‘It’s Not About The Burqa’ | Redefining Faith, Culture and Identity

It’s Not About The Burqa is a collection of powerful essays which discuss faith, sexuality, race, love, activism, and overall, identity, from the viewpoints of 17 Muslim women.

It’s no secret that the UK has a huge issue with Islamaphobia. Not only has our very own Prime Minister referred to Muslim women as ‘letterboxes’ and actively voted against a bill that sought to protect religious communities from attack (the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act which thankfully passed), but between 2018 and 2019, 47% of religious hate crimes were targeted against Muslims despite the fact they make up less than 5% of the population. [1] [2] [3]

Part of the reason Islamaphobia is so rampant in the UK, is because the Muslim identity has become increasingly politicised by mainstream media, news, and the government, in a way that fails to acknowledge who the Muslim community actually are. Instead of hearing from the community themselves, they are reduced by the media to negative clichés and harmful stereotypes. 

In a successful attempt to negate this character assassination and reclaim their identity, Mariam Khan has collected 17 powerful, intelligent, and thought-provoking essays that give Muslim women the platform to tell us exactly who they are.

I like to think of myself as someone who is aware of social injustices and who knows not to believe everything they read. Yet I learned so much from this book and it really made me realise how horrifically Islam has been misrepresented in the West. We are constantly being told that Islam is an oppressive religion that forces its women into positions of submission, but did you know that Muslim women had ‘the right to vote, to own property and wealth, the right to an education, and the right to work’ long before western women ever did? Did you know that ‘the person credited for founding the oldest existing, first degree-awarding educational institution in the world’ was a Muslim woman? No? Neither did I, and that’s what makes this book so intensely important. 

This book asks us to throw out our western prejudices and actually listen to those we have been educated to be prejudiced against. It asks us to listen to these stories and understand that the Muslim Woman we are shown in the news does not exist. Because just like every other person on this planet, Muslim women cannot be put into a box. They are all uniquely different with a diverse array of experiences, thoughts, opinions and beliefs. 

Throughout the essays, the authors discuss their own relationship with Islam, discussions which cover a range of topics from sexuality, faith, divorce, love, feminism, and clothing. It will make you laugh, it will make you nod your head in agreement, it will make you angry, but most importantly, it will make you think. This book is a must-read that forces you to examine your own assumptions and prejudices and educates you for the better.

As with any anthology, there are always going to be favourites. Below, I have summarised and reviewed three of the essays that resonated the most with me in the hopes it will inspire you to pick up the book and read these essays and the ones they sit alongside. 

Too Loud, Swears Too Much and Goes Too Far, Mona Eltahawy

In this essay, Eltahawy explains that her writing has often been labelled offputting because she is ‘too loud, swears too much and goes too far.’ Whilst others may have found this an insult, Eltahawy is proud of the characterisation because to her, it proves her rejection of the ‘quiet, modest, humble, polite, nice, well behaved’ woman the patriarchy wants her to be. For Eltahawy, the statement is a badge of honour to wear with pride. 

Eltahawy explains that ‘to be a Muslim in the so-called West [is to be…] beleaguered and subjected to the violence of racism and bigotry’ that would seek to shrink Muslim women down. In response to this, Eltahawy calls for her readers to live loudly, take up space, and battle against the role men and western society want Muslim women to fit into. 

Eltahawy details her own feminist awakening through the words of writers such as Gloria Anza-Idúa, Toni Cade Bambara, Nawal El Saadawi, and Fatema Mernissi, whose ‘books and […] feminism were the start of [her] revolution.’ She defines revolution as something that ‘defies, disobeys and disrupts patriarchy,’ as something that ‘challenge[s] the community,’ as something that ‘rattle[s] the privileged and discomfort[s] the complacent.’ Just as with her own feminist icons, she hopes her words can awaken the eyes of her readers to the injustices women face today.

In her final paragraph, she ends with a battle cry to the people, calling us all to revolution because ‘we must jump into a space we have created’ and fight ‘against misogyny, racism, Islamaphobia, and all forms of bigotry.’

Eltahawy’s essay is unapologetic as it calls for women of all backgrounds to take up space and define their own role in this society. 

