On Muslim women and political engagement

February of this year marked 100 years since White, Middle Class, property-owning women won the vote in the UK. The Suffrage movement is a significant part of our national history, whether we like it or not.

I say this because I don’t particularly like the Suffrage movement. I roll my eyes at it, and the subsequent trope on social media. However, I recognise that it did get the ball rolling for many women in this country. I can argue that my Muslim identity means that I come from a religion which determined I had democratic rights from the moment I was born. That argument is whole and valid, and something I am immensely proud of. But a large part of my identity is also made up of the fact that I am a British citizen. This means I recognise how far this country has had come to give me my rights as a citizen. This also means I recognise the significance of politics on my everyday life.

Since September 11, and indeed, the more recent, harrowing contexts of 7/7 bombings, London Bridge, Manchester Arena, I feel, along with many other Muslims, that I am a walking, talking stereotype. Assumptions about my beliefs are constantly being made, from assuming I am from Pakistan, that I am oppressed, that my headscarf means I have a link with ISIS, or any other political conflict in the Middle East for that matter.

Religion and politics have become inextricably linked in so many ways, and has begun to shape policy which affects us all, and the future generations of Muslims. It is important now, more than ever, for Muslims to use whichever platform is available to challenge the narrative which has shaped our faith for us.

When I first began to study Politics at A-Level, I was asked to introduce myself and share why I chose this subject. My answer was very simple: politics is in play in every aspect of our lives, and I want to understand it. There were many who scoffed at my choice of subject; politics is all illusion, they said. Yes, maybe so, but does it not affect you all the same when budget cuts mean a change to your benefits? Are you not affected all the same, outraged even, by changes to your child’s education? This reasoning carries through to this day, amplified through the politicisation of my religion.

As women, we often face backlash by male peers who are affronted by our engagement or  vocality around politics. Unfortunately, this is all the more the case for those of us who are in misogynistic family units, attempting to quieten us down into ‘seen. not heard’ women. We must remind ourselves of our worth. Moreover, we must remind ourselves that we need to strengthen our arguments and our positions, as we are visible targets of microaggressions and growing Islamophobia every day (this Islamophobia in itself being a manifestation of right wing politics).

Aristotle said “man is by nature a political animal”. I am inclined to agree, with the extension: ‘so is woman’. When we understand that politics is understanding the structures of power all around us, we may begin to better understand how we fit in.Even for those who have made an informed decision to stay away from organised politics (I am of course referencing the incredible Lowkey here), are still vocal about politics. They still hold valid, informed, and well-reasoned opinions. They are still engaged.

When we look back at our Islamic history, we can see that the Seerah is rich with examples of the Prophet pbuh engaging in political life. Take the example of the Treaty of Hudaibiyyah, for one. His pbuh ruling of Makkah and Madina came about through his diplomacy and strategy. The Muslim Ummah was able to flourish and expand all the way to Europe through engagement with governance. This essential part of our history should be used as a strong example for us to be engaged citizens, rather than used as a defense mechanism or an argument for politics being out of our reach.

Emmeline Pankhurst may not have represented us, and she may never do. But we are part of a society which means we can engage on our level, regarding issues which matter to us. In whichever shape or form is accessible to us, we should stand up and not allow our civic power to be taken away.


Patriarchy in floral print

I wrote another piece for Slaney Street on why the £22 price tag wasn’t the only thing wrong with the Poppy headscarf which hit us by storm in November 2014. Whilst Slaney Street is no more, you can still have a read of my rambling below.

It is a dangerous double edged sword when a public campaign is both sexist and anti-Islamic.”

In the spirit of all things ‘British’, Muslim women are currently being urged to don a headscarf printed with the red poppies now synonymous with Remembrance Day. Despite apparent support from Islamic Society of Britain, the concept of asking Muslim women to wear the Remembrance Day symbol around their heads as a Hijab (Head covering worn by Muslim women) is fundamentally flawed.

If we are to accept -and we do, as this was the driving force behind the campaign- that this hijab will allow Muslim women to accurately represent British values, then perhaps we ought to examine the notion of British values. David Cameron PM, as well as his cabinet ministers have driven home the rhetoric that being British means to understand, accept, and implement the fundamental values of democracy, equality, respect and tolerance. How then, does dictating what a woman should wear in order to appear British, represent tolerance and equality? How then, are we allowing the perpetuation of a patriarchal status quo wherein society dictates how a woman must dress?

