Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Ramadhan marks the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, where practising Muslims spend 30 days abstaining from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. This holy month is spent dismissing what are deemed material and earthly needs, with the intention of nurturing spiritual exploration instead.
In all our never-ending quests for self-knowledge, how we form our identities in response to our position in the world is essential to explore. During Ramadhan, I often return to works I’ve read addressing the construction of modern Muslim identities, something I continually grapple with, in an effort to truly comprehend my complex relationship with faith. For me at least, this is part of the self-reflection encouraged during this blessed time.
One investigative piece of work that deals with this identity construction is by UK based journalist Hussein Kesvani titled ‘Follow Me Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims’ (note: Akhi is Arabic for ‘brother’). Offering a more nuanced depiction of this community, Kesvani takes us on a journey through the British Muslim cyberspace. From delving into muslimaah feminist havens, to the impact of digital terrorist propaganda, to online safe spaces for LGBTQ+ Muslims, to the spread of virtual Islamophobia - he takes a holistic approach to this complex world, offering insights into its countless faces.
I particularly enjoyed a section in the book where Kesvani interviews young Muslim poets, all using creative writing and spoken word as their artistic outlet, whilst also voicing their exasperation at the relentlessly stereotypical media portrayals of Muslims. One such poet is Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, also known as The Brown Hijabi, whose piece ‘This is Not a Humanizing Poem’ went viral in 2017. Calling into question the perceptions of Muslims, or immigrants more widely in the West, as either rage filled terrorists or model, aspirational minorities, Manzoor-Khan writes:
Write something upbeat for a change, crack a smile …
I refuse to be respectable,
Instead, love us when we’re lazy, love us when we’re poor …
Love us in our back-to-backs, council estates, depressed, unwashed and weeping…
Because if you need me to prove my humanity
I’m not the one that’s not human.
She eloquently explains these cookie cutter identities, including the overtly complimentary ones, are dichotomies that do not “allow for the nuances of life” and it is “dehumanising to only ever be recognised when you contribute something deemed ‘valuable’ to society”, emphasizing the array of worthy Muslims identities in between these binaries.
In relation to Muslims being reduced to monolithic representatives, Kesvani also addresses the particular difficulty Muslim women find in carving a strong voice within the recent #MeToo movement. He speaks with a number of women, such as Farrah, who all similarly highlight the struggle in discussing their abuse because of the way they are often received by both their communities and the wider world.
“They felt their testimonies would be diminished not only because of patriarchy within many Muslim communities, but also as a result of growing anti-Muslim prejudice” – essentially being stuck between a rock that is sexism and a hard place that is racism. As Kesvani puts it: “Identities of British Muslims are vastly complex, which makes it important to resist simple categories”, because these “simple categories” bear very real-world consequences.
‘It’s Not About the Burka’ is an anthology of essays compiled by British writer and activist Mariam Khan, it focuses on the experiences of modern Muslim women, easily one of the modern world’s most misunderstood figures.
Unlike Kesvani’s work, which is quintessentially British, Khan’s has a distinct worldliness about it. These women hail from all four corners of the globe, professionally they comprise of journalists, engineers, activists and much more. With their contrasting backgrounds and interpretations of Islam, Khan offers us a multilateral look at the global Muslimaah community. A recurring theme is the necessity of a genuinely intersectional feminism, one that accounts for the intricacies between Muslim women’s separate identities, alongside other women of colour.
Nafisa Bakkar, co-founder of Amaliah.com, writes about this pressure in her essay, ‘On The Representation of Muslims: Terms and Conditions Apply’. The growing interest in having visibly Muslim women on media pieces is a double-edged sword. Bakkar suggests these women are sometimes having to act as silent tokens, as one-dimensional images that do not speak to their lived realities. This echoes Mansoor-Khan’s concerns earlier about having your identity reduced to something unrecognisable, almost saying: “We want your hijabs but we don’t want your thoughts”, counter-productive to what representation is meant to achieve.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied reiterates this when she says women of colour are often having to start from “the basis of believing that [they] need to earn [their] right to be seen as an equal”, therefore having to clutch at these opportunities when they arise. Already being seen as an equal seems to be a luxury granted to others without trying, a sentiment I have personally felt intensely my whole life.
Bakkar also exposes the capitalist claws digging into the ‘modest fashion’ industry, big designer labels may be producing more ‘hijabi friendly’ clothing aimed at female Muslim consumers, but often at the expense of smaller businesses run by actual Muslim women. They could also be criticised for co-opting these traditional, ethnic dress choices, whilst maintaining an overarching obligation for these women to be petite and in line with Eurocentric beauty standards, only with the added feature of a hijab. Afia Ahmed highlights this saying, “This reality, as unfortunate as it is, extends to all women — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — who choose not to subscribe to, or fail to live up to, fashion and beauty ideals.”
What I found most striking about the voices in this book is how resoundingly unapologetic their tone is, and the determination to break out of any restricting pigeonhole. Taken as a whole this is not a harmonious piece of work, but it doesn’t set out to be so – the point of having such conflicting yet strong opinions in both these works is to hone into the most essential consideration when it comes to modern Muslim identities – it has never been, nor will ever be, a monolith. Our lives and identities do not have to be uniform and representative because they are simply our own.
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