Ramadhan book club: Our Stories, Our Lives

Originally published at Muslimah Media Watch, with thanks to The Policy Press.

Our Stories, Our Lives is an anthology of a diverse group of women in Bradford, England, offering a glimpse into their lives and their issues with reconciling their Muslim identities with being British. With the media’s daily onslaught on the image of Muslims and assumptions about so-called conflicting alliances (Islam and the West), a “proud British Muslim” would sound like an oxymoron to many. But it isn’t, and talking to many Muslims in Britain will tell you just that.

The book–edited by Wahida Shaffi–is based on an oral history project called OurLives (also coordinated by Shaffi) and presents stories of 20 women between the ages 14 to 80, and their thoughts on being female and Muslim in Britain. Perhaps what makes it more interesting is that all stories are told against a geographical backdrop that has been historically colored by immigration and racial tensions. As the epicenter of the Rushdie affair in the 1980s, Bradford became a shorthand for the fragile relationship the country has with its Muslim population that will last for decades.

Though as inspiring as most positive portrayals of Muslim women in the media, this is not the Muslim Women Power List that has been making its publicity rounds the last few months. Rather, these are women a lot like your mother, grandmother, daughter, and friends. Their stories are so deeply personal that you sometimes think you’re reading a private journal dripping with confessions and secrets. Far removed from the overarching debates about the hijab and burqa that seek to define Muslim womanhood are real women who struggle with their faith while balancing their careers and private life.

The most touching story in the book is Syima Merali’s dilemma of choosing between having to serve alcohol in her restaurant or suffer financially. Wearing the hijab and selling alcohol became a testing time for Merali, made more difficult by castigation that her earnings are haram. The compromise she makes  echoes the many difficult compromises practicing Muslims make in a secular, predominantly non-Muslim country.

Another piece I found inspiring is Elana Davis’ “Music ‘n’ Motherhood”, in which she talks candidly about raising three sons the Islamic way single-handedly and teaching street dancing in college. As a young convert who wears her Islamic identity proudly, Davis’ represents a face of Islam in Britain that now exists on the margins of history: Black Muslims have been in Britain since the 16th century and black conversion to Islam has been a growing phenomenon in the last two decades. Also a hijabi, does Davis find her street dancing and love for hip hop in contradiction with her religious identity? No, she says.

“Someone told me actually that I shouldn’t wear my scarf because I teach dance. I think if you listen to what everybody’s got to say, you will get confused, as at the end of the day, I became a Muslim for myself. I’ll learn myself, and if I do something wrong, that is something that I’m going to have to deal with, with God – nobody else”

There are several stories of unflinching patriotism from women who came to Britain to find a land of opportunity and freedom to dress and express their religious and cultural identities however they please. Some found their British identity a refuge from the personal limitations placed by tradition and ancestral culture. While most British Muslims are expected to be two-dimensional characters defined by ethnicity and religion, women like Sensei Mumtaz Khan, whose job as a ju-jujitsu teacher appears to trump her Islamic and Afghan identities. For Khan, ju-jitsu forms a core component of her life as she remains, contentiously, a cultural Muslim.

Our Stories, Our Lives allows the voices of Muslim women to be heard rather than be silenced and spoken for (often through the mouthpiece of the media and community leaders, who are always men). But the ever-expanding body of research and books on British Muslims shows that much more is needed to feed the political and public interest in an extremely visible but misunderstood religious minority. It also indicates that there is little informal communication bridging different ethnic and religious groups here, and no end to the mystification of Muslim women in sight.

Burqas and the British Police Farce

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

Oh, this is just hilarious.

Three female police officers were ordered to dress up as Muslim women for the day just to see what it felt like. They wore traditional burkhas as part of a scheme designed to help police interact better with the Islamic community.

It’s like going to a fancy dress party, because, you know, Muslim women dress up all funny and weird! But, boy, them Muslims are really nasty, too! That’s what the British police force is for. To catch them Muslim baddies while being undercover. Who knew police work can be so much fun?! Tee hee!

But seriously, have these people ever watched Police Academy and not see the irony? Do they think that, by dressing up for just one day, police officers can truly understand the complexity of the British Muslim population in the North of England, one of the largest in the country? And do they think that dishonesty (by pretending to be Muslims) is really the best policy to engage with Muslim communities? It’s like Undercover Mosque all over again.

You know you want more:

Two covered their faces with hijab headscarves and niqab veils, leaving only narrow slits to see through, and another wore Muslim dress and a headscarf showing her face. […]

The officers, Sergeant Deb Leonard, Sergeant Deb Pickering and Police Community Support Officer Helen Turner, all from Sheffield, were accompanied by four Muslim women to help them learn more about the Islamic faith on a tour of the city. In return, the Muslim women were shown around South Yorkshire Police’s custody suite and CCTV office and learned about the day-to-day duties of a police officer. A spokesman for the force said the exercise, called ‘In Your Shoes Day’, was designed to help officers interact better with the Muslim community across Sheffield.

Burqa, hijab, niqab – what’s the difference? What’s important is that these Muslim ladies know what it’s like if they find themselves on the wrong side of the law, particularly when Muslims are over-represented in British prisons.

