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Review: ‘It’s Not About the Burqa’, edited by Mariam Khan

It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race is a riveting set of essays by multiple voices, each unique. The collection, edited by Mariam Khan, follows a trend (I’m thinking of The Good Immigrant) in which peripheral voices are finally given centre stage.

‘I’m not here to speak on behalf of all Muslim women,’ Afia Ahmed writes in Clothes of My Faith, an essay in which she explores the notion of choice towards wearing a hijab. Ahmed remarks that this piece of clothing has become a politicised, fashionable contradiction far removed from what she believes are its theological roots: a statement of faith and Islamic identity.

‘You do not need to contribute to the dichotomy’ is a particularly powerful statement, at once asserting responsibility to support one’s own convictions as well as the power to break binary modes of thinking. Subtly, it advocates acknowledging that you need not explain your actions regarding clothing as a Muslim woman because the questions mask something bigger: the way a woman dresses is always open to criticism and Muslim women have become one of its biggest victims.

I found Salma el-Wardany’s A Gender Denied: Islam, Sex and the Struggle to Get Some an interesting read as gender segregation is not something I face much of. She interrogates interactions between the sexes especially when it comes to marriage and sexual fulfilment. Her essay centres around the idea that the repression of conversations about sex results in Muslim women being woefully underprepared for healthy relationships.

Also writing about sexuality and Muslim women, Afshan D’Souza Lodhi explores queer spaces as a hijabi woman of colour. Navigating these spaces, especially when wearing that all-defining piece of fabric, has interesting consequences.

Raifa Rafiq speaks on an important issue: the hegemonic image of a Muslim woman in the UK being a thin, South Asian and light-skinned. Rafiq writes earnestly about the intersection between race and religion: she says she feels more uncomfortable around non-black Muslims than non-Muslims because colonial ideas of beauty are more closely aligned to the make-up of South Asians with anti-blackness still rampant in many communities today.

In her essay, Nafisa Bakkar remembers an obsession of finding someone who looks like yourself in an unusual position. Bakkar recounts the time she discovered the CEO of PepsiCo was a woman of Indian heritage. Bakkar looked for every titbit of information that could reinforce the idea that women like her could be successful. Reading this collection, I found many women like me, all of whom have found success in some way.

It’s not about the Burqa is a timely collection; each essay is equally necessary in beginning to understand how Muslim women, across the intersections of race, nationality, ethnicity and sexuality, navigate their identity. It shows how every day Muslim women have to liberate themselves from identities that are thrust upon them.

Tags: essays, feminism, intersectionality, Mariam Khan, Muslim Women, race

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