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Event Review: It’s not about the Burqa

Written by: Amber O’Connor

Off the Shelf’s ‘It’s not about the Burqa’ offered a brilliant insight into the book of the same name, which brings together a collection of essays exploring different women’s relationship with their Muslim identity. The event featured Mariam Khan, the book’s editor, and Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi, one of its talented contributors, in conversation with Kaltum Rivers, the first female African Councillor to be elected in Sheffield. As Mariam explained that the book was created in response to ‘sensationalised’ depictions of Muslim women, as a way to centre Muslim women’s own narratives in conversations concerning them, each speaker reflected on stereotypes about hijabis, and the myriad ways these stereotypes have affected them.

This talk therefore enabled listeners to gain an insight into the production of this anthology, but also to engage with more stories like those covered in the book. The notion that Muslim
women can be stereotyped was also central to the conversation, with Mariam voicing her
‘frustration’ toward the 2D caricatures typecasting produces, since any stereotype begins with the assumption that all Muslim women can be categorised as one entity. In fact, it would be easy to argue that the largest common factor between the women in the talk, aside from their shared eloquence and wit, was their pride at being involved in this event, and book, which celebrated the uniqueness of Muslim women. Afshan, who spoke of her joy in participating in the ‘multitude of conversations’ in this book, even fondly recalled passionate debates she had with other contributors during launch events for the book. This talk also further aided the project of representing diverse opinions when Mariam and Afshan shared their conflicting views regarding the West’s supposed developing inclusivity. Whilst Afshan spoke of her positive response to a clothing company’s development of hijabs designed for sport, which she would have enjoyed access to during school – where she frequently had to remove her hijab for health and safety reasons, Mariam was wary of gestures which are potentially only performative, and highlighted how sweatshops, which prop-up several Western clothing organisations, exploit people, many of whom are often Muslim women.

Off the Shelf’s ‘It’s not about the Burqa’ offered a brilliant insight into the book of the same name, which brings together a collection of essays exploring different women’s relationship with their Muslim identity.

The conclusion of the talk, which also covered the relevance of intersectional feminism to the
issues highlighted, reiterated the importance of elevating the voices of Muslim women. As
Mariam explained, when feminism is not truly intersectional then the movement can and has
harmed Muslim women rather than supporting them. A passionate conversation, embedded
with references to academics and further reading recommendations, covered many nuances
relevant to this debate, in a way I could not hope to in this short review. Moreover, I feel
doing so would miss the point of that discussion, since one point of conversation included the
insulting tendency with which white women sometimes try to overtake Muslim women’s
narratives.

Whilst this is a review, it is one in which I have tried to centre the words of the
speakers, and since the talk remains online – and can be viewed until November 8 th , I will
now aim to act upon Mariam’s assertion that ‘sometimes the best way to support’ Muslim
women is ‘to elevate us and not speak’. Whilst this review covers some of the content
covered in the talk, anyone hoping to learn from or interact with the event should go directly
to the source, to these women who know best how to explain what Mariam set out to show,
that ‘there’s no one-way to be a Muslim woman.’

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