The Sheffield police’s warped understanding of what interacting with the Muslim community means reeks of bad stereotypes and Islamophobia, among many other things. At the root of this farce is Britain’s flawed dream of social integration and the harmonious sharing of British values. But this approach to “secure strong relationships, celebrate diversity and encourage integration, working towards a safer, closer society” is glaringly lopsided. Social integration and a safer society in Britain really means more unwarranted surveillance and ethnic profiling of brown, Muslim people. A subtle hint at their Islam-only police jaunts speaks volumes of their bias:

[…] there were no plans to extend the scheme for officers to dress up as members of other minority communities.

Hmm, I wonder why. Maybe it’s because Islam and Muslims are believed to be high profile threats to the British way of life like no other religious beliefs and ethnicities. And besides, dressing up as Catholic or Buddhist nuns would be over-the-line-insensitive to their respective communities, right? But it appears that, for these policewomen and their superiors, trivializing what many Muslim women see as an important aspect of their identity is perfectly acceptable. Moreover, it’s acceptable because these women put themselves under public scrutiny and persecution anyway:

‘Two of the Muslim women anticipated that people may stare and possibly make comment, whilst the police officers entered this exercise with an open mind not knowing quite what to expect.’ Sergeant Leonard said the experience had given her a greater appreciation of how Muslim women feel when they walk out in public in ‘clothing appropriate to their beliefs’.

Oh, bless their innocent, open minds. Perhaps a day out with Muslim women was a good idea after all. Perhaps the Sheffield police unit might finally see that Muslims are really quite normal people with struggles like their own, and one day discover that unaccounted institutionalized racism in policing does nothing but push Muslim communities in North England further into alienation. Does it really help anybody that the police is singling out Muslim women in headscarves in their feeble efforts to engage with the ethnic minorities in Sheffield? Certainly not. What playing dress-up as shabby stereotypes does best is feeding into the undying Orientalist fantasies of unveiling (whether literally or symbolically) those oh-so-unattainable and mysterious Muslim women.

Migration: Belonging and displacement

In an early sequence of a 1991 Channel Four television feature, Northern Crescent (a film about the white-Asian conflicts in Britain following the Rushdie affair), shows a new primary school headmaster, Mr. West, who introduces himself at assembly to his students, most of whom are of Pakistani ancestry.

Mr. West asks the students to name the greatest storybook in the world. After replies such as The Guinness Book of Records and Ghostbusters, he tells them that it is The Bible – his own ethnicity is thus quite apparent. He proceeds to read them the story of Ruth as an example of people making their home in a new place and being welcomed there – he applies this to his own arrival at the school that morning, seemingly oblivious to its application to the Pakistani immigration in this Yorkshire town (the film will go to question whether any sense of ‘welcomness’ is given to these people). The headmaster says he’s not surprised to have received such a welcome, as it is part of the great tradition of this country and particularly of Yorkshire. He notes that of the 180 pupils in the school, 176 were born in Yorkshire. He then asks them whether they would say that are Yorkshire boys and girls. Only four students (one of Pakistani ethnicity) put up their hands, leaving the headmaster looking surprised and perplexed.[1]

Mr. West’s ethnocentrism (i.e. references to The Bible as the best book ever when talking with presumably a mostly Muslim audience) and naïve notions of belonging is commonplace here in Britain. Despite the fact that the students above feel ambivalent about their ‘Britishness’ or even perhaps ‘Englishness’ (which by the way is claimed almost exclusively by white folks), most people in Britain would still identify themselves in terms of nationality and would assert that this is an essential part of their being.

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Freedom and Muslims in Britain

freedom-go-to-hellYasmin Alibhai-Brown’s article at The Indepedent, “Why Muslims will not fight for freedom”, on the absence of Muslims at the recent convention on modern liberty in London was a disconcerting sign. A sign many would read, and not Alibhai-Brown alone, as complete apathy for the greater good:

I suspect the key reason so few showed up is that the word “Muslim” was not held up, a flag to call the brethren out. They ignore campaigns that want redress and progress for a greater good for all because to do otherwise would be to accept that non-Muslims are equals and part of God’s design. Fanatic Wahabi women probably kept away because men – Allah! Allah! – would share the same rooms with them and their seats were previously occupied by male bums. Muslim men who claim to have all knowledge of divine intent would have thought such a “Western” call for action was haram, sinful by definition.

I surmise that it’s brown faces in hijab and skull caps she expected to see at the convention. And if that’s the case then she can be accused of generalising the face of Islam in Britain. There is, however, a grain of truth in her observation: by and large, Muslims care a great deal about Muslim issues.

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Ramadhan TV: Undercover Mosque

You dont really want to know what hes ranting about.
You don't really want to know what he's ranting about.

Happy Ramadhan, my lovelies. Last night after breaking the fast, I was entertained by Channel 4’s Ramadhan season programme, “Undercover Mosque: The Return“. The title might sound kind of self-explanatory, but allow me to describe this fine specimen anyway: “Undercover Mosque” was an investigation-cum-reality programme some time ago on TV (probably during last year’s Ramadhan) aimed at exposing extremism that was happening right under the noses of the Brits. Last night’s show had an undercover reporter in an abaya poking around the exclusive interiors of the ‘most important mosque in Britain’ – the one that sticks out like a sore thumb by Regent’s Park in London. She had returned after one year on a check-up to see whether the mosque was (still) harbouring extremist cretins. Anyway, what was revealed to Britons watching prime time television last night was scary: the fundamental fanatics are still out there!!!

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