How do you get permission to tell your story? This may sound like an odd question, but when it comes to people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, women, and people of Muslim heritage, the idea of getting permission to tell stories both your own and others, is a very real one.
Over a year ago, a good friend of mine, Sara, arrived in the United Kingdom from Syria after receiving a scholarship to study English literature at a prestigious university. Having had a lifelong love for the subject, she was ecstatic to be exploring its birthplace. As she began to look into the unfolding themes and tropes of English literature, she hoped that the debilitating limitations the Syrian war had imposed on her pursuit of knowledge could be left in the past, and that her desire to think freely could now be realized. Sara soon discovered, however, that there were other and more subtle restrictions on her that she had not anticipated. Being a woman, being brown, being from a country in turmoil, Sara became the object of liberal British intrigue and fascination. Her university would roll her out at events to showcase how they ‘helped’ the Arab woman; they would ask her to talk about the harsh conditions in her homeland, and how their scholarship gave her a ‘chance.’ It became clear to Sara that she was a spectacle, something to appease British consciousness. These events were not about her but about them —they were the ones who got to frame and narrate her story.
Sara found it challenging to discuss ideas about academic topics she wanted to pursue or conferences she wanted to organize with her professors. They would ignore her musings about Dickens and, instead, question her about her background. They discouraged her from pursuing her literary interests and told her to focus on Arabic literature, instead. Sara ignored them and did what she wanted, but these encounters revealed something important to her about the unwritten rules and social orthodoxy governing her new life. As an Arab woman, she did not have permission to talk about Thomas Hardy or any other English author. She was only allowed to speak about things that other people associated with her cultural and gender identity. For Sara, who she was was something others were trying to define for her.
A new anthology turns this idea of identity and story-telling on its head. ‘Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write’, which is edited by British-Egyptian author Sabrina Mahfouz, brings together plays, short stories, essays, sections of novels, and poems by women of Muslim heritage. The collection deals with topics as diverse as identity, sexuality, violence, and belonging. One theme is, however, present throughout the different stories – the subverting of what it means to be an Arab and Muslim woman living in Britain. As Mahfouz writes in the introduction, “one of the aims of this anthology is to dispel the narrow image of what a Muslim woman – particularly a British Muslim woman – looks and lives like.”
The rise of identity politics is a prominent feature in a number of the stories and essays included in the collection. British-Egyptian novelist, Ahdaf Soueif, writes about the misrepresentation of Arab and Muslim women in Western media, “I felt upset and angered by the misrepresentations I encountered constantly and I felt grateful when a clear-eyed truth was spoken about us. And then again, who was ‘us’?” Ahdaf interrogates the idea of identity as someone who grew up in Egypt and lives in Britain. Reflecting upon her childhood in Cairo in the 1960s, she does not remember identity ever being mentioned, “Growing up Egyptian in the sixties meant growing up Muslim/ Christian/ Egyptian/ Arab/ African/ Mediterranean/ Non-aligned/ Socialist but happy with ‘Patriotic Capitalism’. On top of that you spoke English and/or French and danced to the Stones as readily as to Abdel Halim. We saw ourselves as occupying a ground common to both Arab and western culture, Russian culture was in there too, and Indian, and a lot of South American. The question of identity as something that needed to be defined and defended did not occupy us.”
‘Mezzaterra’ or middle of the world is how she describes Egypt during that period. She enjoyed English literature while opposing British Imperialism, without contradiction. Political events, like the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, the Arab oil embargo, and the Iranian revolution changed the nature of politics both in the region and globally. It was in the 1980s that Soueif first heard the word ‘Hawiya’ or identity. The ascent ofidentity politicsfrom there on out would change the world she knew forever.
Chimene Suleyman’s short story, ‘US’, takes the reader into the world of someone experiencing identity politics in a shocking way. Her character, Madeeha, is an immigrant mother who believes strongly in assimilation into British culture.She finds, however, that no matter how ‘British’ she is, she cannot avoid being abused and attacked by Islamophobes. Amina’s‘identity’ is not a personal choice, but rather, as in the case of my friend Sara, something imposed on her by others.
The imposition of identity is not a new phenomenon, but, rather, has roots in European colonialism. One of the most celebrated novels in French literature, reflecting this practice, is Albert Camus’s ‘The Stranger,’ which is set in French Algeria in the 1940s. The novel follows Frenchman, Meursault, who is on trial for murdering a nameless Arab man following a confrontation over the Arab man’s sister who was sleeping with Meursault’s friend, Raymond. In the novel, Arabs are largely nameless and abstract, reflecting the distance between the colonizer and the colonized. From the perspective of the colonizer, the Arab is faceless, nameless, and largely irrelevant.
In the anthology, playwright Leila Aboulela takes on ‘The Stranger’ by exploring the cultural anxiety experienced by Algerians caught between their own and French culture, from the perspective of Fatima, a prostitute. Fatima is Raymond’s Arab girlfriend but unlike in ‘The Stranger’ Raymond is also Fatima’s pimp. Fatima is much like Meursault, however. As a sex worker, she lives outside society’s norms. Unlike Meursault, Fatima goes from being an outsider to an insider, by discovering how to love those around her, particularly her brother.
Western imposed identity is not the only notion interrogated by this anthology. It also deals with patriarchy within Muslim communities and how this impacts the perceived identity of Muslim women. Amina Jama’s poetry challenges some of these patriarchal notions, especially ideas of virginity and control over the female body. In her poem, “Home, to a Man,” she writes, “Nooks and crannies need to be cleared, Mama told me never give away my spare keys that it is sacred between God and I, but she makes a pair for any wealthy man arranging a visit.” To her family, Amina’s worth and value depends upon her suitability for marriage, especially to a wealthy man. While Amina does not directly resist her mother’s words, dreams escape her body, “Nooks and crannies need to be cleared, I once turned off all the lights I swear I felt my soul leave the house, I said Good for you girl! You deserve to be happy.”
Subverting Muslim male patriarchy comes in a variety of different forms and Triska Hamid’s essay on Islamic Tinder is perhaps an unlikely place to find it. On the surface, the essay explores the rise of Muslim matrimony apps and the experiences of Muslim women who use it.
The Muslim women are all successful, but complain “Muslim men are a disappointment.” One of the women, Amira, tells Triska, “They’re not accomplished and there tends to be fewer men of the same academic level and career success. I’ve yet to meet someone from my community who is better than me.” This sentiment is widely shared. As another woman, Noura, observes, “We’ve evolved into this new genre of women that our communities haven’t adapted to.” The essay reflects a shift from women waiting for marriage and making themselves pleasing to potential suitors, to women looking for suitors who are equal and pleasing to them. This is an implicit challenge to patriarchy and the role of women in Muslim communities.
“The Things I Would Tell You” not only brings together talented writers of Muslim heritage, it expands how we imagine Muslim women to be. While they come from different backgrounds and perspectives, all the writers are engaged in liberating themselves and other women from social expectations and the need to seek permission to share their own stories They not only highlight their own experiences, but those of many who would otherwise be unknown and nameless. This, in a time of polarization and Islamophobia, is urgently needed.