The Layers of Discrimination Against Muslim Women

I have wanted to learn more about Islam, having realised I know little about it and how Muslim women, in particular, often have a narrative imposed upon them. I have recently had some illuminating conversations with students about Islam, my daughter has had two trips to mosques in so many months (once with Beavers, once with school), and I have researched a little about the festival of Eid. In reading We Have Always Been Here and It's Not About the Burqa, I have been able to put these events into a wider context, and have broadened my understanding of how the intersection of racism, islamophobia and sexism play their part in oppressing Muslim women.

First up, Samra Habib has written a bold, brave and brilliant memoir about being a female, queer Muslim, how this affected her relationship with her family and with Allah. Although she has now embraced her identity, and is connected with her community and with her religion, it hasn't always been easy (far from it) and her candid recollection of her younger years is a sobering read.

She is keen to stress that Islam is pro-woman but that Pakistan, for instance, has imposed a cultural, rather than religious, patriarchy. Her upbringing involving strict, conservative men is only too-clear. Of her Dad, she points out early on that:

"He was the strict ruler of the household, and he'd made it clear to us - my mother included - that good Muslim women shouldn't dance or laugh or be heard... "Allah hates the loud laughter of women!" he'd bellow."

At the age of 4, Habib was abused as a child, when her parents left her with a friend of the father. After running into the street shouting "Mama!", she finally found her mother. Describing her mother's reaction, Habib says "Her eyes displaying the horror at the possibility of her worst fear being a reality... Once she determined that my hymen had not been broken, she uncovered her face by taking off her burka; finally, she could breathe as deeply as she need to. She was too mortified by taking me to the doctor... she didn't dare discuss it with friends and family for fear of people speculating whether I was still a virgin, the worse possible outcome". Astonishingly, her mother's fear of shame was greater than the fear of her daughter's trauma. As she explains though, female alignment and responsibility are often sadly drilled in by family and society in general.

"So my mother came of age knowing abandonment and neglect intimately. Her experiences taught her that as a woman, fertility, purity, and beauty were the only currencies she could exchange for a better life."

Expanding on this point about a woman's worth in society, in particular her mother:

"She lived in a country where countless women are found dead in alleyways and on the sides of dirt roads, their bodies discarded because they were not able to conceive children, particularly boys."

Not only are often women reduced to the sum of their reproductive parts, Samsa's family was part of a religious minority. Her sect, the Amadis, believed in non-violence and stressed tolerance of other faiths yet, as a child, General Zia-ul-Haq's influence on the Islamification of Pakistan impacted their every day lives. "He established Shariat courts and punishments like whipping, amputation, and being stoned to death were now common practice for criminal offences, such as adultery and blasphemy."

A Muslim can still be a minority in Pakistan if they follow the wrong interpretation of the Qur'an, in a similar way that a Protestant and a Catholic have fundamental disagreements over the interpretation of the Bible. It's astonishing that Habib not only survived but thrived and, more than that, is telling her story. I was in awe throughout the book. The achievement of being able to write a book when the multitude of intersectional discrimination is quite miraculous.

On being queer, she said

"Being queer, I learned, is so much more than who you sleep with. It's who you are, whether that means rejecting traditional gender roles or embracing non-normative identities and politics."

Near the end of the book, there is an interesting story of how Habib developed an inclusive space for queer Muslims. She talks about meeting someone called Laila, who went door to door to talk to working-class people of colour about the economic struggles in their community.

"Laila talked about witnessing post-traumatic slave syndrome in a lot of African Americans she spoke with, "a deep numbing and hopelessness from generational trauma" that blacks have in America. As a black queer Muslim, Laila identified with the feeling of hopelessness she recognised in other African Americans she met; she admitted that she experienced it every day. And yet she always managed to tap back into her strength.

"We exist," she told me, "and we're fierce as fuck."


It's Not About the Burqa is an amazing collection of essays written by lots of different Muslim women about a variety of issues. Again, one thing I took away from reading this book was how unexpected each essay was because they contained narratives so infrequently told. Muslim women are not a monolith. They do not all think and interpret things in the same way as each other. I knew this already, obviously, but to see a variety of stories evidencing this stance is particularly powerful. Below I have included some of my favourite quotes but I encourage you all to read it. In the same way The Good Immigrant is a book I often refer to because it humanises marginalised people and encourages empathy, It's Not About the Burqa, does the same thing.