No. Islam is about a woman opting to (many do, and many don’t) dress modestly; opting to cover her hair. Many Muslim women believe the inherent feminism to the concept of Hijab is instrumental to their identity. Their religion and their femininity are intertwined, and they represent it through their Hijab. To then allow an increasingly embarrassing culture of Muslim Apologism – from the #NotInMyName media storm to shortening the name Muhammed to ‘Mo’ – to override a component of Islamic faith, in turn overrides the British value of mutual respect and tolerance of every religion. It is simply not tolerable to expect Muslim women to become inadvertent brand ambassadors for fallen soldiers through their dress. Not only does it undermine their right to dress as they please, it undermines their intellect. The Remembrance Day rhetoric cannot be enforced; many Muslim women (myself included) make informed decisions to adopt an anti-war stance. To presume that a Muslim woman is not educated enough to make up her own mind about wearing a Red Poppy again contradicts the British values we are so dearly promoting.

Personally, I interpret pushing Muslim women to wear the Poppy hijab for fallen Muslim soldiers as a redundant and patriarchal concept; an excuse to allow the rise of creeping Islamophobia and existent sexism to further seep into popular Muslim culture. See for example, the use of the Prevent campaign in targeting figures of popular Muslim culture like comedian Humza Arshad to endorse and advice against strong expressions of Muslim identity. Why are we allowing a government agenda to order how we express our feminine Muslim identity? It seems to be reflective of a wider post 9/11 strategy to mould Islam into something which is comforting to the British government and public. It is patriarchal in allowing a fundamentally feminine expression of identity to be manipulated into what is deemed acceptable by societal norms.

For many Muslim women, their hijab is a practical expression of equality. It is their right to freely practice their religion, with the expectation that this expression will welcome nothing but respect and tolerance. Liberation through Hijab is inextricably linked with the liberty of choice. Commanding that choice erodes the principles of an egalitarian society which we are supposedly champions of in Britain. To implicitly declare to Muslim women that it is through wearing a Remembrance Poppy printed Hijab that their expression of faith will be accepted in British society, is both inconsistent to the values of tolerance and equality between genders.

The Hijab has, for too long, been a topic of discussion in the Western media. From the rise in Hijab fashion culture to feminist groups such as FEMEN protesting against women who choose to cover, the debate continues to this day. It may not come as a total surprise; women are immediately recognisable as followers of the Islamic faith through Hijab. However, to interpret this as an issue which needs resolving somehow, is problematic. It feeds into a wider conversation about the White Saviour complex, and the need to whitewash every practice the Western world deems alien.

Increasingly, we are hearing of said Muslim women being openly attacked and subject to violent abuse. Is encouraging these women to modify their choice of expression not feeding into a culture of blaming the victim instead of punishing the perpetrator? Why do we not address the issues of misrepresentation and lack of education, instead of allowing a culture of bigotry and intolerance to continue to breed by changing Islamic practice to fit into a narrow-minded mould? To say that we are moulding it towards a British Islam is contradictory; a truly British Islam would accept both the Muslim female choice to wear Hijab and not to wear a Remembrance Poppy on those infamous grounds of respect, equality and tolerance.

To blatantly target Muslim women who wear Hijab is not only Islamophobic, it is outright offensive in its motivation to mould women – how is that okay?

Muslim women don’t need cheerleaders

2015 saw, amongst many other debacles, Cathy Newman claiming she was ushered out of a Mosque in South London. In response, I wrote a short piece for friends over at Slaney Street. Slaney Street was a great little independent newspaper set up in Birmingham which has sadly now been disbanded. Happily (one hopes), you can still have a read below.


Mainstream media is never shy of a story riddled with anti-Muslim sentiment. The latest story to have seemingly taken us by storm is the Cathy Newman Mosque Fiasco. Capitalised letters are used in a sense of irony here, for the Fiasco soon revealed it to be little but a screen of smoke. Media outlets blew up following Channel 4 reporter’s inflammatory tweet claiming she had been ushered out of South London Islamic Centre Mosque, despite being ‘respectfully dressed’ with her hair covered. The national media reaction which followed wasn’t at all surprising by current standards. However, the red lines underscoring her experience is the tip of an iceberg, but this is not the only problem.

Social media has since exploded with reactionary outrage; after it emerged that Cathy Newman did not tell the whole story. The reality of her experience resulted in having to deal with a rather shame-faced public apology, as CCTV footage has revealed that in fact, she was not ushered out as she claimed. Whilst many Muslims now feel they can breathe a sigh of relief, and Cathy Newman is left shame-faced for her brazen lies about how she was treated, this is reflective of wider issues concerning Muslim women that need to be addressed.

