory and in all your grief too. And he definitely will not take away your agency. Wow, I’m still smiling. It’s a truly wonderful essay, and I hope you get the chance to read it, so you can join me in feeling all gooey inside.
Similarly, Saima Mir’s ‘A Woman of Substance’ – if I can just stop with the starry-eyed dreaming and giggling (vom!) for a second – is one of the most romantic stories I have ever read. Divorce is sometimes and very much a dirty word in my culture, though I’m slowly noticing the tides shifting (more so for the generation before me), and Saima Mir’s journey in ‘A Woman of Substance’ is one for the silver screen. Her essays showcases that love is possible even after divorce. Honestly, even the coldest of hearts will be melted by this. I even heard Kaz Brekker say, “Awwwww!” Can you believe it?
On the Representation of Muslims by Nafisa Bakkar
“We wanted to be able to encourage a conversation that wasn’t always made up of Muslim women talking about the hijab or why they weren’t oppressed. Amaliah was created as a space for Muslim women to exist on their own terms, whether that was talking about dodgy dates, mental health, significant cultural moments or smashed avo on sourdough.”
Nafisa Bakkar and her sister, Selina Bakkar, are the founders of Amaliah, a website dedicated to amplifying the voices of Muslim women. One of the reasons I absolutely love this book is because it led me to discover their website and the brilliant work they’re doing for my (Muslim) community. Nafisa Bakkar’s profound insights in this essay have been ringing heavily in my mind for the past month. “Why do we need representation, and if it is a means to an end, what is the end goal?” She recognises that her thoughts and opinions will continually evolve on the matter of representation. I find myself questioning what this means when it comes to publishing and reading diversely. The politics of representation and its meaningfulness becomes all the more thought-consuming when you reach your mid-twenties. “We couldn’t ignore the backdrop to all that existed: Trump, Brexit and increasing hate towards Muslims.” This is something that’s inescapable. Representation doesn’t equal equality; it doesn’t guarantee better treatment and better rights. “I sometimes found myself annoyed when I saw a campaign featuring a Muslim woman, because I have walked into brands, into agencies, and seen virtually zero diversity.” Likewise, organisations like the NSPCC who feature campaigns to tackle racial discrimination for children, yet the organisation itself is rife with discrimination; this is just one of many stories where representation doesn’t necessarily create real long-lasting change that benefits the lives of marginalised groups. In short, representation is based on a public aesthetic that offers little to no substance.
I loved this essay, and now, reviewing this, I’ve realised just how much Nafisa Bakkar’s essay continues to resonate with me and will continue to do so.
The Clothes of My Faith by Afia Ahmed
A couple of years ago, I recall, during an interview, being praised for not wearing a hijab and that it demonstrates that I am “liberated.” For obvious reasons, that comment was entirely presumptuous and ignorant, but it opened up my eyes to the fact that I didn’t feel liberated at all. My decision to not wear the hijab has constantly made me feel at the mercy of my nafs. So, to even praise Afia Ahmed’s essay feels outright hypocritical of me.
Afia Ahmed examines her relationship with her hijab and how the commodification of the hijab in western fashion and beauty has mystified her. The more we strive for representation and, in essence, acceptance, the greater we stray from the reasons why we, Muslim women, wear the hijab and burqa, and, most importantly, who we wear it for. Coupled with soothing texts from the Qur’an, ‘The Clothes of My Faith’ is a gentle reminder to center ourselves and seek representation from the Almighty first and foremost.
Not Just a Black Muslim Woman by Raifa Rafiq
And isn’t that just one of the most relatable sentences I’ve ever read?
Finally, the essay that made me change my entire Twitter bio. ‘Not Just a Black Muslim Woman’ runs parallel to themes of identity explored in Americanah. “But now I was in England, my skin had caught fire, and I was aware of my blackness.” Raifa Rafiq’s writing encouraged me to think about how I connect with my identity and how I define it too. Before I entered predominantly white spaces, my race and religion didn’t play a factor in how others perceived me nor how I perceived myself. It almost becomes a defensive reflex when I loudly proclaim my racial identity in the face of spaces that aren’t meant to accommodate me. But I soon began questioning why I was playing defensive identity politics and whether my intentions genuinely harmonised with my beliefs. Am I retaliating to protect myself or am I doing this because I genuinely want to? This is the question I often ask myself.
‘Not Just a Black Woman’ taught me to distinguish between my identity related to my community, be that as a Muslimah or as a South Asian woman, and my personal identity and who I am as an individual as two entirely separate things. My race, ethnicity and personality isn’t tied to my identity as an individual. Like Raifa Rafiq, it’s tied to my love for Bollywood films (and Deepika Padukone who is just the most beautiful woman ever), endless to-do lists, an addiction to shopping, crying openly and embracing my million emotions, the gazillion facial expressions I make per minute, it’s pacing around restlessly and not being able to stand still, it’s my obsession with dessert, it’s being outspoken, it’s changing my opinion every 6 months when confronted with new information, and so much more.
My Twitter bio went from highlighting my race, religion and the movements I advocate for to my achievements, creations and passions. Thank you, Raifa Rafiq, for reminding me to celebrate myself.
I can safely say that diverse anthologies are one of my favourite genres. For more diverse anthologies, please check out Etinosa @ Uwadis who shared a list of diverse anthologies you should read. The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write is another excellent collection of essays, poetry, plays, and short stories that I loved.
For further reference and support:
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Have you read ‘It’s Not About the Burqa’? What would your 150-word Twitter bio say about you? How do you feel about representation in the field you work in and in publishing and books? What does representation mean to you? And what are some diverse anthologies you would recommend? Let me know in the comments!
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