On the Representation of Muslims by Nafisa Bakkar

This essay talks about the tokenism of representation and how that isn't enough. It dives into how Muslim women are often portrayed but a section that stuck in particular was her precise exposure of an example of respectability politics in the Conservative Party. She writes of Savid Javid, when asked about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party: "For a Starter let's just look at who the Home Secretary is in this country. As you just described me, my name is Sajid Javid. I'm the Home Secretary in this country". Javid's flimsy argument, pointed out by Bakkar is the Tories couldn't possibly be Islamophobic because he himself is Muslim (although, as the article points out, he isn't a practising one, making a flimsy argument even weaker). I often think about Priti Patel's anti-immigration stance, despite being a second-generation immigrant. Just because they, and others, might be a minority background, doesn't mean they represent the views of their communities.

The Clothes of My Faith by Afia Ahmed

A student from my school wrote a brilliant piece for other students on World Hijab Day about how it is often perceived to be an oppressive garment rather than a symbol of their faith. This quote from Ahmed exposes another floor in the western narrative. Ultimately, we should stop trying to interpret, critisize, fetishize or monetise something we have no connection to.

"Representation in the beauty and fashion industries has done nothing for productive progression; rather it has fetishized the hijab and taken away from its true meaning."

Feminism Needs to Die by Mariam Khan

Editor of the book, and author of this excellent piece, Mariam Khan writes "Islam is a religion that empowers women" but that the White Feminist perspective "disapproves of the hijab, the burqa, modest culture and other elements of the Muslim female identity... if I make the decision to dress for my faith then I must be oppressed or submissive." Even, as Khan points out, the #MeToo movement was not inclusive. Black women, Muslim women, queer women etc. must all be included into feminist discourse. 'Ain't I A Woman?', taken from a speech by activist Sojourner Truth in 1851, is a strong and powerful reminder of this.

Shame, Shame, It Knows Your Name by Amna Saleem

Saleem describes how a Muslim woman is so eagerly misinterpreted for the advancement of left or right wing thought.

"Depending on the narrative, my words will either be used to signal that I am guilty by association or that I am a whistleblower who is finally revealing 'the truth' about my own community. The willingness of white racists to use our community's problems as ammunition makes it incredibly hard to criticize it without feeling like a traitor."

I liked this piece because it linked nicely to the first essay by Mona Eltahawy whose title was ‘Too loud, Swears too much and Goes too far’. Saleem's similar humour and bolshiness helps her to tackle the racism and misogyny of white men. She writes:

"Once I understood that most of their actions result from ignorance and fragile masculinity it became easier to dismiss them."

A Woman of Substance by Saima Mir

This quote does the talking. I thought it especially honest and brave and, having just read Samra Habib's We've Always Been Here, I was alert to the shame often imposed on women and thought it well articulated here:

"There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt comes from recognizing one's own mistake. Shame is heaped upon us by others. And their is a place for shame in society. It should be heaped upon the patriarchal cultures that subjugate women. It should be felt by the women who allow it to continue, both through their silence and their actions. It should be placed upon the men who stand by and allow their mothers, their sisters, their wives and their aunts to oppress women in the name of Islam, men who benefit from their privilege."

Mir caps it off brilliant with this very last last sentence:

I am an emancipated Muslim woman. There is no contradiction in this.

Not Just a Black Muslim Woman by Raifa Rafiq

As with all of the essays from this book, this one by Raifa Rafiq shared her unique experience. Being a Black Muslim Woman isn't something she wants to be exclusively defined by and it reminds us that to label people is to dismiss their natural human complexities.

"There is no doubt that Black culture and Black identity is commercially exploited and moulded to profit everyone who is not black: to be black in Britain is to see your life used as a prop in a pantomime that you cannot direct. Everyone wants to be black but nobody wants to live black."

Between Submission and Threat by Malia Bouattia

A theme that runs lightly through this book is how words can be twisted to suit the narrator's intention. Yet, as this final quote observes, those who build bridges with others, rather than create barriers, will be the ones that can help beat discrimination. My paraphrasing is much cornier than the actual quote...

"The question of Islamophobia one that will require Muslims to build broad alliances with others - unions, community groups, social justice campaigners - who are concerned about the rise of racism, the undermining of civil liberties, and the growth of discriminatory policies. It is these people who will serve as our allies in the struggle ahead."

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