It was Newman’s initial tweet which paved the way for wider conversations addressing the treatment of Muslim women in Mosque communities. Yet this in itself is problematic. Muslim women, much like every other marginalised community, face struggles, both from the outside and from within. What supposedly happened with Cathy Newman has served to open the dialogue of Muslim women, once again. What kind of barbaric religion pushes women out of their own places of worship? (Not mine.) And whilst Newman’s apology has gone a little way to change the mainstream perception of Muslim women in Mosques, the conversation has been opened up about the reality of treatment Muslim women face in many Masaajid.

It’s an unfortunate and no doubt uncomfortable reality: many mosques simply do not allow Muslim women their due rights when it comes to upholding their entitlement.

Across the pond, the opening of the female only masjid in LA earlier this year paints a painfully stark picture of the reality Muslim women within their community. Constant deprivation from participating in the Muslim civic community leaves us questioning why we are subjected to sub-standard treatment when Islam came to eradicate the subjugation of women. Rather than focus on the intricacies of rights and wrongs surrounding a female-only mosque, this undeniable reality of the treatment of women needs to be challenged and changed. But my point is this must come from Muslim women. It is coming from Muslim women, and this needs acknowledgement. Cathy Newman does not speak for us, no matter how unfortunately the undertones of her experience may ring true.

It needs to be said, and remains to be recognised that Muslim women are the champions of their own cause. As a Muslim woman, it is frustrating to witness yet another issue hijacked by the White Feminist movement. It is reflective of a heinously unfair set up when the achievements of Muslim women in overcoming their relative struggles seemingly only gain validation once ‘experienced’ by a White woman who affords privileges Muslim women never will. Muslim women have been given their rights (which believe it or not, includes being able to freely pray in a Mosque) and they are entitled to uphold them. Cathy Newman doesn’t need to be the one to point this out. That she has, and the wide reception it received, accurately reflects the depressing reality of White privilege. White Liberal Feminism does not deserve its privilege of being able to frame the narrative of Muslim women and their struggles.

Another example is World Hijab Day. Whilst celebrating the beautiful display of faith adorned by countless Muslim women globally is nothing to be scorned at, the celebration should come from within. It borders discriminatory when experiences of non-Muslim (mainly White) women “trying a Hijab for a day” is what grabs the limelight. We cannot lay claim to celebrating Muslim women when their every experience is only deemed worthy through the experimental dabbling of White women, seeking to explore, and by extension, validate. This constant confirmation of the Muslim Woman Experience is patronising, and subtracts from the agency of Muslim women in their own right.

The hierarchy which perpetuates the standard which paints Muslim women as inept is precarious. Despite attempting to liberate them from a religion which apparently envelopes Muslim women in a shroud of ineptitude, by claiming that you best represent their struggles is self-indulgent at best, and denigrating at worst. Cathy Newman, thank you for attempting to experience the Muslim woman struggle, but we are doing just fine by ourselves.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Being Brown

I wrote a piece over on one of my favourite books ever, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and my personal connection with it. This piece originally appeared on Vocal.

Exploring identity politics through the fictional lens of Changez:

Five years ago I picked up a book that I never finished, but I fell in love with its title and the promise of a narrative so perfectly laced with a train of political and religious of thought that would fall perfectly in line with mine.

Five years on, I have finally finished this book. I was not wrong.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, written by Pakistani-born, London-living author Mohsin Hamid, is so full of rich expression and irony, I half expected the words to take a bow on the last page. A reluctant one perhaps, all things considered.

There is a kind of humility that only comes from a confident self-assurance. The main character, Changez, exudes this in a way that left me wistful. You see, Changez is the literal expression of myself that I never had the courage, nor the quiet intelligence to display. Despite many hours spent in seminars discussing the state of America in global politics, and its position of arrogant assumed superiority and the repercussions of 9/11, I always came across too angry, emotive, passionate; understanding politics from a defensive position rather than an intelligent one.

Changez said everything I never mustered the ability to. He perfectly articulates the dissonance between Western and South Asian identity; a developing country citizen relaying first hand experiences of the impact of Western “development” and foreign policy, specifically in a post 9/11 context.

The story is largely centred on Changez’s initial perusal of the American Dream, which is soon shattered by suspicion and internal conflict following the bombing of the Twin Towers. It follows his journey back home to Pakistan, and eventually his perceived identity of a “fundamentalist” by an American journalist/member of the intelligence services (the lack of clarity adds to the dynamism of the novel). However, it is the covert nuances of the novel; the unwritten edge of irony which leaks out of every line of the dramatic monologue; the *nudge nudge wink wink* inside political jokes Changez cracks at the American’s expense; the bittersweet reality of his predicament at somebody who has fallen victim to the post-9/11 racial profiling; the underlying mutual understanding between Changez and the reader of the reality of the situation which mirrors true for so many outside of the pages of this novel.

