So many times while reading this book I found myself nodding and saying ‘YES!’ I hadn’t realised how very rarely I come across a book, writers, voices, that speak to the entirety of my existence as a British Muslim woman; finding that book, those voices, was like letting out a breath I’d been holding, or feeling the relief of relaxing aching facial muscles that had been stretched in a smile all day. There was no need to pretend, no need to explain, no need to justify. What made this anthology of essays so different from the usual ones, was that they are not teaching or preaching, nor do they try to cater to an external gaze. These are British Muslim women writing their experiences and thoughts for women like themselves; women like ME.
The essays in this book have been collected by Sabeena Akhtar, and include pieces by figures such as Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Shaista Aziz, Yvonne Ridley and others. All of them are different in tone, style, and subject – some are academic or discursive, others are more creative and expressive. While each of them offers an abundance of insights, with incisive or exquisitely evocative writing, I was particularly blown away by the narrative style and nostalgia of Mariam Ansar’s ‘Youth in the Time of Madrassahs,’ the emotion in Suma Din’s ‘A Cartography of Motherhood,’ and the rage and weariness of Sophie Williams’ ‘On Therapy.’
But if I had to pick out a common thread or theme running through them all I think it would be this: the importance of no longer seeing ourselves as others see us. These pieces are all about the struggle to let go of the perpetual burden of ‘breaking stereotypes’, or ‘representing the faith,’ or fulfilling roles in relation to others – daughter, mother, wife, employee, boss. They are about the struggle to just be women on our own terms, while dealing with racism, prejudice, mental illness, disability, intergenerational conflict, motherhood, grief and everything else life throws at us. I think this quote from Marguerite Bennett’s ‘InSEXTs’, at the beginning of Sofia Rehman’s essay ‘The Gift of Second Sight’, sums it up perfectly:
‘If you are never to see yourself depicted…Not in story, nor song, nor poem, nor painting, nor prose…no shred of a tale by some distant kindred soul who saw and knew and felt then as you do now, and else another who bore witness…Never see yourself except as crude caricature, mythical beast, or Magdalene penitent…You believe no other like you ever existed. Unquiet women, defiant women – we live invisible lives…We will take up and take back the tools to tell our stories as our own.’
And that is what each of the writers of the essays in this collection has done – told our stories as our own.
A celebration of the resilience, talent and heart of British Muslim women, and one of my top reads of 2021.
Brown Bronte rating: 5 Stars
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