'Islam, Women and Me' felt like the struggles Muslim women face are in a vacuum from the wider women's movement, says Shelina Janmohamed
There are plenty of interesting Muslim women's stories out there. Let's hear more of them
Can you be an independent woman and a practising Muslim? Is it possible to balance a modern identity with Islam?
These were the questions that the BBC’s latest documentary Islam, Women and Me posed to viewers this week. Let me help you with the answers: yes, it is possible to be an independent practising Muslim woman. No, there’s no contradiction and yes, millions upon millions of women around the world manage it every day, in between drinking tea and watching documentaries about how they are oppressed by their religion.
These sorts of odd perspectives are reflected in questions too often put Muslim women’s way: do you wear your headscarf in the shower? Now you’re engaged, will you have a forced marriage? And even, do you speak English?
The documentary was a personal quest by a 28-year-old British Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, telling her own story of self-discovery. She said all she had ever learnt about Islam was from her parents, that her family and culture meant everything to her but that she had never really investigated whether the rules by which she lives her life were based on her culture or her religion.
She exposes plenty of important questions such as: how has this supposed dichotomy between the Muslim world and modernity seeped into the psyche of current generations?
Yet the story of the supposed contradiction between womanhood and Islam has been repeated for decades – so why are we stuck in this trope?
Then the programme asks why contemporary Muslim discourse focuses so heavily on men’s rights but women’s responsibilities, which results in an imbalance and leaves Muslim women alienated and confused. (Answer: the patriarchy.) But the real question should be, how should Muslims dismantle it?
Perhaps most puzzling for me was that in a documentary about Islam and women that was intended to focus on the individual, there was almost no reference to God or building a spiritual connection. At one point, the presenter even framed her confusion as to whether to obey her culture or religion. Where did God disappear to in this equation?
At the crossroads of her quest for independence, the presenter’s story was framed as breaking free from her father and her fear of being erased by her potential husband. As it happens, her father seems rather lovely. We see him cooking for her and exclaiming: “I love you, sweetheart.”
This framing made the story feel out of kilter with the global moment. And despite all the talk about wanting to be independent, the most exciting parts of the programme relating to independence were quickly swept over. One woman expressed that it was her mother who explained to her that Islam was radically feminist. She also spoke candidly about her sexuality and her agency over it.
It made me wonder why this journey wasn’t carried out by both the presenter and a mother or mother-type figure exploring their ideas of womanhood, faith and modernity, rather than being tied to her father.
In fact, if we have learnt anything from the last few months, it is that women’s narratives don’t need to be hooked to men’s. We don’t need to ask permission or liberation. Our interpretation of our lives doesn’t need to be framed through their experiences.
Read more from Shelina Janmohamed:
This is a personal journey and I can’t dispute the revelations. But when it comes to talking about religion, women and identity, it felt like the last 12 months had never happened and that the struggles Muslim women are facing are in a vacuum from wider women’s movements. In one case, the presenter attends a sharia court and is heartbroken at the challenges facing women in securing a divorce. But we know that family courts put women through the same traumas. She’s distraught about potential husbands having views on her relationship with their parents or what she wears. But all spouses have similar concerns about partners.
Personal stories can’t be argued with. And I salute the presenter for stepping into the public eye at a time when women are trolled horribly and Muslim women face multiple layers of abuse. I acknowledge her outstanding efforts to put her personal quest on a public platform.
But at a time of a paradigm shift in the way we talk about women generally, it feels terribly retrograde to tell the same Muslim women’s stories that have been told for decades, centuries even. Let’s hear some new stories. There are plenty of them out there.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World