By Shelina Janmohamed
1 Mar 2019
What progress, if any, have we made in the
last decade when it comes to our understanding of Muslim women? I found myself
asking this question when the BBC’s Bodyguard won best new drama last month at
the National Television awards, having amassed 11 million viewers including 48%
of the audience share for its finale.
Spoiler alert: the Muslim woman at the
heart of the story starts out as the groomed victim of a brutal Jihadi husband,
but by the end of the season her character is unmasked as the violent
Actually, no spoiler alert is needed
because these are exactly the stereotypes constantly perpetuated about Muslim
women in daily life.
It’s probably one of the reasons the
Shamima Begum case is having such a profound impact; one-dimensional
stereotypes about Muslim women already run so deep. Begum embodies this exact
victim-terrorist paradox. While the former Bethnal Green schoolgirl did join
Isis, we don’t know whether she committed crimes while in Syria, and none of us
will unless she is brought to justice.
But the binary way in which her story has
been framed – she is either a dangerous public enemy and security risk covered
from head to toe in her long black clothing, audaciously demanding to be taken
back to Britain, or she is a helpless victim, tricked into marriage to a man
twice her age, rape, three pregnancies, the loss of two babies, post-natal
depression and war trauma – is unhelpful. It ignores the fact that sometimes
the truth is complex and lies somewhere between the extremes, and that is
having an impact on other Muslim women in Britain.
There are already reports of abuse and
hatred against Muslim women as a result of her case. It emerged this week that
a shooting range in Merseyside has been using images of Begum as target
practice. Children as young as six are welcomed at this range, and presumably
even they will be allowed to fire bullets at a target of Begum’s face. It’s as
though there is an unspoken glee in suddenly being able to revel in openly
demonising a Muslim woman with impunity. A reinterpretation of the Salem witch
trials for a modern era might look like this. I should repeat at this point –
for those who will double down on their stereotypes of Muslim women by accusing
me of being a terrorism apologist – that she should face justice, but she needs
to be investigated rather than tried in advance by assumptions as those witches
On our streets, on our front pages and
across much of our media, in the mouths of our politicians, at the dinner table
and in even the most genteel of establishments, the stereotypes of Muslim women
over the last decade persist, in fact I’d say have become more entrenched.
These stereotypes include: being at once both victim and terrorist, oppressed,
“traditionally submissive”, unable to speak English, brainwashed, waiting to be
saved by feminists among others, lacking in agency (but also at the same time
blamed for bringing up young jihadis).
Sometimes well-meaning people feed the
stereotypes with platitudes: (don’t worry, I see past your headscarf). Others
take away our agency (did your father make you marry him?), while some simply
see us as walking bombs and demand we obey their patriarchal demands (answer my
questions, and if you don’t then you must be a jihadi). These stereotypes are
incredibly resistant to change.
Ten years ago I wrote a book Love in a
Headscarf, which set out to challenge stereotypes by telling my own story. It
was described in the Guardian as hovering “somewhere between chick-lit and
memoir”. As I explained in these pages in 2009, it was an expression of how I
was “fed up with reading stories in the papers about how all Muslim women are
It was one of the first books that explored
the idea of a Muslim woman who was confident but questioning of her faith,
trying to find a place in a world. But 10 years on it feels like the book could
be written today, and would still run up against the same stereotypical
True, a new cohort of Muslim women has
grown up in that time. Some have entered and started to make an impact on
politics such as the eight female Muslim MPs currently serving in the House of
Commons, and more senior leaders in the House of Lords such as Sayeeda Warsi,
Meral Ece-Hussain and Nosheena Mobarik.
Our public figures have changed too, with
Mishal Husain as one of the voices we now wake up to on BBC Radio 4’s Today
programme, and Fatima Manji on Channel 4 News. Great British Bake Off winner
Nadiya Hussain brings joy (and great food) to homes around the country, and is
confident and proud in describing herself as British, Bangladeshi and Muslim.
This month has seen publication of It’s Not
About the Burqa, an anthology of stories edited by Mariam Khan and written by
Muslim women. It follows in the footsteps of The Things I Would Tell You:
British Muslim Women Write published in 2017. These would have been unthinkable
when my book came out, and I hope I helped to lay the foundation for such
Social media has also given a platform to
young Muslim women, some of whom reach millions of people, proving the point
that their stories are of interest and value.
So while there is much to be glad about,
and even if it is easier in relative terms for Muslim women to have their
voices heard now, the responses are more likely to be aggressive and even
The conversation about women has moved
forward dramatically with movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp. Yet the
conversation about Muslim women continues to be stuck in a groundhog day of
veils, Burkinis and Jihadi brides. Suspicion and dehumanisation are rarely far
from the surface.
Islamophobia is real, and gendered
Islamophobia even more so, layering anti-Muslim hatred and misogyny together
often with an unhealthy dollop of racism.
No matter how hard and how constantly we
challenge the hostility, discrimination, misrepresentation and abuse we face
day in and day out, being fed those stereotypes from all sides means they have
a huge impact. It’s harder for Muslim women to get jobs. Verbal abuse and
physical assault are on the rise. All of us should be deeply alarmed.
What brings joy to my heart is that Muslim
women are increasingly vocal about their rights that their place in this
society is theirs by right, and they are no longer willing to accept a meek
But we need to keep destroying the
stereotypes and recognise that there is a systemic problem, whose roots run
deep. And until we weed the whole thing out – instead of watering it as some of
our public figures keep doing – we will not create the kind of definitive transformation
that we are trying to achieve.
This means that politicians and
policymakers must face up to the open and also subtle hatreds, but they must
also institute structural changes which will have enduring effects. It means
that across the media, arts and culture, those who have power over what we view
and read, from journalists to tastemakers, need to take a long hard look at who
is producing their content and ensuring Muslim voices are represented.
But it requires that everyone recognises
how negative stereotypes of Muslim women have become entrenched and normalised,
and how prevalent verbal and physical hostility is – and intervenes against it.
Only by taking such difficult steps will we
all be able to look back in 10 years’ time and think: this time we really did
make the change.
Shelina Janmohamed is a commentator on British Islam, and is the author
of Love in a Headscarf