By Shelina Janmohamed
1 Mar 2019
What progress, if any, have we made in the last decade when it comes to our understanding of Muslim women? I found myself asking this question when the BBC’s Bodyguard won best new drama last month at the National Television awards, having amassed 11 million viewers including 48% of the audience share for its finale.
Spoiler alert: the Muslim woman at the heart of the story starts out as the groomed victim of a brutal Jihadi husband, but by the end of the season her character is unmasked as the violent terrorist.
Actually, no spoiler alert is needed because these are exactly the stereotypes constantly perpetuated about Muslim women in daily life.
It’s probably one of the reasons the Shamima Begum case is having such a profound impact; one-dimensional stereotypes about Muslim women already run so deep. Begum embodies this exact victim-terrorist paradox. While the former Bethnal Green schoolgirl did join Isis, we don’t know whether she committed crimes while in Syria, and none of us will unless she is brought to justice.
But the binary way in which her story has been framed – she is either a dangerous public enemy and security risk covered from head to toe in her long black clothing, audaciously demanding to be taken back to Britain, or she is a helpless victim, tricked into marriage to a man twice her age, rape, three pregnancies, the loss of two babies, post-natal depression and war trauma – is unhelpful. It ignores the fact that sometimes the truth is complex and lies somewhere between the extremes, and that is having an impact on other Muslim women in Britain.
There are already reports of abuse and hatred against Muslim women as a result of her case. It emerged this week that a shooting range in Merseyside has been using images of Begum as target practice. Children as young as six are welcomed at this range, and presumably even they will be allowed to fire bullets at a target of Begum’s face. It’s as though there is an unspoken glee in suddenly being able to revel in openly demonising a Muslim woman with impunity. A reinterpretation of the Salem witch trials for a modern era might look like this. I should repeat at this point – for those who will double down on their stereotypes of Muslim women by accusing me of being a terrorism apologist – that she should face justice, but she needs to be investigated rather than tried in advance by assumptions as those witches once were.
On our streets, on our front pages and across much of our media, in the mouths of our politicians, at the dinner table and in even the most genteel of establishments, the stereotypes of Muslim women over the last decade persist, in fact I’d say have become more entrenched. These stereotypes include: being at once both victim and terrorist, oppressed, “traditionally submissive”, unable to speak English, brainwashed, waiting to be saved by feminists among others, lacking in agency (but also at the same time blamed for bringing up young jihadis).
Sometimes well-meaning people feed the stereotypes with platitudes: (don’t worry, I see past your headscarf). Others take away our agency (did your father make you marry him?), while some simply see us as walking bombs and demand we obey their patriarchal demands (answer my questions, and if you don’t then you must be a jihadi). These stereotypes are incredibly resistant to change.
Ten years ago I wrote a book Love in a Headscarf, which set out to challenge stereotypes by telling my own story. It was described in the Guardian as hovering “somewhere between chick-lit and memoir”. As I explained in these pages in 2009, it was an expression of how I was “fed up with reading stories in the papers about how all Muslim women are oppressed”.
It was one of the first books that explored the idea of a Muslim woman who was confident but questioning of her faith, trying to find a place in a world. But 10 years on it feels like the book could be written today, and would still run up against the same stereotypical thinking.
True, a new cohort of Muslim women has grown up in that time. Some have entered and started to make an impact on politics such as the eight female Muslim MPs currently serving in the House of Commons, and more senior leaders in the House of Lords such as Sayeeda Warsi, Meral Ece-Hussain and Nosheena Mobarik.
Our public figures have changed too, with Mishal Husain as one of the voices we now wake up to on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and Fatima Manji on Channel 4 News. Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain brings joy (and great food) to homes around the country, and is confident and proud in describing herself as British, Bangladeshi and Muslim.
This month has seen publication of It’s Not About the Burqa, an anthology of stories edited by Mariam Khan and written by Muslim women. It follows in the footsteps of The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write published in 2017. These would have been unthinkable when my book came out, and I hope I helped to lay the foundation for such writing.
Social media has also given a platform to young Muslim women, some of whom reach millions of people, proving the point that their stories are of interest and value.
So while there is much to be glad about, and even if it is easier in relative terms for Muslim women to have their voices heard now, the responses are more likely to be aggressive and even violent.
The conversation about women has moved forward dramatically with movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp. Yet the conversation about Muslim women continues to be stuck in a groundhog day of veils, Burkinis and Jihadi brides. Suspicion and dehumanisation are rarely far from the surface.
Islamophobia is real, and gendered Islamophobia even more so, layering anti-Muslim hatred and misogyny together often with an unhealthy dollop of racism.
No matter how hard and how constantly we challenge the hostility, discrimination, misrepresentation and abuse we face day in and day out, being fed those stereotypes from all sides means they have a huge impact. It’s harder for Muslim women to get jobs. Verbal abuse and physical assault are on the rise. All of us should be deeply alarmed.
What brings joy to my heart is that Muslim women are increasingly vocal about their rights that their place in this society is theirs by right, and they are no longer willing to accept a meek head-down tolerance.
But we need to keep destroying the stereotypes and recognise that there is a systemic problem, whose roots run deep. And until we weed the whole thing out – instead of watering it as some of our public figures keep doing – we will not create the kind of definitive transformation that we are trying to achieve.
This means that politicians and policymakers must face up to the open and also subtle hatreds, but they must also institute structural changes which will have enduring effects. It means that across the media, arts and culture, those who have power over what we view and read, from journalists to tastemakers, need to take a long hard look at who is producing their content and ensuring Muslim voices are represented.
But it requires that everyone recognises how negative stereotypes of Muslim women have become entrenched and normalised, and how prevalent verbal and physical hostility is – and intervenes against it.
Only by taking such difficult steps will we all be able to look back in 10 years’ time and think: this time we really did make the change.
Shelina Janmohamed is a commentator on British Islam, and is the author of Love in a Headscarf