GOATMILK proudly introduces an original and exclusive month long series entitled “The Contemporary Muslim Woman” featuring diverse Muslim women writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.
Actual Muslim women talking about Muslim women…what a novel idea.
We hope you enjoy the series and look forward to your feedback in the comments section!
Our first submission is by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed: the author of Love in a Headscarf, a humorous and insightful memoir of growing up as a European Asian Muslim woman. she also writes the blog www.spirit21.co.uk
This is an extract from Love in a Headscarf, reflecting on the choices that Muslim women make, and how audible their voices are.
For Muslim women, wearing the headscarf landed us right in the middle of a double whammy. It polarised feelings with passion and intensity. Traditional Muslim men insisted that Muslim women should wear it in order to defend Islam. The voices in the media that hinted that Muslims were to be feared as stuck-in-the-dark-ages-violent terrorists insisted that Muslim women should not wear the headscarf.
‘Could I say something, please?’ I thought.
I opened my mouth to speak but a Muslim man stepped in to defend me: ‘Islam has given you Muslim women the headscarf as your right, can’t people see that? Of course you are proud that you are liberated.’ I agreed with his statement but felt annoyed that my right as a Muslim woman to defend myself had been taken away from me.
‘I’d really like to say something for myself,’ I thought again.
Once more, before I could speak, I was pre-empted. ‘Muslim women have been brainwashed. You think you want to wear it because your religious leaders tell you that that is what a good Muslim woman should do, so you’re complicit in your own subjugation.’
‘Complicit in my own subjugation?’ I reflected. That sounded complicated and slightly kinky.
I was cross. How dare other people speak on my behalf? If I have been liberated by Islam to be fully human, with full rights, then I am liberated enough to speak for myself. If you think I am oppressed then stop oppressing me further by telling me what to say and think.
I had spent a lot of time considering how I wanted to dress and what impact I wanted to make on the world around me. Wearing a headscarf was not an easy thing to do, as I looked immediately different from everyone around me. With the tense political and social climate, it also made me more vulnerable, more stigmatised. In choosing to wear the headscarf it meant being willing to address these difficulties and these tensions because they were worth bearing, in order to practise my faith and try to make the world a better place by challenging stereotypes of women, Muslim women in particular. As a woman, I had a choice about what to wear, and I fully exercised that choice. It was my decision.
I was hopeful that asserting my own decision would add my small voice to the calls to change the lives of women who were oppressed in the name of any religion. I had made my own choices, but there were Muslim women who were forced to dress and act in a certain way, and that was wrong. Some were forced into marriages, and that was wrong, too. Others were denied education, healthcare or the right to work, or had violent cultural customs forced upon them. It was the same words that had to be said again: wrong, wrong, wrong. Any kind of coercion was absolutely forbidden and utterly opposed to the spirit of Islam. Those who perpetrated such horrible acts of violence and oppression ought to be exposed for what they were really after: power and control. They should not hide behind their false claims that it was in the interests of women, Islam or humanity. The actions of a Muslim always had to be taken with free will, otherwise there was no point. The Qur’an was very clear, ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ You can’t and you must not force anyone to do anything they do not want to do.
Both post-modernists and many traditional Muslims agreed on one thing: feminism was a dirty word. But I was fascinated by the struggles that European women had gone through to create a society where I was able to choose to wear hijab and establish it as a principle of my choice and empowerment. I read writings about throwing off corsets, burning bras and the revolution of the mini-skirt. The questions that women asked then were the same questions that Muslim women were asking now: who were men to tell women how to dress? Why were women being fobbed off with ideas that they had already been given their due, when in fact they hadn’t? Why did women not get their voices heard? I agreed wholeheartedly: women had to throw off their shackles, liberate themselves, enter the workplace and establish equality. I punched the air fervently and then asked myself meekly, was I a feminist?
I thought its aspiration was very attractive. I knew that as a child of the 1980s I had not suffered the inequality and oppression or the struggles and sacrifices of the women who came before. But I was indeed suffering at the hands of an Asian Muslim culture that interpreted Western feminism as misguided, and misguidedly interpreted Islam in order to subjugate women.
I wanted to contribute to the social discourse about gender and equality, but Muslim women who wore the veil by choice, and by extension who embraced Islam as a positive force, were not allowed to have a say. Only Muslim women who had openly rejected Islam were allowed to be part of the discussion. I was an inadmissible feminist.
The global discussion about equality for women referred to the veil as oppressing women, a sign of their second-class status. Where women were forced to wear it, I believed it was wrong. But the fact that they were forced to wear it was not the problem itself: it was the symptom of more serious underlying inequality. That inequality wasn’t part of the blueprint of Islam. Islam talks about equal value and worth for both genders, both equal as creations. Each man and each woman will be judged on their own individual merits for each atom of good and each atom of evil that they have done.
I was most moved by a verse in the Qur’an which says that God ‘created you from a single soul’. No left ribs, no second status. Men and women were from a single soul, equal in creation and worth. Everything else had to be interpreted in this context. That meant if there was inequality in interpretation or in practice, we had to go back to this very essence and rethink where we were. Everything in our understanding as Muslims had to be in the spirit of ‘created from a single soul’.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed writes columns for EMEL magazine and The Muslim News and regularly contributes to the Guardian, the BBC and Channel 4 including Newsnight and The Heaven and Earth Show. Her award-winning blog, Spirit21, is hugely popular. She is a graduate of New College, Oxford. She lives in London. Love in a Headscarf is her first book, and has been featured across the media from BBC World Service, to The Guardian, The Daily Mail to Women’s magazines, and was sold out on Amazon within a week of publication.
You can read her inspiration for the book here: