July 25, 2008
Behind the veil: the online diary of a British Muslim woman
Na'ima B. Robert is a Muslim author, a wife and mother living in Britain. In the first of her regular articles for Faith Online she discusses the challenge of living the Islamic faith in a secular democracy.
As a Muslim woman living in the embrace of a vibrantly secular, liberal democratic society, you are constantly caught between two very different worlds.
On the one hand, there is your faith, Islam, a religion and way of life revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over 1400 years ago, a religion that affects the way you think, the way you act, the way you speak, dress and eat. It is the world of worship and sacrifice, of duties and voluntary charity. It is the world of faith.
Then, on the other hand, there is the dunya, the "worldly life", where you live, work, study, shop, entertain and unwind. It is a world of trends and societal pressures, deadlines and promotions, summer sales and summer holidays. It is, in a nutshell, the world that almost everyone else lives in full-time.
And, interestingly enough, it is one that many non-Muslims are surprised that religious Muslim women inhabit at all. Despite the number of observant Muslim women active in public life in Britain (Respect party vice-chair Salma Yaqoob, editor and OBE Sara Joseph, activist and journalist Yvonne Ridley, novelist and dramatist Leila Aboulela to name but a few), media representations often fail to be anything more than stereotypes with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that Muslim women are oppressed, powerless, ghettoised, uneducated, devoid of ambition, with an unhealthy addiction to black clothes.
That is the only way I can explain the surprised reaction to the findings of a survey of Muslim women carried out by SISTERS Magazine and Ummah Foods. To some it apparently came as a revelation that Muslim women long for their soul mate and shop on the high street, that we too go out to eat and dream of running our own businesses one day.
This surprise struck me as puzzling. Where did people think we got our clothes from, if not shops like Hennes and Next, Monsoon and Zara? Or maybe they thought that, beneath our hijabs, jilbabs and niqabs, we simply wear more of the same: shapeless sack dresses and bloomers, stitched at home by hand.
What of the hijabi fashionistas, the undercover style queens, the ladies-only parties with beaded evening dresses and glitter hair gems? If nothing else, maybe the BBC television show Women in Black has shown audiences that there is indeed life beneath a black abayah. Do people really think that all Muslim women are victims of forced or 'arranged marriages' who live lives of dutiful obedience and loveless servitude with men who treat them like slaves?
How surprised people would be to learn of the 'halal romance', the deep love and affection felt by many Muslim couples, the years of companionship and support and, of course, numerous babies, that accompany many Muslim marriages. And, of course, even fewer know about the liberal attitude to marital intimacy that is to be found in the books of hadith and Islamic jurisprudence. But that is another story...
In essence, the Muslim woman in the UK is constantly negotiating the space between two worlds: Islam and the 'dunya'; East and West, the past and the future, her individual needs and ambitions and the needs and demands of the wider community.
It is tricky sometimes, straddling the divide, and it requires a great deal of balance, patience and compromise. But we wouldn't have it any other way. By choosing to practise Islam in the UK, this is what we have chosen: to have a foot in both camps and, hopefully, experience the best of both worlds, whatever those worlds may be.
Copyright: Na'ima B.Robert
Na'ima B. Robert is the editor of SISTERS magazine for Muslim women, and the author of From My Sisters' Lips; From Somalia with Love; The Swirling Hijab; My Around the World Scrapbook
Click here to access Sisters magazine
40Days to transform my life!
Feel like you are letting yourself down? Know you can do better but aren't sure how? Make great resolutions but don't follow through? Sounds just like me. Which is why I am resolving to commit 40Days to making a lasting difference to my life, insha Allah. This blog is the online home of my personal 40Day Challenge - you can join me or simply follow my progress (or lack of it!).