Interview: Muslim feminist
Writer and activist Mariam Khan talks to Stephen Tomkins
Mariam Khan had what she describes as a pivotal moment four years ago when she heard the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, talk about Muslim women being ‘traditionally submissive’. As an outspoken writer and activist who enjoyed fierce debate, Mr Cameron’s description, she thought, sounded nothing like her or her friends. She wondered why it was so often non-Muslim men who got to give a public account of who Muslim women are.
Her response was to get 19 other Muslim women to join her in telling their own stories and saying how they see things. The resulting collection of essays was published last year as It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim women on faith, feminism, sexuality and race (Picador, 2019).
Reform spoke to her at Greenbelt festival in August.
In what ways are Muslim women stereotyped in the UK?
‘In what way are they not stereotyped?’ would have been an easier question! A lot of the time when you say ‘Muslim women’ people think of a Pakistani Muslim woman with a hijab on, and potentially a burqa, and that is the narrowest form of identity you can apply to Muslim women, because there are Muslim women from different cultures, different races.
I can list off the stereotypes around Muslim women in Britain: that we’re submissive, that we’re only liberated if we fall in love with white men, that we need to be saved, that we work for Isis or that we’ll end up working for Isis, that we’re forced into marriages, that we’re advocates of FGM [female genital mutilation] in some way. There are many assumptions around our identities and our values, about who we are and how we dress. It’s very unfair.
I think these stereotypes are perpetuated by many things – by politicians, by the media. There are these dominant narratives around Muslim women that constantly get pushed out and if someone keeps hearing the same thing they’re going to take it in. So books like mine which come up from time to time and say: ‘No, Muslim women are like this!’ But books can’t compete with these narratives.
Is that restrictive?
Yes, incredibly so. Growing up, at one point I thought that – and this will show you how damaging it is – I thought that you had to wear hijab to be a Muslim woman. But it’s very much every individual woman’s choice, whether she wants to wear a hijab or not. I think very often, because we are projected these images of who we are, we internalise external identity values and apply them to ourselves. We become caricatures of what people think we are instead of authentically exploring who we should be.
So yes, it’s incredibly restrictive because if you look at Muslim women, no two are the same. And yet everyone has this picture in their minds of who they think Muslim women are, this monolithic identity, and undoing that is going to be a lot of hard work.
It’s frustrating. Why should I undo stereotypes I never created about myself?…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the February 2020 edition of Reform