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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

The untruths of the past continue to inform our untruths of today

The past is not a graveyard where untruths are buried. It’s more like a horror movie where the undead continue to haunt our nightmares, writes Shelina Janmohamed

According to the Western narrative, Muslim women are characterised as victims. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
According to the Western narrative, Muslim women are characterised as victims. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

There’s been much angst and many column inches dedicated over the past 18 months to the rise of fake news and the future of knowledge in an age of untruth.

But many of the stories that have spiked so alarmingly in prominence do so because the untruths of today are actually rooted in the untruths of history.

Let me illustrate. In 2009 this week, my first book Love in a Headscarf was published. It is a memoir I wrote to tell a different story about Muslim women from the ones so often told about being oppressed, kidnapped or sold.

Muslim women are characterised as oppressed, victims and submissive. So the Western narrative goes, we must be freed, in fact, not just freed, but liberated from our shackles of Islam. Our hijabs must be forcibly ripped from our heads to show us that we are free and we must emerge from the darkness of religion into an enlightened future where we are told how to be modern women. Far be it for us to have a truth that differs from this and which we want to tell.

Instead, my book was written to be a positive upbeat humorous story about coming of age and navigating today’s world. And, as the title suggests, to also talk openly of love, a subject much underrepresented and quite taboo at that time.

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Like all authors, I have a pile of rejection slips, and it is the reasons given that are pertinent to our discussion. "How can you write a positive story of Muslim women? Who will read such stories?" or "We have no precedent for positive stories, so we don't believe anyone wants to read these" and "We believe you are really on the zeitgeist but this is not a story we want to publish". And perhaps my favourite of all, "I'm so pleased you are finally writing about how oppressed Muslim women are!"

As it turned out, despite what the gatekeepers thought, people really did want to read the story. On its publication, the book was covered in the UK’s biggest newspapers. It was reviewed here in The National and around the world. It has been translated into 11 languages and went to number two on the best seller chart in India.

But there's a reason for telling you about the rejections of the book - because these exhibit the untruths that frame our understanding of the stories of Muslim women, and these are untruths that are entrenched in our history.

From 1883 to 1907, Lord Cromer was the British consul general for Egypt. It won't come as a surprise to know that someone embedded in the imperialist project was convinced of the inferiority of Muslims, and he directed his greatest disdain at how in his mind Muslims treated their women and claimed they oppressed them. He felt that Muslim values - in particular the hijab were the "fatal obstacle" holding Egyptians back from the "elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation." And he also said that Egyptians should be persuaded or "forced" to become "civilised" by getting rid of the veil.

So far, so familiar, right? The frame still remains the same.

What we don’t talk about is that after Lord Cromer returned to the UK in 1910 he founded and presided over the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage, which worked to stop women getting the vote.

He had no love for liberating (Muslim) women, he was just a bigoted misogynistic powerful man.

What we learn is that to unpack the untruth in which we are trapped today we need to find its roots. And in doing so, we will actually reveal bigger truths are being hidden.

The untruths of the past continue to inform our untruths of today. This is true not just for the stories of Muslim women but for so very many of today’s untruths.

In fact, the past is not a graveyard where untruths are buried and laid to rest. It’s more like a horror movie where the undead continue to haunt our nightmares. We need better stories, ones that challenge past untruths, dissect and then redress them. And we also need to find ways to kill the zombie stories dead, before they kill us with their untruths.

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