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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 November 2018

Islam and me: why I decided to make a TV programme about the role of women practising my faith

Society is so busy ventriloquising for this silenced minority group, it denies them an actual platform to speak for themselves, writes Mehreen Baig

Muslim women, pictured here celebrating Eid in a London park. They are the most silenced minority group, says TV presenter Mehreen Baig / Getty
Muslim women, pictured here celebrating Eid in a London park. They are the most silenced minority group, says TV presenter Mehreen Baig / Getty

I am a British Pakistani Muslim woman, which means I spend half the time being told by the world that I am held back by my religion and the other half of the time, that I’m not religious enough.

Many young Muslim women growing up in Britain today are the daughters of first-generation migrants and, like me, these women are brought up in households where culture is held onto even more tightly than in their native country, for fear of losing it. This results in Muslim women in Britain arguably experiencing stricter restrictions than their global counterparts and feeling conflicted about living up to these expectations and finding their own individual identity.

Post 9/11, the perception of Islam changed rapidly in Britain. Muslims were suddenly thrown into the limelight for all the wrong reasons and their day-to-day life was heavily scrutinised. While Muslim men were increasingly being perceived as villains, Muslim women were by default the new victims – and over the years that followed, I realised Muslim girls needed positive role models more than ever.

It was a mixture of this responsibility and the sudden shift in the global perception of Islam which prompted me to learn more about the role of women in my religion. Slowly, I realised that my faith was no longer a personal matter. Instead, how I chose to speak about my religion and behave would either conform to, or challenge, existing stereotypes. I had a choice of either staying on the train when the Muslim man got on or disembarking with others.

It was around this time that the opportunity to participate in the BBC documentary Muslims Like Us came along. The show was dubbed the "Muslim Big Brother" as it relied on the premise of 10 strangers living in a house together – but rather than arguing over who made breakfast, the 10 days were spent debating crucial issues relating to Islamic values, with the intention to highlight the fact that Muslims are not a monolithic community.

I was initially sceptical of the medium and declined the show. I never considered myself a “Muslim representative” and was afraid of the backlash I would face as a result. When I shared these fears with my father, he simply responded: “I didn’t raise you to be weak and I didn’t raise you to be stupid. Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.” He advised me to see the show as an opportunity to reach a larger audience and counteract misrepresentations and I eventually accepted the offer.

The show presented a diverse range of Muslim women in Britain today: some refused to attend a karaoke party and others refused to pray in the conventional Islamic manner. Interestingly, the response to both the “liberal” and the “conservative” women was similar: the females who chose not to cover, like myself, were judged and criticised from within the Muslim community for not being religious enough while the visibly Muslim females were judged and criticised from outside the Muslim community for being submissive. Though the response I received was overwhelmingly positive, I was advised daily on social media that in order to represent Muslim women in the West, I should remove my nail varnish and cover my hair. To this, I merely responded with my mother’s words: “You must first put a hijab on your heart and only then should you put a hijab on your head.”

After the considerable interest in the show, I began working on the BBC documentary Islam, Women and Me, which was screened earlier this week. The question at the heart of the film was whether it is possible to be a strong, independent woman and a good Muslim. Muslim women are undeniably the most spoken-for group in the world. It seems that society is so busy ventriloquising for this silenced and allegedly oppressed minority group, it denies them an actual platform where they can speak for themselves. That was why the show was so important.

My very first meeting was with a young woman who had chosen to leave the faith altogether, who told me she felt there was no equality between the sexes in Islam and so had renounced the religion in order to have her voice heard, or "not disappear", as she put it. Although it was a challenging conversation, it addressed the wider perception of women being oppressed in the Muslim community around Britain and it armed me with the questions I wanted answers to during the rest of my exploration of the issue. I had to meet women who felt that the religion was inherently misogynistic, as well as the women who found liberation through Islam, to try to understand why such a dichotomy exists.

This led me to talk to a group of black Muslim women at a dinner I attended to mark Black History Month. There, a young woman passionately described why she wore the hijab: “Whatever my God tells me to do, He gives me a choice. I wear this out of love. This is my identity and I own it.” By talking to them as well as to Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a self-proclaimed Muslim feminist activist, I realised that British Muslim women are not being restricted by religion but by culture.

I hoped that after the show was broadcast, the Muslim community would begin to consider why the patriarchal aspects of Islam are emphasised at the expense of more fundamental values of equality. And as for the non-Muslim community, I hoped the show would create awareness that there are thousands of Muslim women who love their faith and are dynamic, powerful, ambitious, content and confident feminists and are tired of having to defend themselves and their religion daily.

Ultimately, British Muslim women need to reclaim the narrative that is currently being written for them – they need to be empowered to read, question, challenge and make informed choices. Only when we learn about our rights will we be able to exercise them and only then will things get better for future generations of young Muslim girls in the West.

Mehreen Baig began blogging as queenmehreen.com and is a TV and radio commentator on Muslims in Britain