I knew this book was going to challenge me.

I knew that this book was going to challenge me. And I wasn’t disappointed. When I picked up ‘It’s Not About the Burqa’, a book of essays from Muslim women about being Muslim women, I knew that I was probably going to get pulled in different directions. But that’s okay. Conflict – i.e. non-violent conflict – gets us thinking, even if we’d rather not. It’s how we expand our world view, although that doesn’t have to mean that we agree with everything we see.

Mariam Khan, a writer living in the UK, decided that too much was being said about Muslim women, and not enough of it was from actual Muslim women. So she got a collection of Muslim women’s stories, and put them together. It’s not a comprehensive collection, of course, because no book would ever get completed, if that were the criteria. The women are a mixture of educated, qualified, and professional women – or all three of those things. No, that doesn’t give an absolute cross-section of Muslim women, but they still represent a cross-section of beliefs, opinions, and behaviours.

No discourse about Muslim women would be complete without banging on about hijabs and burqas, of course. After reading this book, I still don’t like them. On the surface, it’s none of my business what Muslim women choose to wear. We all feel too free to comment on what women wear, and how they behave, because women have always been in the firing line on that. However, it does pain me to see women glorify a garment, or garments, long steeped in oppression, as a personal choice to show their faith and submission to God. From what I understand, there are no directives in the Quran about women who follow Islam having to wear hijabs or burqas, so who really decided on what women should wear to show faith and submission – God, or men? And would the same clothing be worn if God’s pronouns were Her and She?

Some of the women who wrote the essays in this book wear hijabs and/or burqas, and some don’t. They all have strong opinions about life as a Muslim woman, which is what the essays were collated for. Some of the essays were centred around being a coloured Muslim woman, and the extra prejudices they encountered from that. Apparently, I am now in the dog box as a ‘white feminist’, which is the new bad thing to add to the list of bad things I am. I was a bit puzzled by that one, I must confess, although I do acknowledge that coloured women in Western countries face more disadvantages than white women.

There are women in this book who are on fire with their activism against misogyny and cultural oppression. I learned that Islam is a religion which, at its core, is good for women, but patriarchal interpretation of the Quran, and enforcement of misogynistic Muslim culture, isn’t. There is a suggestion in one essay that there is need of a woman’s interpretation of the Quran. I think that would be profoundly enlightening.

I didn’t like the direction some of the essays took, and I very much liked others. Either way, it was a good read – but not always an easy read. It helped me to change my mind on some things, but not on other things, and left me mulling over the rest. If you get the chance to read it, do so. It’s well edited and insightful – whether you’ll find that insight enjoyable, or not.

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Header pic by: mentatdgt (https://www.pexels.com/@mentatdgt-330508)

 

13 thoughts on “I knew this book was going to challenge me.

  1. Frances Sullivan

    Hey Katrina. First off, I’ve missed a couple of your posts so I apologise – will catch up. Second and last, this one is good. I graduated with a degree in Women’s Studies and Political Science. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to women scholars whose area of expertise was Islam. They concur with you about wearing the veil. As a recovering Catholic, one who was employed by the church for over 20 years, I feel exactly the same about the habit. It subjugates. Anywho, good post. Well done you for reading the book. OH, and if you can, you might want to catch Unorthodox on Netflix. It is well done, in my opinion. It’s based on a book, too, so you might prefer to read it. 🙂

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  2. Doing Women’s Studies (and Political Science) would have been so interesting! It’s all watered down now to Gender Studies, so I suspect it doesn’t have the same teeth that it used to have. I was raised as a Catholic, too, but dropped it the moment I could, as religion didn’t interest me, especially patriarchal religion. Working for the Church would have been eye-opening! I hope you write about that sometime, if it’s a subject you’d re-visit at all.

    I have seen that series Unorthodox on Netflix, and wondered whether to watch, or not. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  3. I concur, I don’t think it’s my place to tell another woman what to wear or how she should interpret her faith—women on the whole have been forced for too long to suffer the opinion of others, men mostly but other women as well. (I second the Netflix series “Unorthodox:” The producers took great pains to show the good side as well as the bad of Orthodox Jewish communities, though in the end you’re thrilled by the main character’s strength and willingness to take chances. It also shows how other women can be as oppressive as men in stifling a woman’s growth.) But it’s fine to have your own opinion, as long as you listen carefully to the people you are judging. You did that by reading the book, though maybe you might try talking to Muslim women in person? I felt as you did about the hijab before I started working in an English as a Second Language program, where most of my students were Muslim. The young women impressed me with their smarts and strength; they educated me in their faith better than any academic course or book ever could. Yes, they sometimes took me out of my comfort zone, but they allowed me to say so, and they listened with great tolerance. (Sometimes you have to ask a stupid question before you can get to the more insightful ones.) But all of us would be better off if we could engage in a dialogue, instead of the angry rhetoric I see online and in social media. I’m adding this book to my to-read list. Thank you for the review!

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  4. I have just started watching Unorthodox. I’ll take your word for it that it’s true to life, as I haven’t encountered any Orthodox Jews here.

    I also tried teaching English as a second language some years ago on a volunteer basis, and I was absolute rubbish at it – lol! My first and only student was a young Muslim woman, the wife of someone in the Mosque, whose title I’m not sure of. I know that there are Imans, but I can’t remember if he was one of them. Anyway, that was short-lived, as the programme coordinators decided that she didn’t really fit their criteria of need. That gave me the out I needed 🙂

    Hope you enjoy the book, challenging and all 🙂

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  5. Jackie

    Interesting also as to how the veil hijab came to be a part of Muslim women’s dress. As protection from Muslim men! Also I find it interesting how Mohammed’s first wife Kadeja is left out of the narrative by many Muslim men. Kadeja was older than Mohammed and a business owner. She remained an independent woman and Mohammed loved her deeply and had enormous respect for her. She was also the one who transcribed his visions when he returned from the desert. This is all brushed over by many Muslim men

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    1. Yes, Islam as a religion isn’t misogynistic, but the patriarchal interpretation of the Quran is. It would be very interesting to see how a woman would interpret the Quran.

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  6. Thanks to all and each for these thoughts, I had been attending an intensive Arabic language at a local mosque until isolation kicked in. However, this coming week the instructor has set up a Zoom meeting for the remaining classes. Although not Muslim, I have been attending a wide variety of events there for about 5 years now. I was also raised in a Catholic tradition, including 12 years of schooling. Back in the early 1960s, Latin was still the universal language worldwide. The two years of Latin required in High School ignited my interest in learning a language as a means of breaking barriers, including the much stereotyped Arabic world. Now I need to discover “how a woman would interpret the Qur’an and the damnable patriarchal systems that view the entire cosmos — in science fiction for that matter — from that presumptive perspective.

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    1. I vaguely remember the Mass in Latin, although that changed to English when I was very young. When I went to High School, I took Latin for a year, as it was mandatory with the “professional” stream I was in. Learning another language would be great, but I don’t have the mind-set for intensive learning anymore. I applaud you for learning Arabic!

      I. too, would love to know how a woman would interpret the Qu’ran, but I think it would need to be a feminist to show a perspective that was REALLY different – lol!

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      1. Learning all those Latin inflections paved the way for the heavily inflected German language. Oddly enough, Arabic grammar is much easier to learn than Latin or German.

        Will let you know if I find a Quranic interpretation from a feminist perspective. 🙂

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  7. It’s a really controversial topic. We read things that reflect our own opinion mostly, don’t we, so as not to get upset. I’m not fond of burqas either, for the same reason… but as you say, women’s choices are or should be their own.

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