Cut from the Same Cloth? Personal essays by Muslim women
Writing in the West as a Muslim woman can often be a mentally exhausting activity. For Muslim women who write, there are often implicit and sometimes explicit expectations by Western publications to only write about a handful of topics that centre around the visible aspects of their Muslim identity such as the hijab, and an obsession with pieces on the West’s perceived subordination of Muslim women to Muslim men.
When writer, editor, and arts and culture programmer Sabeena Akhtar came across the opportunity to curate and edit an anthology of essays written by Muslim women in Britain she snapped it up instantly, giving the contributors only one condition – that they write about whatever they want. Three years of work, which included commissioning and editing essays during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, culminated in Cut from the Same Cloth? Muslim Women on Life in Britain which was published by Unbound at the end of May.
Cut from the Same Cloth? is a collection of twenty personal essays written by Muslim women in Britain from different walks of life, on the topics that matter to them, whether that is about the challenges of navigating the pressures of today’s ever-changing beauty standards in the era of social media as eloquently penned by Ruqaiya Haris in her essay The Quest for Modesty in the Digital Age, to what it is like living in the shadow of the Grenfell fire as related by Zahra Adams via Shaista Aziz in Grenfell, or a reflection on the realities of raising children in Britain today and what it is like dealing with racial and religious biases at schools as a mother, as illustrated by Suma Din in A Cartography of Motherhood.
Some essays are purely anecdotal, such as Mariam Ansar’s nostalgic piece on friendship and secrets in Youth in the Time of Madrassahs, or Raisa Hassan’s piece on being outspoken and living life independently as a visibly Muslim woman with a disability in Ticking the ‘Intelligence Box.’
Some essays will make you laugh, while others will ignite a sense of shared anger and frustration, but all of them will make you reflect on what life is like today for different Muslim women in Britain. Some experiences are shared, such as those of Islamophobia, while others are unique to the individual. Also poignantly written is a number of essays by Black Muslim women on not only the added layer of racism they face in British society, but the colourism and discrimination they experience within the Muslim community itself, as found in Hodan Yusuf’s Waiting to Exhale: The Scarcity of Safe Spaces and Negla Abdalla’s Dirty Melanin, Precious Melanin: Bilal was Black.
Some essays will make you laugh, while others will ignite a sense of shared anger and frustration, but all of them will make you reflect on what life is like today for different Muslim women in Britain
"There were a few reasons I wanted to curate an anthology like this,” editor Sabeena Akhtar tells The New Arab. “Firstly, as a reader, I was just tired of reading pieces that restricted Muslim women to certain narratives or reductive framings. I was equally tired of being asked to write articles and pieces along those lines too. As a writer, I just wanted to carve out a space to be afforded some creative freedom and to feel comfortable in our religiosity.”
The title of the anthology itself says it all, questioning the widely held notion that there is just one cookie-cutter shaped “type” of Muslim woman, and challenging the way in which Muslim women are often painted with the same brush. “I think [the title] is more of a provocation, or at least an invitation to readers to interrogate the often narrow and monolithic mainstream representations of Muslim women that we are so used to seeing,” Akhtar adds.
There is no talk of wanting to break stereotypes in this anthology; if anything, the writers express how tired they are at being expected to break stereotypes, to justify or condemn certain actions, or to constantly answer people’s questions as visibly Muslim women. “It’s reductive, exhausting, dehumanising and just boring to be honest,” explains Akhtar. “Muslim women live as full and varied lives as anyone else so we have to ask who these stereotypes and binaries stand to serve. I think Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan sums it up perfectly in her essay [I Am Not An Answer, I Am The Question], when she says ‘stereotypes do not exist to be broken, they exist to break us’.”
For Muslim women reading Cut from the Same Cloth? there is an essay for everyone – you will see yourself in the shared experiences of Muslim women in Britain today from the triple consciousness of being vocal about Islamophobia and social injustices, while also facing the patriarchy, and trying to address internal issues within the Muslim community, as highlighted by Sabeena Akhtar in Smile and Dr Sofia Rehman in The Gift of Second Sight, to the feeling of constant state surveillance and fear of having what you say result in PREVENT coming down on you like a ton of bricks as reflected by Sophie Williams in On Therapy.
For Muslim men reading the anthology, there is a lot they can learn about what their female counterparts face in society on a daily basis which they previously may have been unaware as to the extent of, and for the non-Muslim reader Cut from the Same Cloth? is a raw and extremely honest education on life as lived by Muslim women in Britain today that you will not find written in most media and news outlets.
"Muslim women live as full and varied lives as anyone else so we have to ask who these stereotypes and binaries stand to serve"
“Due to the scrutiny and surveillance the Muslim community find themselves under globally, there are things that we will all recognise,” Akhtar says on reading the anthology. “What has really moved me since publication is some of the messages we have been getting from Muslims around the world saying how much the book resonated with them. I’ve had quite a few sisters from France and Switzerland in particular get in touch to thank us which was unexpected, but perhaps speaks to the struggles they face in more hostile parts of Europe. We’ve also had messages from women in Pakistan, Indonesia, the Middle East, and more which are so heart-warming and beyond what we could have hoped for... Muslim women are rarely afforded opportunities like this, and the only way the publishing industry will recognise the value of our voices, is if there is a demand for us to be heard.”
Cut from the Same Cloth? Muslim Women on Life in Britain is out now.
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA