The Things I Would Tell You - British Muslim Women Write

Review of ‘The Things I Would Tell You’, by Alex Hadjidakis

Nobody smart enough to be reading La Bouche needs a lengthy explanation as to why we need to hear more from Muslim women.

'The Things I Would Tell You' contains poetry, fiction and political articles from British Muslim women, whose outlooks reflect the diversity of that population. Reading the various contributions, it is striking to what extent a politicised identity is an inescapable fact of life for Muslim women in Britain. Muslim women are forced to see themselves and their own community not only through their own eyes, but also through the eyes of an often hostile society.

In her poem, The Right Word, Imtiaz Dharker ponders whether the person outside her door is best described as a terrorist, a freedom-fighter, a hostile militant, a guerilla warrior or a martyr. Her poem ends:

'The child steps in and carefully, at my door takes off his shoes'.

Many of the contributions share a strong emphasis on the struggles of women, which would certainly resonate with women from all cultural backgrounds. One of the most amusing articles is Islamic Tinder, in which Triska Hamid describes the struggle of three highly-educated Muslim women who bemoan the quality of the pool of suitors they have to choose from and links this to the spate of apps created by 'tech-savvy Muslim entrepreneurs' to help those on the hunt out for a decent man with a Muslim cultural background, such as Minder, Muzmatch and Salaam Swipe.

However, laughter is not the only reaction that the articles in this compilation will elicit: in Blood and Broken Bodies, Shaista Aziz describes her fury at the alarming practice of so-called 'honour killings' in Pakistan, citing the alarming statistic of 1,000 such killings in 2015 and the outrageous exemption granted to murderers of innocent women due to family pardons and societal acceptance.

The struggle for women to be recognised as dignified equals is also reflected in poems such as Belongings by Asma Elbadawi, which questions whether a man who marries a woman really knows her, since he has missed her formative years and ends:

'How is it that we erase the history of a woman, as if nothing mattered before her wedding day'.

This encouraging defiance is also reflected in Uomini Cadranno, by Seema Begum, who declares:

'The art of a woman is no excuse to limit her potential. Don't tell me I need a man to be complete. Don't tell me marriage is the purpose of my life'.

Aside from the reminders about the debilitating effects of a politicised identity, this book has another strong message, even to those liberals who already accept that rights of Muslim women in Britain to equal rights. The message is that the ideals held up as representing Western liberalism, such as tolerance, respect for diversity and multiculturalism, are not in reality a Western invention, nor its sole preserve.

In an excerpt from the informative and polemical Mezzaterra, Ahdaf Soueif gives an account of an Egyptian woman moving to London and experiencing the alienation stemming from how she saw her culture portrayed. She describes a Cairo society which seems just as multicultural and open-minded as any that Western liberals would seek to create:

'In Cairo on any one night you could go see an Arabic, English, French, Italian or Russian film. We were modern and experimental. We believed in Art and Science. We cared passionately for Freedom and Social Justice. We saw ourselves as occupying a ground common to both Arab and western culture, Russian culture was in there too, and Indian, and a lot of South America'.

She talks of how the Arabic word for identity, huwiyyah, was unknown to her until after she left the country of her birth. In this text, Soueif spells out in very clear terms the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Muslim-majority cultures and the hypocrisy of Western elites. This text makes explicit a message which is implicit throughout these collections; in spite of prevailing identity politics, British Muslim women have the same struggles, values and ideals as everyone else in the West. If, instead of talking about British Muslim women, we took the time to listen to what they are saying, it would very soon become clear that, far from hatching a plan to save them from themselves, we should be working with them to save everything we all hold dear. 

 

The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write is edited by Sabrina Mahfouz. Published by Saqi Books April 2017.

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