Immediately post 9/11, any Muslim living in the West faced a stark choice — either you were with Islam, or you were with the West. One was forced to choose between keeping silent, or passionately voicing anti-Islam rhetoric and rallying against the Muslim Ummah whenever the news screamed of yet another terrorist attack conducted by yet another Muslim.

The audible cries of frustration by the majority of Muslims globally were conveniently forgotten, but the cruellest blow was dealt to Muslim women. While Muslims at large were lumped into one group and held responsible for ‘the actions of a few’ (the term ‘moderate Muslim’ served as lip service), it was doubly frustrating for Muslim women who suffered the double-edged sword of being female and Muslim, all the while living in the West.

It is this unique identity that female Muslim writers in the anthology It’s Not About The Burqa, edited by Mariam Khan, address. In a series of essays, they present what is considered a non-existent entity as a deep, multidimensional form that holds more power than is widely known or realised even today.

It’s Not About the Burqa is a collection of voices of women who finally decided enough was enough and spoke up, taking over narratives that had been hijacked by every segment of society — social, political, economic — and every market from fashion to literature. One wishes it had come out earlier, when millions of Muslim women — particularly those in the West — grappled with identity crises through no fault of their own, and were unable to express themselves for fear of being judged even more.

The essayists are drawn from different ethnicities, various age groups and all kinds of professions. The result is a desperately needed validation for the millions who suffocated while labels of terrorism — the most famous being ‘letter boxes’ in reference to the niqab, or face veil — were incorrectly plastered across their mouths and their lives reduced further. Well, the ‘letter boxes’ have released their contents and it’s far from blank pages.

An anthology of well-thought-out essays by Muslim women communicates with clarity of thought and force about the West’s misperceptions of them and their inherent diversity

These are well-thought-out, progressive and emancipated essays, communicating clarity of thought about how the world got them so wrong and how, through mediums such as fashion and culture, the West remains ignorant about the constitution of the body known — bleakly — as ‘Muslim women’. Ignored, unheard and spoken for, the diverse segment of the female Muslim population was never asked to be part of conversations about how events unfolded and/or affected them. Every now and then, some woman who fit the description of the day — ie terrorist — was splashed as the female version of Osama Bin Laden and millions of female Muslim hearts silently beat unanimously: ‘But that’s not me.’

The fact that Muslim women were just viewed as one giant, silent body without a voice is unforgivable. Nafisa Bakkar, co-founder of Amaliah.com, in her essay ‘On the Representation of Muslims: Terms and Conditions Apply’ writes, “We, of course, often refer to ourselves as one Ummah, one body, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that we are all the same without variations in practices and ideas.”

To speak for them, to assume what represents a Muslim woman without ever engaging with her in any form, indicates the arrogance of those who did. And how unaware they were, for these women to finally come forth and spell it out for them. Even the Western feminist brigade conveniently left behind a huge chunk of females — who happened to be Muslim — to fight for itself. Heartbreakingly, British writer (and editor of the book) Mariam Khan in her essay ‘Feminism Needs to Die’, writes: “Islam wasn’t making it difficult, but feminists were.”

For all the rhetoric of sisterhood, one wonders why no effort was made to understand that Muslim women did have their own take on feminism as well — a very strong one that depicted a different side of Islam. As Sufiya Ahmed, author of the award-winning novel Zahra’s First Term at the Khadija Academy, writes in her essay, ‘The First Feminist’: “For me, Khadijah was the first feminist and she inspired me to become one ... Khadijah taught me that I had every right to exist as I chose.”

When calls for liberalism and freedoms were sounded, no one asked what female Muslims wanted, or even considered their perspectives. ‘Do they even know how to think?’ was the insulting assumption, the most literal form of this thought illustrated by the ban on burqas in France.

It’s Not About the Burqa is not an easy read — not so much for its brilliance, but because of the hurt over how cruelly the world has treated the Muslim woman and the damage wrought by ignoring her. Beautifully thought out, incredibly substantive and widely varied, each essay has a lesson for the world. In ‘Not Just A Black Muslim Woman’, Raifa Rafiq, writer and founder of the podcast Mostly Lit, masterfully explores the cleavages between religion, race and gender — it is rare to come across someone who unpacks all three with so much depth.

Meanwhile, writer and businesswoman Salma El Wardany bravely ventures into the forbidden topic of female sexuality in her essay ‘A Gender Denied: Islam, Sex and the Struggle to Get Some’, pushing boundaries for a much-needed conversation that young Muslims crave and deserve.

Scottish-Pakistan writer Amna Saleem and award-winning journalist Saima Mir each take the sickening concepts of shame and guilt and show how they are applied to Muslim women. As Saleem says, “They want your pain, your anger and your tears, but they fear your laughter.”

This important book drives home the point that there is not ‘one’ type of Muslim woman; any one type of female Muslim is not representative of Muslim women as a whole. Muslim women, with all their colours and varying characteristics, need to be recognised in all their forms, not ‘selected’ depending on what serves the global agenda of the time. This is a manifesto, a document that really can change how Muslim women are perceived and thought about. If only, the world were ready for it.

While Islamophobia has dominated the news and culture at large, it is a failing of the West to understand a community as large and varied as the Islamic one. Perhaps if they had worked with the Muslim diaspora communities and tried to gauge their varied thought processes and identities to fully comprehend how to tackle those who carried out violent attacks under the banner of Islam, the war on terror might have turned out differently. Instead, there were a slew of assumed identities, exacerbated by media hysteria fuelling ill, ignorant, preconceived notions.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based writer

It’s Not About the Burqa
Edited by Mariam Khan
Picador, US
ISBN: 978-1509886425
272pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 15th, 2020