The Challenges of Being a Muslim Woman
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
buzkushi / (bʊzˈkæʃɪ) /
Translated as “goat pulling”, is a traditional game that is played on horseback or yak back where players vie for control of a goat carcass in an effort to score points for their team.
There is little difference between the goat carcass in buzkushi that is fought for, dragged across rugged lands and placed in a goal than the carcass of the idea of a “Muslim woman”. On second thoughts, buzkushi is perhaps less dangerous and arguably kinder to the carcass than society is to a Muslim woman who is oscillated between persecution and criminalisation in a bid to score points politically, economically or socially.
The current cliched and accepted narratives of the Muslim woman rarely extend beyond two scenarios; the ones who are oppressed and subjugated by the evil Muslim men and those who are radicalised extremists supporting Shariah law and aim to bomb their way through the West.
These narratives exist not only in our social structures but are also deeply embedded within political frameworks responsible for the dichotomous approach of saving the oppressed Muslim woman whilst simultaneously disseminating policies that consolidate, institutionalise and give rise to wide acceptance of Islamophobia.
Muslims, Islamophobia and Impact
Islamophobia is “an exaggerated fear, hatred and hostility towards Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination and the marginalisation and seclusion of Muslims from social, political and civic life”. The impact of this rather succinct and, dare I say it, aptly academic definition can be seen in attacks against mosques, graffiti on campuses, hate mail, verbal and physical abuse and discrimination in schools, universities and labour market.
Islamophobia is a multifaceted product of animosity towards race, ethnicity and culture. Xenophobia also perpetuates Islamophobia through the othering process of Muslims, who are perceived as outsiders not only ethnically but also through their perceived values and norms, which is directly translated as a threat to Western identity and way of life.
There are 2.8 million Muslims in the UK, which forms approximately 4.4% of the total population. Not only do Muslims work in key sectors such as the NHS which employs 29,200 staff identifying as Muslims, but they have also made significant contributions financially and socially e.g. contributing over £31billion to the British economy; raising £100 million charity in the month of Ramadan alone and providing approximately 70, 000 jobs in London through businesses.
The statistics for British Muslims do not bode well; e.g. 46% of Muslims live in 10% of the most deprived local authority areas, 26% of British Muslims have no academic qualifications, someone with a non-Muslim name is three times more likely to be offered an interview, and finally, Muslims have the highest disadvantage in the labour market leading to highest rate of unemployment and pay gap.
Muslim women pay a “triple penalty” for being female, BAME and Muslim in the labour market; 1 in 4 employers are reluctant to hire Muslim women due to concerns they will place family commitments ahead of professional tasks and 1 in 8 Pakistani Muslim women were illegally asked about marriage and family values in interviews. In their personal lives, approximately three quarters of Muslim Scottish women have experienced Islamophobia1.
Social constructs have depicted Muslim women through a foreign and distant lens, which has encouraged and validated their alienation whilst simultaneously enforcing changes that distance them from the ideological “Western society”. An example would be of David Cameron criticising Muslim women’s lack of English-speaking ability, which in his opinion led them to not assimilate in British society and remaining vulnerable to extremist. If one ignores the deeply problematic generalisation of Muslim women not being able to speak English or even singling them out to terrorism, then the fundamental question remains of why the former prime minister chose to cut the English language teaching budget by half.
The European political dialogue has aimlessly and confusingly besotted itself with “Islamic clothing”. This has ranged from formalised policies calling for and effectively banning burqas to our political representatives openly mocking Muslim women. Recent examples include Boris Johnson comparing Muslim women in niqab to letter boxes and burglars and Sarkozy defining the burqa as a “problem with liberty and dignity”.
In 2016 a Muslim woman was confronted by the French police on a beach and asked to remove Islamic clothing, whilst other citizens were applauding them and shouting, “go home”. This was justified by the authorities as the burkini was “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach”. I am struggling to find the dignity or liberty in this scenario, albeit I can identify the explicit contraventions of Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which protects one’s basic rights to freedom of thought, belief and religion.
Islamic clothing has also made cameo appearances on cat walks for the likes of Dolce & Gabbana etc. Ergo Islamic clothing is a symbol of oppression for the Muslim woman, however, at £1800 it has a tendency to become somewhat palatable, especially if the model donning it is a Caucasian non-Muslim. It is precisely this duality of standards, which is entrenched not only in the debate regarding attire but extends to other aspects of a Muslim woman’s existence whilst simultaneously excluding her from the discussion.
The ramifications of Islamophobia are amplified for women who bear the brunt of hate crime, which is often in public spaces and often by White men. Hate crimes rooted in Islamophobia have ranged from public shaming, verbal abuse to heinous murder, which was the case of Marwa El-Shabini. In a public space she was called a “terrorist”, “slut” and told to “go home” after asking the man in question to allow her son to sit on a park swing. Marwa reported him to the authorities and in an appeals court moments after completing her testimony, he stabbed her fifteen times. Marwa died in a packed courtroom in front of her husband and child. The German media and discussion that followed did not focus on the issues of an Islamophobic hate crime, rather, fixed its attention on the lack of courtroom security.
The Journey Beyond
Attitudes, actions and crimes rooted in Islamophobia threaten not only the lives of Muslims but also threaten the notions of liberty, freedom of thought, and democracy that underpin a just society.
We all have a moral responsibility towards a better society and that responsibility must begin with accountability. We must be accountable to ourselves – we need to challenge the biases we hold against a woman we see in a burqa or a man going to a mosque; we need to challenge the dangerous stereotypes we hold of Muslims with regards to extremism or being regressive and we must champion the rights of everyone on the same platform of equality.
This moral responsibility extends to holding the media accountable, which has juxtaposed Muslims against “the West” and thus successfully synonymising the Islamic faith with extremism. Furthermore, we must hold our politicians, public platforms and institutions accountable for their words, actions and policies. Muslims should have the freedom to exercise their democratic right to criticise regressive and dangerous policies that stigmatise them without fears for their safety or risk of being identified as a separatist.
We must do all this and more in the spirit of diversity, inclusion, and equality. But more importantly we absolutely must strive in the spirit of a shared and compassionate humanity that embraces all persons regardless of culture, class or creed.
Huma Khan is a volunteer at the Rights collective, currently working with the Leeds & York Partnership Foundation Trust as a trainee Psychiatrist. She co-founded Meer-e-Karwan - a social platform working to engage communities in social dialogue as well as serving on the board of Advisors for African Caribbean Medical Mentors. In her spare time she can be found within the realms of photography, writing poetry and reading.