Egyptian writer and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif once said, of being an Arab and/or a Muslim living in the West, “I felt upset and angered by the misrepresentations I encountered constantly, and I felt grateful when a clear-eyed truth was spoken about us.” She then added the following question: “Who was ‘us’?”
It is a question that prompted the creation of an anthology I edited this year, titled The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write. It is a question that people of Muslim heritage living in the West cannot now possibly ignore, even if they hadn’t previously given it much thought. Our media is deluged by stories about Muslim extremists, Muslim moderates condemning the actions of Muslim extremists, non-Muslims bemoaning the fact that not enough moderate Muslims are condemning the actions of extremist Muslims, and the possibility of the “Muslim next door” becoming radicalized, perhaps even at his or her local primary school.
This coverage has now been compounded by post-Brexit reports of a catastrophic rise in Islamophobic attacks across Britain, the majority of which have targeted women. The Things I Would Tell You was in the process of being printed when Donald Trump announced his first travel ban. I realized then that it might be a long time before I was again involved in such an important project.
In the face of such misplaced hatred and genuine cause for fear, it seems difficult to employ the arts in a truly effective and empowering way. However, one of the aims of the anthology is to dispel the narrow image of what a Muslim woman—particularly a British Muslim woman—looks and lives like. All of the contributors to this book identify as having both British and Muslim backgrounds or connections, regardless of their birthplace, citizenship status, or religiosity. The writers were born in or have parentage from countries including Egypt, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, and Sudan, and yet they live, love, create, and work in Britain.
If we can offer an alternative to the current homogenous narrative of British Muslim identity—an alternative that is broadly representative rather than fabricated for political purposes—real change could be made in the lives of those who are shouted at in the street; who are made to feel paralyzed, threatened, or unwelcome; who are even assaulted; and, most heartbreakingly, who are scared for their loved ones in the very place they were born or live or work.
The writers in the anthology all offer energizing and eye-opening explorations of people and place. I didn’t ask for writing exploring identity-specific topics, nor on anything that the term Muslim woman brings to mind. They, as Muslim women or women of Muslim heritage, were asked simply to submit a piece of writing in any form, under 3,000 words, on whatever subject they felt most connected to at this current time. The result is a beautiful and beguiling mix that includes personal essays about mental health and auditioning; journalistic pieces on violence against women and recent Middle Eastern history; fiction on aging and makeup artists; play scripts about colonialism and sex work; and poems about family, friends, sex, laughter, love, history, and injustice. The anthology became as profound a representation as possible, which was a pleasing, unexpected result of my aiming for variety in form.
The contributors are an inspirational force. The fact that each of these women has a British identity and a Muslim heritage is important, as the canon we are handed down and much of what is taught at school doesn’t always provide those from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to find writing that resonates with their own experiences. It is important for readers to encounter writers who share enough similarities of background with them so that they know that it is possible for them to write, to be published, to perform, to be read. It is a simple philosophy, but it never fails to surprise me how much representation can empower and how much non- or misrepresentation can disempower. We can never underestimate this and must do whatever we can to alter the current dominant narrative.
Sabrina Mahfouz is a British-Egyptian playwright, poet, and screenwriter currently living and working in London. The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write will be published in August by Saqi Books.