“While ‘Muslimness’ is, of course, not limited to a piece of cloth, so often we hijab-wearing women find ourselves judged by our visibility without being afforded ownership of the narrative that surrounds it,” writes Sabeena Akhtar in the introduction to her book Cut from the Same Cloth?, released by crowdfunded publisher Unbound last month.
An arts and culture programmer with experience working across various literary festivals in the UK, Akhtar was primely positioned to conceptualise and edit this anthology of 21 essays by Muslim women.
“As a reader, I was just tired of reading pieces that restricted Muslim women to certain narratives or reductive framings. I was equally tired of being asked to write articles along those lines, too,” she tells The National. “I wanted to carve out a space where we could have some creative freedom and feel comfortable in our religiosity.”
Akhtar had been working on this project since 2017.
“In the early days, I had so many conversations with the first contributors about ideas for the anthology and who we envisaged the book would be for. One thing that all of us felt, was that we wanted to create a book for Muslim women readers, something that we wished our younger selves could have read,” she explains.
There were no prerequisites or directions – contributors were simply asked to share what they most wanted to say.
There are tear-jerking contributions, such as Shaista Aziz’s interview with a witness of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, and lighter-toned pieces such as Fatha Hassan’s, about the paradox of being pressured to find “marriage material” after being raised to stay away from men.
Many of the essays are centred on the hijab. Rumana Lasker Dawood, for instance, recalls being asked by a colleague if her husband forced her to cover her hair.
“He asked me this question as easily as asking if I wanted sugar in my tea,” she writes. “In that instant, I was stripped of my autonomy and reduced to a demeaning stereotype.”
Raisa Hassan discusses the triple stereotypes she has had to endure, relating to being a woman of colour, with a disability and visibly Muslim.
Sophie Williams, who wears the niqab, takes readers through one of her therapy sessions, where, instead of discussing post-traumatic stress disorder she realises she must convince her therapists that she isn’t at risk of radicalisation.
Suma Din, meanwhile, reveals her innermost fears of being a Muslim mother in country where her children are among the minority.
“They would have to flourish in the frosts of fear, suspicion and misinformation about their inner identity; their faith … how was I going to protect, support and nurture their balanced selves to develop?”
Although many stories address gendered Islamophobia (prejudice against visibly Muslim women), others critically reflect on the Muslim community.
Sofia Rehman, for instance, discusses the many injustices Muslim women frequently face and often silently endure, and calls for readers to “unmute” the voices of female Muslim scholars and academics who preach the faith’s egalitarian messages.
Topics such as racism against black communities and those with darker skin tones are also explored.
Hodan Yusuf discusses the lack of safe spaces for Muslim women, and more so, those of colour.
“Even in women-only Eid gatherings when we take our hijabs off, non-black women are quick to comment on our hair and try to touch it without permission, even calling their friends over to come have a feel. Making black women feel like animals in a petting zoo is not the definition of a safe sisterly space,” she writes.
Ruqaiya Haris focuses on the challenges of embodying modesty in the 21st century. “One woman’s turban hijab is another woman’s not-quite-authentic-hijab; one woman’s modest fashion ensemble is another woman’s immodest fashion ensemble,” she states, examining how the boundaries of “modesty” have been blurred in an age of social media and cosmetic enhancements.
While some of the essays read as exasperated pleas to reject and move forward from Orientalist stereotypes, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s takes a different stance.
“Stereotypes do not exist to be broken, they exist to break us,” she writes. “Therefore, I am no longer placing value on disproving other people’s assumptions.
"This refusal is a form of non-compliance in a world that says Muslim women’s humanity and worth are conditional upon proving it.”
This anthology is not merely one of Muslim women “breaking their silence” – it’s far more ground-breaking, fascinating and inspiring than a literary cliche can communicate.
Highlighting both inter-community issues and the Islamophobic ignorance of outsiders, Akhtar and her writers have delivered soul-baring narratives that centre their diverse, lived experiences.
And, although certain parts may stand out as “uniquely British”, Akhtar believes they will resonate with women of the faith across the globe.
“I think due to the nature of the Ummah [community] and the bonds, rituals and experiences we all share, Muslim women worldwide will find these stories relevant, even if they don’t mirror theirs," she says.