Shamima Begum, head tilted down Princess Diana-style, black niqab flipped up to reveal her face, has become the most famous Muslim woman in Britain. A figure of rabid hate and conflicted pity, this 19-year-old born to Bangladeshi parents in east London has revealed a wider contradiction in how Muslim women are seen in this country. Neither the death of her newborn son, Jarrah, nor the shockingly young age she left to join Islamic State in Syria has mollified the UK government’s treatment of her or the attitude of most people in Britain. She is the most recent iteration of many xenophobic tropes: Kipling’s savage in the “White Man’s Burden” who is half devil and half child; the immigrant who has grown fat on the kindness of this country and turned against it; the interloper who never truly deserved the British citizenship that has now been rightfully removed.
Begum’s decision to leave everything she knew in Bethnal Green to become a housewife in a warzone – where the worst tortures and murders were captured in super-high definition and teenage Yazidi girls were traded like cattle – is still inexplicable. Terms such as “grooming” and “radicalisation” are used so frequently to explain the rejection of British “values” and society by a very small number of young British Muslim women that it’s easy to assume we know what’s going on inside their minds, but what do we really know? Not just of the particular pathologies that turn some towards hate or violence but of the broader and more interesting inner lives of Muslim women living in the UK? Two recent collections, It’s Not About the Burqa and The Things I Would Tell You, have tried to elucidate the varying backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs of Muslim women living and working in this country.
In 2016 Mariam Khan read that David Cameron had linked the radicalisation of Muslim men to the “traditional submissiveness” of Muslim women; Cameron had announced plans for a £20m fund to help women from all migrant backgrounds to improve their English, but Muslim women quickly became the focus of the discussion. In an interview with Radio 4, he stated that: “If you’re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh.” His idea of the kind of women – or girls – who joined Islamic State was shockingly distorted. The majority are British-born, English is their native tongue, and their connection to the country their parents or grandparents left is often tenuous. The issue lies in how they can feel so alienated when they have no other real home.
In It’s Not About the Burqa Mariam Khan has collected many young voices that passionately describe the multiple forces that form a sense of identity or its opposite, a feeling of cultural homelessness. In Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s sparky essay, “Life Was Easier Before I was Woke”, she describes her journey from “model minority” immigrant to persona non grata in Australia. Eager to prove herself as a mechanical engineer she quickly learned to rationalise away the ways in which she was treated as “other” on isolated oil rigs. But when she finally learned to push back and claim her differences as a Muslim, immigrant woman, her sense of self, and of belonging, were fractured. A simple Facebook post stating her wish to remember those in Nauru, Manus, Syria and Palestine alongside fallen military personnel on Anzac Day led to what she describes as a “virtual public lynching” and the withdrawal of support by the same organisations and broadcasters that had previously used her as an example of a “model minority”.
This precariousness, this sense that one can quickly be cast out of a community, is something that appears regularly in this collection, whether the expulsion is from a Western society, caused by an unwelcome opinion, or from a Muslim one, due to divorce, adultery, a child out of wedlock, or some other taboo. It seems that wherever Muslim women look to for support they are only offered it on sufferance or in a rationed, conditional manner.
The pressures of family life and the concept of “shame” run through many of the essays. Saima Mir’s “A Woman of Substance” examines how she came to be married three times by the age of 35, while Coco Khan’s funny piece ‘“Immodesty is the Best Policy” looks at how her mother made radical choices without much of the current bluster around the emancipation of “traditionally submissive” women.
It’s Not About the Burqa surveys the cultural scene of millennial British-Muslim women but does not delve deeply into any one element of it. The reader is left to make their own connections between the poverty that many of the essays describe and the limited opportunities, mental health issues and familial strife that the individuals experience. The Things I Would Tell You, edited by poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, takes a different and more creative path. With contributions by award-winning authors such as Kamila Shamsie, Leila Aboulela and Hanan al-Shaykh, as well as emerging poets Amina Jama and Hibaq Osman, the anthology proves the power of fiction and poetry to get under the skin of things.
Shamsie’s engaging short story “The Girl Next Door” lightly pokes at class and religious tensions in Pakistan, while Shazea Quraishi’s poems touch on the grief carried from long-forgotten wars in the Muslim world. In this collection we hear a full orchestra of voices and find that “what it means to be a Muslim woman” is wholly dependent on other divergent factors such as class, age, ethnicity and even temperament.
Both these anthologies are important contributions to our understanding of what life is like for Muslim women. It can be the terror of Islamophobic attacks on those who wear the hijab or niqab and it can be the pleasure of finding yourself as an artist or journalist – perhaps in this current climate the terror and the pleasure cannot be so easily extricated. What is clear is that the stereotype of submissiveness placed on Muslim women is a kind of burqa of its own, containing and imprisoning the real people within.
Nadifa Mohamed is one of Granta’s 2013 Best of Young British Novelists. Her books include “The Orchard of Lost Souls” (Simon & Schuster)
Correction, 4 April 2019: an earlier version of this article stated that Saima Mir was married three times by the age of 30. This has now been corrected to 35.
It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race
Edited by Mariam Khan
Picador, 272pp, £14.99
The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write
Edited by Sabrina Mahfouz
Saqi Books, 256pp, £12.99