The Clothes of My Faith, Afia Ahmed

I’m sure you, as I have, have witnessed the battle raging in the public space that calls for Muslim women to be freed from the oppressive hijab and veil. Yet, as you may have also noticed, this is a battle that is very often waged by white people and not those it actually affects. No, instead of asking Muslim women their opinion and granting them a space to speak, white politicians and activists take the lead in this discussion. For some white activists, they may believe they are doing the right thing and raising their own voices for those they believe the garment oppresses. For some white politicians, it may yet be another opportunity to push anti-Muslim rhetoric into the spotlight. Despite intentions, both are ultimately failing the very women they ‘appear’ to be helping and are only adding to the growing Islamaphobia that permeates the UK.

In her essay, Ahmed enters into this discussion and explains that the hijab has ‘come to define millions of Muslim women,’ yet it is not Muslim women who have a say in what it represents, instead, that is decided by those in a position of power. Ahmed discusses how the hijab was ‘once wor[n] as an affirmation of […] faith, as an act of submission to God.’ However, due to the intense politicisation the garment has undergone, it has now become a way for Muslim women to ‘reassert their socio-political and cultural identities, and act as an affirmation of their ethno-religious selves.’ That is that for some, ‘the hijab is a symbol of defiance’ against a society that would seek to dictate what and who a Muslim is.

As part of her discussion, Ahmed dissects the fashion industry, an industry well-known for setting beauty standards within society and explores the role of Muslim’s in this commercialised field. Following the events of 9/11, the hijab became synonymous with terrorist and became a physical identifier for racists to launch their attacks. Due to this, there was an increased need for more representation in mainstream media that contrasted and challenged this narrative. Yet as Ahmed states, ‘be careful what you wish for’ and explains that whilst representation has occurred in the beauty and fashion industry it is not for diversity, but because Muslims represents a considerable part of the consumer market, and retailers want part of that disposable income. 

Through this lens, Ahmed uses her essay to engage with a large and influential industry, and explores the differences between performative activism and productive progression.

Feminism Needs to Die, Mariam Khan

As a white feminist, I found this essay to be incredibly important and I think it’s something everyone should read. In her essay, Khan explores the difference between Feminism and White Feminism. Khan explains that White Feminism ‘centres the agenda and needs of white, straight, middle-class, cis, able-bodied women while making claims that it speaks on behalf of all women.’ At its core, White Feminism is something that centres the majority and fails to recognise that women of different races, sexualities and religions have different needs and battles. 

Khan does excellent work to demonstrate the dangers of white feminism and how it negatively impacts those it appears to be defending. It asks difficult questions and forces white women to realise that their feminism may benefit them, but completely disregards the fights of anyone who looks slightly different. One part which really stands out, is Khan’s declaration that ‘if white feminists want to be a part of the narrative they will need to de-centre themselves.’ This is such an important message because it is our duty as white women to make space for all women and ensure that the voices elevated are those society would silence. 

Khan’s essay is so extremely powerful and an active reminder that whilst we are white feminists we should not be partaking in White Feminism. 

There are so many other essays I could talk about, including A Woman of Substance by Saima Mir and Hijabi (R)evolution by Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, but I don’t want to ruin the book or deter you from buying it because you feel like you’ve read the book through my review. No, instead, I implore you to buy this book and read it for yourself. 

The question of ‘who Muslims are?’ is constantly being discussed within mainstream media but fails to ask the opinion of those who are the subject. Yet through this collection of essays, Mariam Khan has provided a powerful rebuttal that elevates the voices of Muslim women and allows them to take control of their own narrative.

Through the essays, these 17 women deliver an authentic and deeply important declaration of who Muslim women are in a society that would seek to silence them. 

Thank you for reading, 

Holly x

3 thoughts on “‘It’s Not About The Burqa’ | Redefining Faith, Culture and Identity

  1. Thank you for this comprehensive review. It’s Not About The Burqa has been on my TBR for quite some time. It’s indeed inspiring to hear the viewpoints of Muslim women on various subjects. Keep writing 🙂


    1. It’s truly a must-read! Especially with the character assassination that continues to happen in Western media, it’s so refreshing and important to actually hear from Muslim women themselves!

      Liked by 1 person

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