"A gentleman asked me one day what colour my hair was under my hijab. In order to intrigue him, I told him it was pink, but one of my aims was to quash the notion that hijab-wearing women have no interest in hairstyles or vibrant colours," Rabina Khan, British-Muslim politician and writer, tells The National.
“Of course, what I would like to have said is, ‘And what colour was your hair before you went bald?’ but I wouldn’t be so insensitive.”
This experience inspired the title of Khan's memoir, My Hair is Pink Under this Veil, which was published by Biteback in May and is full of recollections, remonstrations and witty responses.
Khan, who moved to the UK from Bangladesh at the age of 3, is a Liberal Democrat councillor in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, and former special adviser to Lord Newby in the House of Lords.
“My place, as a second-generation immigrant, was not in the home. It was out in the world,” she writes in her book.
When she was 19, she aspired to become a teacher and refine the entire education system – one that did not fairly recognise her heritage and her community’s contribution to Britain, but rather, homogenised South Asia, failing to differentiate between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Writing of her children’s present-day experiences with Islamophobia, Khan upholds her belief that the education system needs to be upended from the primary school level in Britain.
In her memoir, Khan juxtaposes past with present, detailing her own experiences alongside those of her mother and children, contrasting the lives of three generations of a minority community in the UK.
She writes that growing up, Pocahontas was her role model because no other children’s characters or dolls were made to look like her. Later on, she highlights present-day Nigerian artist Haneefah Adam, who creates dolls that Muslim women can identify with, modelled on personalities such as Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad and US politician Ilhan Omar and Haute Hijab founder Melanie Elturk.
The hijab is a topic that Khan discusses throughout her memoir.
One chapter explores the concept of the veil in different Muslim communities and how Muslim women diversely interpret modesty, while another discusses hijab bans in countries across Europe.
My Hair is Pink Under this Veil was released after the onset of Covid-19, and Khan discusses the hypocrisies of pandemic politics, such as the fact that in some places in Europe, where face masks are mandated, niqabs are still outlawed. An entire chapter, in fact, is titled The Covid Niqab.
“For a long time, I felt that mainstream media, politicians and society in general held blinkered views about Muslim women and believed outdated stereotypes, not appreciating the untapped talent and huge contribution that we can make to the British economy and the difference that we can make to people’s lives,” Khan says.
She sprinkles advice and words of wisdom throughout the pages of her book, while drawing attention to the ways in which issues of representation and racism have affected immigrants in Britain.
“Muslims are not just part of mainstream society; they are huge contributors to it,” she writes, highlighting the booming modest fashion market as one example. “A new generation of Muslim women fashion designers, stylists, beauty bloggers and make-up artists from around the world have emerged and are exerting their influence.”
She also says that younger generations of Muslims tend to be more educated than their elders, whose views are more culture-bound. Khan has observed first-hand the evolution of Muslim women in Britain, who are increasingly breaking out of the traditional housewife mould.
However, even when visibly Muslim women achieve success personally or professionally, they still seem to be defined by the cloth on their heads.
“As Muslim women we are often typecast as only having opinions and perspectives on faith and race,” says Khan.
“I have often felt this burden of representation. Yet my active work on campaigning for a greener and sustainable economy is a huge passion; from advocating for the investment into life sciences in the UK’s post-Brexit era to calling out on how the climate change needs to include diverse communities to bring global climate change.”
Being a visibly Muslim woman of colour in politics is no easy feat in the UK, where politicians are primarily white males.
"They wanted me to disappear into obscurity," she writes of her naysayers. Yet, her memoir is a testament to her tenacity.
“Muslim women are fast-becoming narrators of their own story and have become independent and empowered to play an active and rewarding role in society,” she writes.
While there are more books by and about Muslim women, Khan says it is not enough.
“Muslim women have diverse interests in the same way as anyone else, regardless of faith, whether it’s fashion, art, politics, law, medicine or any other topic, yet this has still not been widely recognised by the publishing world.”
She believes female Muslim writers are pigeonholed in the realm of religion.
“Just because my book has been published that does not mean another Muslim woman doesn’t have a story to tell and it also doesn’t mean that I don’t have another topic to cover. We Muslim women are more than just the veil that is often associated with us.”