Review: It’s Not About The Burqa edited by Mariam Khan

When was the last time you heard a Muslim woman speak for herself without a filter? Or outside the narrative built around us by the media and governments? If Muslim women are to progress in society, if Muslim women are to be treated with respect, then it’s so important that we challenge the narrative built around us…We should be the authors of our narrative and identity; we should be the ones speaking ‘about’ us.

Mariam Khan

When I say that it was a joy and a privilege to listen to 17 Muslim women speak openly and frankly about it means to them to be a Muslim woman in a Western society, I’m not just saying that for effect. Mariam Khan has curated a wonderful and diverse selection of female voices to speak on a range of subjects including the hijab, faith, love and divorce, feminism, sexuality, sex and the impact of a disapproving community against the backdrop of a racist country.

I was captivated listening to each of these very different women speak one after the other, and it occurred to me that other than on Twitter, and maybe the odd article in The Guardian newspaper this was probably the first time I was hearing Muslim women speak for themselves about things that mattered to them. There wasn’t this outside voice – usually white, mostly male and often establishment, chiming in with their hot take on Islam, that we were all expected to believed unequivocally, because obviously they’re the experts. And that’s where the joy began for me, because I was able to hear from different women what their faith mean to them and the ways in which they felt could express it, especially within a society that is often sceptical, if not opposed to faith regardless and obvious visual manifestations of it.

I was entertained by the essay by Coco Khan, which had me laughing quietly on the train as she described attempting to challenge her mother’s views on modesty and feminism only to be challenged in turn by her mother’s very wise and nuanced responses. I learned an awful lot from Aina Khan OBE’s insightful piece about unregistered nikahs (marriage contracts), and the lack of protection it affords for Muslim women, creating serious problems for them should their marriage come to an end, and arguably the wider community. And I was really moved by Ashfan D’Souza-Lodhi’s essay Hijabi (R)evolution, as she discussed her complex relationship with wearing the hijab and her exploration of her queer identity.

This essay collection is insightful, passionate and at times humorous. However, it’s also easy to hear the anger and frustration that comes with not being heard, being misunderstood, being simultaneously subjected to racism and misogyny and being reduced to lazy stereotypes as a result of your clothing choices. And understandably so. It goes without saying that we need more discourse like this; we need more women speaking about the intersections of faith, gender, race, and sexuality, and being given the space and platform to do so. I believe It’s Not About the Burqa is just the beginning.

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