It may seem that Changez has been forced to “pick sides” (America or Anti-America), but the reality is that the colour of Changez’ skin, the accent in his voice, the hair covering his chin—all determined his position before he even had a say in the matter. In this regard, Changez draws upon the experience of many Muslims living in the Western world following the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing “with us or against us” paradigm. Such a binary is damaging, counter-productive even, (and one needs only look at the statistics of those who have turned to violent extremes in order to voice their frustration and political indignation at being targetted for the colour of the skin or the God they pray to), to understand this. It is 2017 now, and it continues to be this way. The Reluctant Fundamentalist raises pertinent questions about the value of government programmes intended at reducing the perceived threat of other deadly attacks, and whether the ensuing result of wrongly shattering and dissolving the lives of ordinary citizens along the way is really the answer.

Most importantly perhaps, it raises the issue of “Muslim identity and beyond”; can you be Muslim and be multi-dimensional? It explores how the post 9/11 division created a tunnel vision when concerning Muslim identity—almost as though being Muslim meant subscribing to a concrete and homogeneous identity. And yet the reality of the lived Muslim experience is so far beyond this flawed notion, and the novel serves a useful reminder of this. Perhaps this is best captured in the words of Changez when he says “Yes, I am Pakistani; yes, I am Muslim. But that is not all I am.”

I have personalised Changez here, but I ought to pay due respect to his creator. Since completing The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I have gone on to read all of Mohsin Hamid’s fictional works, and I am yet to be left disappointed. Never before have I been so taken aback by an author’s ability to weave irony, humour, anthropology, relationships, political commentary, wit, and dialogue in a blanket of pure literary perfection. Hamid has a particular talent of allowing you to so fully enter another world and yet feel so connected with your own. That is my experience of a brown girl reading his work, and I can only hope he continues to fly the flag for cutting South Asian talent in literature.


On Brexit

Yesterday evening I met with a dear friend of mine over mint tea and fatayer at our favourite Syrian cafe. She is a special soul, an Italian with a big heart and a loving spirit, and our conversation inspired me to post (re-post, rather) this.

As we discussed the implications of the recent British decision to leave the European Union (*lovingly* known as Brexit) and how this affects us both as minorities, I was reminded of how disheartened and disappointed I felt on the evening of 24th June 2016, as the reality of the majority Leave vote began to sink in. And so, I had taken to Facebook to express how I felt – which is an unusual thing for me to do, believe it or not! I wanted to share it here too, in the hope of keeping my blog true to myself and true to expressing my thoughts. It is more of an emotional response, rather than a succinct political analysis, to the implications of Brexit, but politics is a highly strung game.

Whilst the EU is far from a perfect institution, the importance of Remain has never wavered in my mind. Like many of my close friends, I woke up with a sense of sick dread in my stomach today at the outcome of the EU Referendum. This has slowly developed into a solid sense of disappointment. .
I am disappointed in David Cameron, the absolute tosser of a PM who was irresponsible enough to pledge this Ref in the first place to appease the Right of his Party, and then cried crocodile tears and went off to enjoy his off-shore account. Seriously, did this nation not realise the first couple of (hundred) times him and his party screwed us over?
I am upset and angry because the outcome of this really won’t affect the likes of him or his family, but they will affect mine, and the lives of my young friends starting out, who will struggle beyond measure to obtain mortgages, and travel, and study; who have lost rights to live and work in 27 countries.
I am disappointed because honest, generous, and kind-hearted friends from Europe have today been left feeling unwanted by a Britain that so selfishly takes from their own ‘home’ countries.
I am disappointed in those who didn’t bother to vote this time, when it was so clearly important. I am disappointed on the impact that this result now has on the work that I do in the realm of human rights, and I am disheartened as to how far we have come from where we need to be. I am anxious as to what this now holds for the future of our human rights.
I am appalled that Farage has the audacity to state “without a bullet being fired” when Jo Cox would beg to differ.
I think most of all, I am beyond disappointed in my fellow Muslim community – which suddenly became blind to the racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic rhetoric of Leave and failed to see how they were shooting themselves in the foot by aligning with the likes of UKIP. Appalled isn’t a strong enough word to describe how I feel at hearing the anti-immigrant spiel many of them uttered as reason for voting Leave. I hope you realise that when you walk down the street, you are far more likely to be attacked for being an immigrant because of your visible brown skin than your Polish neighbour. And here’s a newsflash: you ARE the product of a migrant community.
I wish I could end this with the somewhat humorous line I’ve been throwing around all day of moving to Canada, but the bitter reality is that I don’t have the privilege to do that, and neither do those I care about.