British Muslim Women Talk About How It Feels to Be Constantly Spoken For
"You have to desensitise yourself – it's either that or be angry all the time."
As any young Muslim woman can attest to, growing up post-7/7 hasn't been easy. I would know: we're the subject of countless headlines, from being told to learn English or face deportation, having to contend with endless calls to ban the hijab, to supposedly having "split loyalties". That's not to say all Muslim women have simply sat back and taken it: when David Cameron announced (ill-conceived) plans to invest £20m on English lessons to stop Muslim women feeling "isolated" back in January, thousands took to Twitter using the hashtag #TraditionallySubmissive, listing their (pretty impressive) achievements.
But it still seems to fall on deaf years: the stereotype of Muslim women as un-liberated still prevails. Earlier this month, UKIP's Lisa Duffy suggested that British Muslim women don't enjoy greater freedoms. Meanwhile, the burkini has become the unlikely symbol of hysterical political Islamophobia that is reaching fever pitch in Europe this summer, with the Mayor of Cannes calling the one-piece a symbol of "Islamic extremism".
So how do British Muslim women – the same ones who aren't once asked for their opinion – actually feel about endlessly being spoken for, and about? I reached out to some to find out.
I feel like our voices are being stripped straight from us. I feel like my tongue has been chopped off and people have suddenly used it for themselves to tell my story. When women like Lisa Duffy want to "liberate" me, I know that as white Christians, they are the most privileged women on this planet. So how exactly do you understand know how to "liberate" Muslim women like myself? Have you ever been targeted because you wear a hijab? Have you ever been asked by security at an airport if you are a Muslim woman because of your name?
The terror that the media perpetuates works perfectly in the hands of politicians. Look how far UKIP came. Look at Brexit. They can use that coverage in order to steer their campaigns where it works: in the favour of the majority of white British people who aren't comfortable with Muslims being in "their country". I try to have faith in the future where politicians won't always use the fear of Islam as part of their campaign tool but seeing how everything is working out, I believe it'll take a very long time. But I do believe our generation has the drive to change the representations they make the Muslim community out to be.
I'm exasperated with the fact that the agency of Muslim women is consistently denied. Whenever national conversations strike up – usually about the way we dress – it's never because Muslim women want to have that conversation. It is always forced on us. I'm sick of the way we're homogenised and how people with a saviour complex want to liberate our existence. It's often incredibly patronising when we have to stress that Muslim women have as much choice, or lack of choice, as non-Muslim women in society.
Why does Lisa Duffy want to waste her time forcibly "liberating" me? Politicians are some of the worst offenders when it comes to fuelling negative misrepresentations of British Muslim women. When David Cameron ring-fenced funding to teach Muslim women English, it was so condescending. It wasn't to make their lives easier in the UK, it was so they could be better placed to inform on their children should they start to express dissenting opinions. And if they don't, they're threatened with deportation. The more we're vocal about Islamophobia, the better. I don't know how long it'll take but we're now seeing Muslim women seizing chances: to reclaim the right to define ourselves and our voices.
When you read things about your religion in the media as often as we do, you sort of desensitise yourself to it because it's the only option you really have. It's either that or continue being angry. The worst thing is that a lot of the time we don't even get to defend ourselves, because who actually wants to hear from a British Muslim about British Muslim issues, right? Do I think politicians scapegoat me so that it can distract from their shit policies? 100 fucking percent. We're so blinded by what we think liberation and freedom is, we've lost sight of how brilliantly diverse our country is. People and politicians blame us for terrorism so we aren't allowed to feel scared about something that we are apparently a part of. We push out members of society and they turn to bullshit like terrorism to feel like they're a part of something. It needs to stop.
I find it incredibly ironic that the very people hellbent on liberating visibly Muslim women such as myself attempt to do so by telling us what we can and cannot wear. It's incredibly patronising to assume that Muslim women need liberating. Anti-veil legislation is colonialism masked as feminism. I feel that there's been a deliberate attempt to keep visibly Muslim women out of these discussions. There is nothing progressive about a conversation surrounding women's dress being led by men – with 71 percent of UK MPs being male, the idea of Parliament passing any law restricting women's bodily autonomy is patriarchal and oppressive.
Politicians often use scapegoating to absolve themselves of wrongdoing. Using orientalist tropes against Muslim women allows politicians to derail from policies – both domestic and foreign – that do harm Muslim women. Do I ever see a future where politicians will stop defining me? Only if the UK's political landscape takes a huge shift left. As long as they stand to benefit from patronising Muslim women, things won't change.
I stand with Arundhati Roy when she said, "It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism" regarding the French ban of the burka. Politicians fuelling negative misrepresentations of British Muslim women as weak and oppressed has got to stop. When you are privileged enough to stand on a political platform, you have chosen to represent fellow human beings. It then becomes your duty to promote harmony, and encourage tolerance and understanding. It is an extremely divisive tactic, to "other" Muslim women and the majority of us see right through it. Don't speak for me, as a young Muslim woman. I'm perfectly capable of speaking for myself. Does that sound oppressed or weak? It starts with us, with this new generation of change-makers who won't allow them to silence us. I have a voice and I intend to use it.
I have a mind, I can think and speak for myself. I haven't asked for politicians' so-called advocacy, nor am I in need of it. I would like to know how they would feel if I had the upper hand and law-making at my fingertips and decided that English women had to cover up and could no longer wear tight-fitting clothing. How is it OK that they have the right or platform to do it to me? My hijab is my identity, my sanctuary. I feel empowered and free to be me. Donald Trump recently said, "Muslim women aren't allowed to speak." I'm speaking now and until we stand up for ourselves, we have no chance of being heard.
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