By Raifa Rafiq
8 Mar 2019
The politics of the Muslim woman remains wrapped up in “debate”. The oppressed-terrorist-bride complex is rampant within our societal infrastructures – and it’s still deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the supposedly reasonable “man on the Clapham omnibus”. Are we now, though, seeing any visible difference in the representation of Muslim women within mainstream media and politics? I’m inclined to think not.
Her identity is still up for discussion by others: if she is perceived to be oppressed, then the secular, white British media must highlight the oppressive nature of her religion and save her from it; if she is on the terrorist-bride-Shamima-Begum side of the scale, she must be reminded that she is not an actual citizen of this country and resides here at the mercy of public and political opinion.
Any visual indicator of ‘Muslimness’ is now argued to have no place in contemporary society
It’s Not About the Burqa is an anthology of essays by Muslim women tackling issues of identity, stereotypes, feminism, the hijab, race and more. The book, which was published in February, provides a platform for Muslim women – I was a contributor – to speak rather than being spoken for by pundits and news reporters, our neighbours and those who are certain of our stories. Muslim women have worked hard to be heard on a wider stage but often it is only in select echo chambers that such voices have been properly listened to.
The writer and historian Afia Ahmed says: “What we’re up against is institutionalised Islamophobia that is intrinsically linked to and is a clear part of our governing body – occasionally rearing its ugly head for public consumption.” Ahmed goes on to say that media representations have linked the veil and visibly Muslim women to heinous acts. “The hyper visibility of Muslims has become a topic of national debate and we need to understand the media’s role in securing this climate of fear. Any visual indicator of ‘Muslimness’ is now argued to have no place in contemporary society.”
This is not to say that Muslim women are not celebrated. They are creating visibility and space for themselves – not just fighting for acknowledgement, but building their own stages and hiring their own mics to affirm themselves and their peers. In recent years it has become harder to ignore Muslim women: in the Instagram/YouTube/bloggersphere, they have told the world that they can be seen; phenomenal black Muslim women are being signed by modelling agencies, featuring in advertising campaigns across the world and fronting magazines.
However, I worry that to be celebrated, a Muslim woman must be seen to be a trailblazer – she is required to leave the home and overcome the “oppression” she must surely be under (do please read my sarcasm). Meanwhile, other woman are celebrated for simply being normal. Being able to break new ground is incredible, but what the essays in It’s Not About the Burqa seek to examine are the ordinary lives of Muslim women.
While the social narrative of the identity of Muslim women is slowly changing – often two steps forward, one step back – I hope the echo chambers where these conversations take place can open up and be heard more widely. And when the moment in the limelight does arrive, Muslim women should continue to dance with the spotlight on us – I recommend “a shimmy”, as I reflected on in the book, “an impenitent and defiant shake of the waist” – where they seek not to be trailblazers, but to see the magic in their normal lives.
• Raifa Rafiq is a trainee solicitor and co-host of literature and pop culture podcast Mostly Lit