Faiqa Mansab discusses the prejudice and oppression – patriarchal, Islamophobic and colonial – that Muslim women face the world over and asks for a form of feminism which centres their needs and experiences too.
I am a Muslim woman and my body is under attack. Aside from the plethora of attacks any woman faces, I must contend with yet more; like the white gaze which fetishizes me, others me and often reduces me to a stereotype. The hijab is synonymous with a Muslim woman, even though, I, like many Muslim women across the globe, don’t even wear one. The hijab has become a contentious symbol in the world, partly because of the white gaze, which has sold it to the world as a symbol of oppression for political gain. And I agree that it can be, when patriarchy uses it to control women in many parts of the world still, like in Iran and Afghanistan.
I feel Islamophobia is part of this intense gaze on the body of Muslim women. Sadly, Islamic patriarchy fulfils the same role in places like South Asia, where the fear that Muslim women will somehow erase Islam or endanger it, is very strong (as seen in the violent threats towards women when protesting said patriarchal violence and restrictions). The white gaze views Muslim women as unsexed, devoid of humor, agency and the ability to have fun. And, unfortunately, thanks to this white gaze, the hijab adds to this stereotype, so much so that it is no longer just a piece of clothing. Instead it has become a politically charged statement for Muslim women and for everyone else.
But we, as Muslim women, are ourselves divided over the hijab. There is a vast group who do not believe the hijab is an essential part of faith. Islamic patriarchy uses the hijab to divide Muslim women’s bodies into Good bodies and Bad bodies:
The Good Muslim Woman will wear the hijab, says Islamic patriarchy.
Good Muslim Women will not wear the hijab, says Western patriarchy.
A woman should wear whatever she wants to wear – a simple enough philosophy, one would think, but one which is being smothered everywhere.
Only recently, Rawdah Mohamed, a Somali refugee in Norway broke that glass ceiling by becoming the fashion editor at Vogue Scandinavia. Though an anomaly, a hijab-wearing fashion editor was long needed. Fashion and a Muslim woman’s body are often seen as incongruent, especially if there is a hijab involved. But Mohamed demonstrated their compatibility, not only in her editorial role but by wearing the hijab with feathers and a mesh hood. Mohamed showed that fashion and culture can be combined in a competitive secular industry. The hijab, in other words, did not render her any less fashionable or unable to do her job.
There are, however, other ways Muslim women are using the hijab and their bodies to claim identity and space, for instance during their period. The idea that a woman’s body is dirty during their menstrual cycle is also patriarchal. Muslim female scholars are resisting this interpretation of the Quranic verse, which has led to this school of thought. They claim that the word ‘huzn’ from the relevant verse, does not necessarily mean dirty. Rather, it means pain, and the idea of separation is actually to give women a break from chores and other pressures, and that women should be catered to rather than shunned for the duration of their period. To further explain why Muslim women are not supposed to pray when on their period, I suggest, that we look to ideas of blood and ritual. Ritual purity and impurity are linked to blood in all Abrahamic religions. Bloodshed is counted as ritual impurity. Even when shed in murder, war, childbirth, or even from a cut that bleeds, because blood is of immense value, mythically and religiously, not just in Islam but in all religions across the globe, throughout history, the idea of a woman bleeding is deemed impure, despite it being as ritually mundane or frequent as any other form of shed blood – if not more so. Women’s blood is, therefore, no different, and should not carry additional stigma and prejudice.
In order to normalize menstruation, we may have sidelined and repressed the pain. We may have undermined the truth of how every month a woman bleeds out for three to seven days on average and deals with it as if it is nothing. We make jokes about PMS so that we don’t have to acknowledge that it is a tough time for women. Not all modern progression is good though. Where period hygiene has developed, so has the bad idea that women should continue to live normally during the time of menstruation, when it is actually a very painful and extremely uncomfortable time for us. It takes its toll on our bodies, our emotional and mental well-being. We need to demand the right to look after our bodies during menstruation. Muslim women deserve and need to demand this right, especially when there are additional cultural barriers and the menstruating Muslim body is still taboo.
We may take a day off for a cold but taking a day off during menstruation has become a sign of female weakness. As if denying our bodies makes us stronger. Another patriarchal stroke of brilliance to control the bodies of women, or perhaps a false turn by those feminists who think that being like men means equality. We need to find space in feminism where we can say that yes, we need time off during our period and it doesn’t make us dirty or weak. It just means we want some time off for the wellbeing of our bodies because we are female and equal still. The world will fight to ban the hijab, but no one will speak for a woman’s right to take time off when dealing with the pain and difficulties linked to menstruation. Even maternity leave was a contentious one for years. A woman’s leaking body, whether in period, or lactation, is a body that embarrasses men and because it does, it is often a body that is erased, ignored, or denied. A body that isn’t sexual or sexy for the male gaze, is suspect. For Muslim women, this is, again, additionally hard.
Muslim women are fighting to find a niche in world feminism for themselves. We are writing, making movies, making art, entering politics, the military and all other fields because we can do anything we set our minds to, hijab or no hijab. That is not what constrains us. Neither does Islam. It is the patriarchal forces and voices of the world who wish to put us into boxes of their own making, made with ignorance or lack of empathy; it is the patriarchal and misogynist attitudes that perpetuate this ignorance and lack of empathy too.
Muslim women are fighting off multiple gazes: the male gaze, the white feminist gaze, the white savior gaze, and the colonizer’s gaze. We are also fighting for the right to establish and define our own identity. We are fighting to find our own form of feminism. Our voices are gaining strength and clarity because we accept the plurality of Muslim womanhood. We see and acknowledge that we contain multitudes. One day soon I hope the world will too.
About Faiqa Mansab
Faiqa Mansab is the author of This House of Clay and Water, published by Penguin India in 2017. It has since been translated into Turkish and optioned for screen adaptation. The novel was longlisted for the Getz-Pharma Literary Prize and the German Consulate Peace Prize in 2018. It was Amazon Editor’s Picks 2018, Amazon Best International Women’s Fiction 2018 and appeared in several Best of lists. Faiqa has an MFA in Fiction from Kingston University London with a high distinction and she received the Best MFA Thesis Award for what became her published novel. Faiqa received the prestigious British Chevening Award in 2019. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies or are forthcoming, in online magazines and literary reviews like The Missing Slate, The Aleph Review and In the New Century: An Anthology of Pakistani Literature 1998-2017. Faiqa works at the International Center for Pakistani Writing in English (ICPWE). She is also the Writer in Residence at The Writing Institute and the Alumni Ambassador for Kingston University London. Her second novel is currently in submission. You can follow Faiqa via these links: on Twitter @FaiqaMansab and via Instagram @faiqamansab
This piece was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
We also welcome pitches and contributions from writers, artists, film-makers and researchers outside of the Lucy Writers’ community. Please inquire for book reviews too.
For submissions relating to trans and non-binary culture email firstname.lastname@example.org
For poetry submissions email email@example.com
For reviews, prose submissions, artwork and general inquiries email firstname.lastname@example.org
Submissions are open from 6 January 2022 until the end of April 2022.
Feature image is a detail of a still from a YouTube film about Shamsia Hassani’s art. See the film here.