It’s Not About the Burqa

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This International Women’s Day, intersectionality, mutual respect and understanding is more important than ever. In a context of perpetually rising Islamophobia in the UK, we cannot truly claim to be ‘feminists’ unless we are actively seeking to protect and defend our Muslim sisters. Now, in 2024, ‘feminism’ has become a term almost synonymous with ignorance and deception for those who are not White, middle- class, or European. We cannot possibly empower and protect all women unless we understand that women’s freedom is not something monolithic or measurable solely against the Western norm. In the West, the presence of the hijab or burqa is still often perceived as synonymous with a woman’s lack of freedom. Head coverings are perceived as physical evidence of the oppression of Muslim women, leading Western Feminists to embark on a ‘rescue mission’, endeavouring to ‘save’ Muslim women from their cultures. Having been brought up in the UK, where this ignorance surrounding women’s freedom and Islam is interwoven into the fabric of society, I am ashamed to admit it was not until I read the works of Lila Abu Lughod and bell hooks that I truly came to understand the shortcomings of Western feminism.

Challenge the prevailing monolithic understanding of Islam, and women’s freedom in the West

The collection of essays ‘It’s not about the Burqa’, edited by Mariam Khan, is singlehandedly the most formative, eye-opening text I have ever read. These essays, written by 17 Muslim women in Britain, seek to challenge lazy stereotyping of Muslim women and deconstruct our misconceptions. These women discuss their changing and fluctuating relationships with hijab, Islam, and British society. Their diverse and often contrasting experiences and views of the world challenge the prevailing monolithic understanding of Islam, and women’s freedom in the West. Situations Western media has led us to consider as dichotomous or oxymoronic, such as a woman’s encounter with a hijab-friendly sex shop, and discussions of navigating the practice of hijab and sexual pleasure, litter the pages.

Feminism has become a term almost synonymous with ignorance and deception for those who are not White, Middle-class, or European

This collection of essays allows Muslim women to set the record straight in their own words. Their experiences and emotions are not buffered through Western spokespeople, as tends to be the case in the media. These essays are passionate, angry, hilarious, and often, deeply upsetting, all denouncing the ignorance at the core of Western society. For a Westerner, reading this book is uncomfortable and often disturbing, not because of the supposedly ‘dangerous’ or ‘backward’ culture dominating its pages, but due to the way it ultimately leads to an illumination of the lies we have grown up believing to be truths. This book is an alarm; a wake up call to all women who still believe that women’s freedom has a fixed, monolithic definition.

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