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'It was about starting a dialogue': A year on since It's Not About The Burqa Open in fullscreen

Tahmina Begum

'It was about starting a dialogue': A year on since It's Not About The Burqa

The Foyle's 2019 Non-Fiction Book of The Year has recently released its paperback edition

Date of publication: 21 February, 2020

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Book Club: With Brexit and new heights of Islamophobia in the UK, The New Arab speaks to some of the contributors about what they have learnt since the book's release.
There are not many books that can pinpoint the exact feeling shared by many whilst at the same time being a baton for multiple voices and perspectives. There's even less for Muslim women, especially British Muslim women, who are part of global diasporas and communities across the world. 

When I heard It's Not About The Burqa was set to be published by Picador in 2019, I initially cringed at the title. I wondered if this would be another narrative 'by Muslim women', that was really in order for white publishers to pat themselves on the back for doing something diverse. (It's no surprise as I read the introduction, Mariam Khan, editor of the collection of essays, goes on to disclaim her frustration with a word that's been politicised, "with a narrative that Muslim women never created".) 

But I still pre-ordered a copy because a) it's important to support those around you, especially women who are fighting for your views to be heard and b) out of sheer curiosity.

I've now read It's Not About The Burqa twice and for its third visit, I'm going to have to pray the margins become magically wider.

The title was shortlisted for Foyle's 2019 Non-Fiction Book of The Year and recently released its paperback edition – awaiting a new wave of readers to hear the lived experiences by Muslim women for everyone.

In the time the best-seller has been published, we've witnessed Brexit unfold and been exposed to new heights of Islamophobia in the UK, so it made sense to talk to a few of the contributors about what they have learnt since the book's release.

It's Not About the Burqa: It's about letting Muslim women speak
Read also: It's Not About the Burqa:
It's about letting Muslim women speak

"There is no one way to be a Muslim woman," puts editor Mariam Khan simply. A message echoed throughout the book, and what in turn, has also been received.

This is clear in It's Not About The Burqa, with passages varying from being a lovechild to an affair, what it's like wearing a rainbow coloured hijab to expressing being a queer Muslim woman at Pride and why an unregistered nikkah is not safe for Muslim women.

"There is no correct way and we [Muslim women] can be contradictory to each other." Which is perhaps what resonates so much with readers – this dismissal of the wild notion that Muslim women are the same. 

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As the title was originally inspired by Khan hearing then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2016, linking the radicalisation of Muslim men to the 'traditional submissiveness' of Muslim women, Khan asks plainly in It's Not About The Burqa, "When was the last time you heard a Muslim woman speak for herself without a filter? Or outside the white gaze? On her own terms? Or outside the narrative built around us by the media and governments?". 

There is no correct way and we [Muslim women] can be contradictory to each other

In the past year, the author has noticed how "many people are afraid of Muslim women who define themselves and that this book is a very fractional part of the many other conversations that need to be had by Muslim women."

Representation may have become a buzzword in the past five year but it is the central thread of why It's Not About The Burqa was created.

To represent multi-faceted stories of Muslim women, therefore it makes sense that there was also an essay on Muslim representation within the book. 

Nafisa Bakkar, CEO of Amaliah, a platform amplifying the voices of Muslim women, pens in her essay, how the Muslim community, "often refer to ourselves as one ummah, one body, but this shouldn't be taken to mean that we are all the same without variations in practices and ideas".

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She goes on to say "the truth is, I cannot expect everything Muslim women in the public eye do will resonate with my own ideals of what I want to see in the world". 

When asked about what she has learnt in the past year where Muslim women have been published in numerous influential books and arguably been heard more by mainstream media, from Alya Mooro's The Greater Freedom to Zahra Hankir's Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women on the Ground, Bakkar said, "While I have had lots of messages of thanks from people for articulating what they had felt was a discomfort at the representation discussion, it is bittersweet that not much has changed." 

The truth is, I cannot expect everything Muslim women in the public eye do will resonate with my own ideals of what I want to see in the world

Preemptively, in her essay, what Bakkar points out is what's missing from the discussion within representation politics, "Just because I find myself running a business as a Muslim woman, it does not mean that every Muslim woman is now afforded the pathway to do so."

This awareness that just because we see a famous Muslim baker or ethnic minority faces within the Conservative Party cabinet, doesn't mean there's now no need to make space for minorities. If anything, we need to look at how the government or wider society treats those who may not contribute in a manner that's acceptable. 

"A year later we have had Shamima Begum stripped of her citizenship along with Jamaica50, with Windrush elders being deported. If anything, it has unfortunately shown me that my essay will in many ways remain relevant for years to come," states Bakkar. 

Another reason why this book has had such an impact is because of how it humanises Muslim women, who increasingly have to adjust their personality and lifestyles in order to seem more digestible to British and white culture.

There's also no spectrum you have to necessarily fit onto when perusing It's Not About The Burqa – no need for you to work out if you fall into the 'liberal Muslim' trope or the 'conservative'. 

Relatable stories like Saima Mir, where the writer speaks about being the "good girl" from a "good family", who followed the textbook on what honour looks like in the South Asian community, could never have predicted to have two divorces by thirty. 

Yet Mir's story strikes something in most of us, if not all. How she explains the hypersexuality between genders within British South Asian cultures, from being a "a geeky young woman who had never even shaken hands with a man, let alone a boyfriend" to being married at nineteen. 

"I hadn't been forced to marry and I wasn't forced to stay. But when I made the decision to end each of my marriages, my family honour suffered".

Her heartfelt story navigating the two completely different marriages, her relationship with her previous in-laws while questioning her value as someone who bared the 21st-century version of the scarlet letter is something that many of us have witnessed, whether it be our aunts or sisters, or even ourselves.

Yet being published in something like It's Not About The Burqa, gives us the validation that our stories are worthy enough to be shared. That the real versions of ourselves are arguably more inviting than whatever's plastered across some tabloid. 

Mir shares that her essay ran in The Guardian in January of this year and a quarter of a million people read it in two days. Anecdotes flooded in from men and women across the globe telling her of their experiences and opening up about relationships they were still in.

"The response floored me! It was the first time I realised the value of making myself this vulnerable. 

"I also learned that people are interested in reading stories of survival and winning, irrespective of the race or religion of the writer. I felt seen, I felt heard, and I felt hopeful."

People are interested in reading stories of survival and winning, irrespective of the race or religion of the writer. I felt seen, I felt heard, and I felt hopeful

When originally reading It's Not About The Burqa and sharing it across my social media, I mentioned how much I recommend this collection of essays that is also incomplete. Not only does it highlight that Muslim women, like everyone else, are not a single story, but a library by themselves, but it is naturally unfinished, as it should be. 

After feeling bolder since the release of the title, and meeting more Muslim women outside of the book and even more dynamic narratives, Khan understood exactly what I meant. "This book was never about having all the conversations, it was about starting a dialogue and I think in a way we have done that."

Tahmina Begum is a freelance journalist and editor. 

Follow her on Twitter @tahminaxbegum

The New Arab Book Club: Click on our Special Contents tab to read more book reviews and interviews with authors:The New Arab's Book Club

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