The diverse collection of writing from 22 Muslim women with connections to the United Kingdom, and recently released in that country, offers varying perspectives on identity
Book review: The Thing I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write covers topics from terror to matchmaking apps
Saqi has released two collections about Muslim identities in a time of travel bans.
The first is the largely comic Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic, while the second is the earnest, warm, sometimes fiery The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write.
In her introduction, editor Sabrina Mahfouz talks about the importance of broadening the identities reflected back at young Muslim women. She writes that she’s “been stunned by the difference it has made to the writing of those who wear the hijab, for example, to watch a YouTube video of a young woman wearing a hijab and reciting her poetry on stage”.
Thus, each of the essays, short stories, poems and plays Mahfouz has collected offer ideas about identity: how to embrace it, re-frame it and, sometimes, escape from it.
The book’s 22 contributors approach the topic from diverse backgrounds and aesthetics, from 15-year-old Seema Begum, who Mahfouz met at a poetry workshop in London, to celebrated novelists Hanan al-Shaykh and Ahdaf Soueif.
Some of the works are set between Britain and another country, but many of the
contributors have lived primarily or solely in the United Kingdom, and a large part of their identities are inscribed as a present absence.
Soueif is among those who exist between two places. She notes that she “never came across the Arabic word for
identity, huwiyyah, until long after I was no longer living full-time in Egypt”.
She casts back to 1960s Cairo, describing her identity then as “a spacious meeting point, a common ground with avenues into the rich hinterlands of many traditions”.
She contrasts this with a narrower identity pushed on her through the British media, where “Arab” and “Muslim” were reflected back at her in bizarre, macabre ways.
The essay Stand By Me, by pseudonym Miss L, embodies many of the collection’s identity struggles. As a girl, she didn’t see any barriers to what roles she could play.
But “as I got older, the range of roles the world would let me play became narrower and narrower”.
Soon, Miss L realised the only acting roles she was offered were “either terrorists or the wives of terrorists”. But instead of shifting from these “bad Muslim” roles to “good” ones, she writes that she wants to “show young Middle Eastern girls that they matter just as much as that blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl in their class”.
They, too, can play just as wide a spectrum of roles.
In short essay Islamic Tinder, Triska Hamid explores identity through the lens of women seeking a partner. For the women she interviews, overlapping identities leave them out of sync with potential partners. Muslim women on the dating apps tend to have higher levels of education than Muslim men, and those over 30 have trouble finding any matches.
In Blood and Broken Bodies, journalist and aid worker Shaista Aziz writes about honour killings in Pakistan.
Most of the essay feels distant from her life in England, almost exotic, until she discusses reactions to the murder of Pakistani social-media star Qandeel Baloch. The piece doesn’t fully explore the moment when the murder reverberated out to the Pakistani diaspora, but it nods toward the entanglements of gender identity, rippling from one context to another.
Like Aziz, journalist Samira Shackle grew up not in Pakistan, but in the UK.
As a freelancer, this led to opportunities. Before she had visited Pakistan, she had edited a section on the country for the New Statesman. She was pleased with the results, but added with some discomfort that: “Editors were quite happy to take my ethnic origins as evidence of my authority to write on Pakistan.”
In Kamila Shamsie’s magical short story The Girl Next Door, we find a markedly different portrait of Pakistan. Shamsie, who grew up in Karachi, sets her intimate story around two women: a make-up artist and a TV star. The latter, glamorous and educated, has recently returned from London. In the foreground, the characters discuss an advice call-in show, while in the background, we see how the different women have built their identities.
Although the TV star is the more traditionally successful, she admits admiration for the make-up artist. These aren’t the 1960s freedoms of Soueif’s essay. But in the TV star’s words, the make-up artist has achieved her own extraordinary triumph: “Living your life, and being left alone to do it.”