Muslim women have long been the subject of the daily news cycle, from the infatuation with what they wear to their alleged submissiveness and yet their own voices have been notably absent from the discussion. It’s this that prompted author Mariam Khan to edit the first anthology of its kind, It’s Not About The Burqa, which is published in the UK this week.
In it, 17 Muslim women – including journalists, playwrights and activists – talk frankly and on their own terms, showing us they’re significantly more multifaceted than we’re led to believe. Khan tells Refinery29 that she would constantly see Muslim women's identities "shaped (in a way) that wasn’t necessarily informed by them. This book centres our narrative in our own voices."
It takes the power back, talking about our experiences beyond our bodies, I hope readers take away that Muslim women are not a monolith.
In INATB, the Muslim female experience is deftly explored, from reporting at a far-right rally as the only Muslim journalist in the room (Salma Haidrani, "Eight Notifications") to a part-time hijabi finding her queer identity (Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, "Hijabi (R)evolution"), via the intersections of being black, female and Muslim (Raifa Rafiq, "Not Just a Black Muslim Woman") and a divorce that strays far from the tired narrative (Saima Mir, "A Woman of Substance"). Notably, it explores why they’re much, much more than the clothes they wear. "It takes the power back, talking about our experiences beyond our bodies," Khan says. "I hope readers can take away that Muslim women are not a monolith." She concedes that the book is long overdue, and that she would have benefitted from it as a teenager. "It would have empowered me in believing there were many diverse experiences of Muslim women in the world and widened my then-narrow view of what they could be."
Khan hopes that the book will spark conversation, seeing each essay as "the beginning of a discussion that can lead to a million more". For me, Salma El-Wardany’s contribution, "A Gender Denied", resonated the most. Tackling the culture of silence surrounding sex in Muslim communities, it was a chapter I realised I’d been waiting years to read. El-Wardany recounts losing her virginity in a positive way, where it seemed "as if the world had been painted just for me that day". Given that chastity beyond the confines of marriage is encouraged from early childhood by both the Islamic community and within families, her experience is a refreshing departure from feeling guilt, something many of my Muslim friends can and do feel. Even so, she was aware that a "line had been crossed" – her girlfriends later questioned whether she prayed afterwards. "The not-so-subtle message was that a sin had been committed and now was the time for redemption."
My journey to becoming a sex-positive Muslim woman and putting my desires at the forefront of my sexual experiences was one of secrecy.
This echoed true for me. Sex was a huge component of my relationship with a Muslim man a few years ago but for months this was a source of shame, guilt and secrecy, as I forced myself to unlearn years of subconscious fear and guilt in order to enjoy my own pleasure. As El-Wardany argues: "Muslim women are only taught what is wrong, never what is allowed, and they are never encouraged or shown the ways in which two people can, and should, enjoy others." This was compounded when I came to realise just how much I enjoyed sex outside the confines of marriage. My journey to becoming a sex-positive Muslim woman and putting my desires at the forefront of my sexual experiences was one of secrecy – one which involved leading a double life, making excuses to family about where I’d stayed that weekend, my overnight bag filled with tiny lingerie stuffed in a secret corner of the room.
It’s little wonder I felt so conflicted. El-Wardany highlights the prevailing narrative that conflates sex outside marriage with being haram (forbidden by Islamic law): "Anything haram is punishable by hellfire and it’s easy to understand why so many women discuss sex, shame and guilt in the same sentence. They have become so tangled with one another that they’re now part of a single conversation."
Then, as my relationship descended into toxicity, I was unable to open up to Muslim friends for fear of judgement. The relationship – which only now I recognise as featuring classic signs of emotional abuse – made me feel so isolated that it was easier to find solace in my non-Muslim friends, where I wouldn’t be made to feel guilty. In this culture of silence, women lose out: "Now we have a new generation of Muslim women growing up in western countries with no safe spaces to have conversations about sex." El-Wardany too wonders whether had she not been silent, she might not have found herself in an abusive relationship, "the effects of which I am still struggling with years and years later".
It’s easy to say that the fault lies with the religion but Islam has long been a sex-positive faith (at least in the context of marriage). From Prophet Muhammad’s female companions who would marry several times because they wanted to have sexual relations to the rise of halal sex shops, Islam has long preached about women’s rights in the bedroom. Yet somewhere along the line, this message got lost. There are so many elements of my faith I love – the charity component, the community feel of Ramadan – that leaving it is out of the question. Instead perhaps, as El-Wardany says, "it’s time for quiet mouths and open arms instead of scarlet letters and pointer fingers".
So I welcome her call for Muslim women to start having open conversations that can help us to grow and "share our experiences in rays of sunlight as opposed to whispering them in dark corners". Because dark corners produce young women whose shame accompanies them to the bedroom. The more we see and hear voices like El-Wardany's, the more we’ll realise that there is room for Muslim women to be sex-positive and religious.
"Unlearning is a difficult process," El-Wardany says, but I’m getting there. In my journey as a sex-positive Muslim woman, I'm putting my own pleasure first, away from shame and guilt – and I hope other Muslim women will join me.