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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Amena Khan's story offers a stark snapshot of the world we live in

For all the talk of encouraging women onto the top table, we still refuse to accept that women have an opinion, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Amena Khan. Courtesy L'Oreal
Amena Khan. Courtesy L'Oreal

Women talk too much, yada yada yada. Because that’s what we think, isn’t it, that all women do is talk?

Wrong. Women in areas of power and influence – like the workplace, politics and media – actually speak far less than men, have far less representation and are far more likely to be interrupted and spoken over.

The rise of the internet and social media in particular suddenly opened the door for women to express their views, define their identity on their own terms and march straight past gatekeepers who had been filtering out their presence in our public spaces. The same happened with minority voices. And of course when the two intersect – women from minority backgrounds – the result has been a wonderful range of fresh new voices.

Since the turn of the millennium we’ve seen the rise and rise of Muslim women among this new generation of influencers. Amena Khan was possibly one of the most well-known female Muslim faces on the internet. Her videos of beauty and fashion interspersed with inspirational tips and commentary about her faith built up a following among Muslim women who felt that someone was finally articulating their own experiences, challenges and aspirations. She spoke to the world under the name Pearl Daisy, and grew her online presence into a successful business and brand. She is one of the most longstanding female Muslim internet influencers, and whatever your views of her, in that sense she was a pioneer. She embodied a sense of confidence in her faith in the modern world. We see similar female Muslim internet celebrities all around the world, breaking free of traditional gatekeepers who police women’s exploration of identity and start their own public journeys of self-expression and development.

Of course that doesn’t mean they always get it right, but the fact is that women – especially Muslim women and women of colour – attract particularly visceral criticism from all quarters.

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When the announcement that she was featuring in L’Oreal’s shampoo campaign broke, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry that the commentary was almost identical from far-right trolls who loathe everything about Muslim women, and from some Muslim quarters too. Both decried her participation, both hurled abuse at her. Some of the criticisms were as puerile as they were hilarious. “What does she need shampoo for?” as though Muslim women who wear hijabs don’t have hair. Or worse, if men can’t see the hair what is the point of it? (Because women don’t exist for the pleasure of men) The irony that made me laugh more was Muslims demanding that a shampoo advert display hair were the same ones who demand that Muslim women cover up and that beauty bloggers like Ms Khan should stop "displaying" themselves.

But all of this outrage followed the traditional format of 21st century hype and backlash until something very interesting happened. It turned out Ms Khan had an opinion.

Just a few days after she announced the "game-changing" campaign, which featured her as a Muslim woman who wears hijab, she stepped down citing some tweets she had sent in 2014. An opinion. This is barely months after another prominent anti-racism campaigner and trans activist Munroe Bergdorf who too had been invited to the table as a game changer in the public domain, was fired for her opinions.

It’s the same story: we’ll invite the ladies to sit at the table, but only as long as you’re silent. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t have a view on the world. Stop being the person that generated the influence, that created the story, that gave a voice to millions of others and helped them find their place. As soon as you have an opinion, as soon as you use your voice, as soon as you are – literally – more than a pretty face, you’re asked to leave the table.

So the story here is not about what Ms Khan did or did not say, whether you agree with her or not, or whether Ms Bergdorf was right for her opinions. The story is far more stark and ominous. That for all our talk about encouraging women onto the top table and for promoting diversity, the bleak picture is that we still refuse to accept that women should express their own opinions.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

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